Am I really happy? According to The Geography of Bliss, the moment we question and think about our happiness it begins to decline. We’re inherently supposed to live the bliss- not think it. Am I grateful? Yes, gratitude is with me every day. I’m grateful for my cozy apartment in the best city in the world, I’m grateful to be a woman, to be an American for the freedom of choice, and my many blessings that can cause me to question how much I deserve. This amounts to rather deep humility at times. But we can talk about gratitude and feel happy. But talk about happiness and we’ll feel… ambiguous?
In my recent consumption of media, from The Geography of Bliss to Steve Harvey’s Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man, to my Netflix selection for the weekend, City of Joy (which I first thought was a new indie film when it fact it was a Patrick Swayze flick from 1992 that felt timely in viewing after his recent loss), bliss and gratitude have been on my mind. These three pieces float around a central theme. Our own personal fulfillment and joy comes from our relationships with others. No, really… we can find our own city of joy within the complex relationships of those we love. I know in America (and this would not be something I feel most proud about) we are thrilled with our individual electronics, our personalized play lists, the fact we can have a television or computer for every room of the house, or a spacious gas-guzzler or fancy car to express our individualism and feel like the road is ours. This country is all about personal identity and self-reliance. And who am I to argue that? I have my own blog (or two or three), write songs about my own take on life, and am the first to hole up with a journal and candle in my own solitude. I can find bliss in solitude but in such solo flights, my mind runs rampant with thoughts of relationship with those I love and have loved. The latter is another guarantee for a slight decline on the bliss-o-meter scale.
Starting with The Geography of Bliss, the book’s author, Eric Weiner, travels the world from hopeless, unaccountable poverty in Moldova to excess and boredom in Qatar to creative expression and freedom in cold, frigid Iceland on a quest to find how happy people are and what defines their happiness across the world. One of the discoveries is about personal wealth and how statistically once an individual acquires $15,000 their happiness will plateau. New wealth beyond that basic need will cause a momentary spike that will eventually return to the original happiness plateau. I know those of you living in New York, America’s greatest (my bias, I know) and borderline most expensive city, may have doubts it’s possible to survive on such a low income. From personal experience, I can vouch for making it on less. My first year fresh out of college, spent living in a hundred-square-foot single room occupancy (SRO) where I shared a bathroom with an African family of five, a Mexican couple, a chronic Chinese sneezer named “Choo,” and a smelly Russian chap who kept his SRO as tidy as the boxes and belongings of a bag lady on the steps of a cathedral. The bathroom was a challenge, the African cherubs were noisy, and eventually I found myself with an infestation of mice chewing through my wall solved only by adding a kitten to the mix (which was a brilliant idea– my feline is what prompted me to move to a bigger apartment and added bliss in companionship). Some of my happiest moments in my life came during that time and there was something romantic about an urban struggle with a floor of people who wanted to be in New York as badly as I did. And any time I questioned my small space, I could look down the hall to the African family of five, with their door always slightly ajar to reveal the family daybed and screaming children and realized I could be much worse off. I chose gratitude over Schadenfreude.
So why is it that being American, or being a Manhattanite, makes us think more money will be more happiness and fewer troubles? My own experiences with rich folks (or rich, single men) that middle-income and struggling families (particulary certain relatives of mine) dream of becoming came up empty. As for the problems and misery and dysfunction of my dealings with those fortunate types? Let’s just say the most romantic, six-hundred-dollars a night luxury hotel in the center of a city loses the appeal when the wealthy guy behind it is too stressed and consumed with the numbers on his laptop screen to adequately make love to the gal he’s aiming to woo. Instead of offering a massage, hiring someone to do the deed is deemed more time efficient. While my SRO days brought poverty and joy, the Ritz experience brought loneliness and a detachment that those in Qatar must be feeling. Money cannot buy deep relationships, and if deep relationships bring deep contentment and bliss, then money brings us little. But if you already have balance and meaningful relationships already, and come across a bag of money by all means enjoy the spike of joy and return to your plateau in due time.
But for those of us seeking an enduring relationship, Steve Harvey’s latest book, Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man, offers a humorous and candid take on what men really think about commitments, love, and relationships. My sister passed the book onto me, aware of my ever-growing list of formers, and I must admit to being pleasantly surprised. If the underpinnings of bliss can be found with the core relationships in our lives, then this book will certainly keep us all focused on creating those lifelong bonds. Harvey argues that primary reason a straight man shaves, dresses, and get a job, is to go after women and that over time women have relinquished their powers in this game. I’ll be the first to raise my hand and volunteer experiences from my past where I became unaware of my own power as the woman and got caught up in the man’s quest for “the cookie.” Maybe I was after his “Drake’s cakes” as well and it came at a high price of being disrespected and disposable. But rather than self-righteous finger-pointing at women, Harvey implements a compassionate blame at us ladies for not demanding enough and giving “the cookie” and our hearts up too soon.
I was speaking with a guy friend about my recent media consumption and Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man in particular. Though skeptical of any relationship self-help, he agreed that women are more important to maintaining the human race, carrying, nurturing, and raising children yet their roles are undermined. We undervalue what we most need. The same can be said economically, where individuals who trade on Wall Street or own a franchise of restaurants or a movie star or athlete gets more accolades and money that those we most need. Like the farmers growing our produce or raising chickens and cattle or the dude in the back of the kitchen preparing our meals, which is key to survival. How can a society that undermines the hard-working labor that keeps us running possibly find sexiness and appeal in motherhood and nurturing? As a ten-year-old girl I was on that bandwagon, drawn to the bawdiness and glitter of Bette Midler over the domestic, martyrdom of my mother’s daily existence. I loathed my mother’s position in life. She was happy as a matron, gone so far to one hum-drum extreme as the public persona of Bette Midler went to the other. Harvey would argue that it’s not choosing an extreme but finding the balance of all the things a woman is. And by being all that we are as women, men are able to fulfill all their roles as well.
Fulfilling many roles is another path to bliss. City of Joy focuses on an American doctor (Patrick Swayze) who finds himself stranded in Calcutta and crosses paths with a poor homeless family that have come to the city in the hopes of making enough money to return to their small village. The film offers a really close examination of the differing views of joy and bliss in American culture versus the slums of India’s poorest. Granted, if there were to be a “City of Joy” in America it would be streamlined with a monorail, cotton candy venders, interactive video games, a lazy river, and stadium seating cinemaplexes. But this “City of Joy” is built around community, immense gratitude, and hard work. The father figure, Hazari, seeks a job to support his family and his bliss is palpable upon receiving a rickshaw. Yes, this man is indebted to a “godfather,” owner of the slums and rickshaws, and happy because he is able to meet the basic needs of those he loves. Steve Harvey clearly states that is what a man is hardwired to do. Provide for those he loves. Yet, I can’t imagine any American being happy to run barefoot through the noisy streets of Manhattan, or even Boise, Idaho, for that matter, tethered to a rickshaw, a godfather, and a few passengers. But I can speak of a gleeful Morrocan cab driver I had last week who has been in New York for ten years and admitted to working as much in one day as he used to work during a week in Morroco. And why was he happy? Because as in Calcutta, as City of Joy portrayed, or Morocco, as my cabbie explained, you can work very hard but never achieve beyond a certain level. But in America, in spite of the corporate greed and political disarray we’re feeling these days, you can work hard and get ahead. Driving a cab in New York allowed him to exist on $40,000 a year and purchase a luxury home for his family in Morroco that would have been unattainable if he stayed in his homeland.
I don’t think we all need to move to an underdeveloped country to experience bliss. Not that it wouldn’t be an eye-opening experience. But I do think we can find ways to be aware of how lucky we all are every day. Even existing on $15,000 a year in a city where the median income is $50,000. Because the struggles of those less fortunate permeate our lives on a daily basis when we open our eyes. Even being in a position of being “less fortunate” in our society you have the opportunity and choices to get ahead. In cinema and literature, in the backseat of speeding cabs, in the hallways of our urban dwellings, in kitchen of your local diner, there are a limitless number of reasons to feel gratitude. And by acknowledging that gratitude, we can spread it forward to others. And in doing so we can bring more bliss to our own lives– perhaps the kind of bliss that doesn’t peak so quickly only to plateau again. We can stabilize our own joy.