The Art of Unhappiness

Why are creative types skeptical of joy? Because somebody has to be

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It gets exhausting, this constant goad to joy. If you're not smiling--after we made all those wonderful pills and cell-phone plans!--what's wrong with you? Not to smile is un-American. You can pick out the Americans in a crowd of tourists by their reflexive grins. The U.S. enshrined in its founding document the right to the pursuit of happiness. So we pursued it and--at least as commerce defines it--we caught it.

Now, like the dog that chased and finally caught the car, we don't know what the hell to do with it. We feel vaguely dissatisfied though we have what we should want, vaguely guilty for wanting it, vaguely angry because it didn't come as advertised. People tsk-tsked over last month's study in which women reported being happier having sex or watching TV than playing with their kids. But why shouldn't they? This is how the market defines happiness. Happiness is feeling good. Kids, those who exist outside ads, make you feel bad--exhausted, frustrated, bored and poor. Then they move away and break your heart.

What we forget--what our economy depends on us forgetting--is that happiness is more than pleasure sans pain. The things that bring the greatest joy carry the greatest potential for loss and disappointment. Today, surrounded by promises of easy happiness, we need someone to tell us that it is O.K. not to be happy, that sadness makes happiness deeper. As the wine-connoisseur movie Sideways tells us, it is the kiss of decay and mortality that makes grape juice into Pinot Noir. We need art to tell us, as religion once did, Memento mori: remember that you will die, that everything ends, and that happiness comes not in denying this but in living with it. It's a message even more bitter than a clove cigarette, yet, somehow, a breath of fresh air.

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