Happiness, stress, spring, and Precious

by Rob Tiller

What makes us happy?  Happiness studies were the subject of a piece by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker last week .  It included a comparison between the reported happiness of lottery winners and paraplegic accident victims.  The lottery winners reported less pleasure in their daily activities than the victims.  Studies have shown rising income levels in the US have not resulted in increased rates of reported happiness. Citizens of some low-GDP countries report that they are far happier.

It was such a stressful week at work that I found myself thinking about the stress.  In the course of each day, I felt a satisfied sense of accomplishment — numerous goals met, and at least two days’ worth of work done.  But I had the sensation that the queue of undone work did not at all diminish.  It was the problem Sisyphus had with the rock.  In many ways, my job is great:  intellectually challenging, stimulating, varied, intelligent and good-humored colleagues, with a company that has a meaningful mission that’s consistent with my ethics and ideals, and I could go on.  But I had a minor epiphany on the downside.  My feeling of stress is not caused by the actual work I’m doing at a particular moment.  I usually enjoy the challenge at hand.  The stress comes from the sense of the huge pile of work yet to be done.  That pile is looming, full of  unknown challenges.  In the pile there could be something that suddenly and violently changes things — in effect an IED.  This is, obviously, in part a problem that my mind makes up for itself, and there are surely better ways to think about the pile.

Yesterday the pear trees on my way to work were suddenly covered with their white blossoms, and today the high was in the 70s.  Spring has sprung.  Sally and I ate out in the neighborhood last night at the Red Room, a neo-tapas place.  I had a new species of drink that was delicious — blueberry sangria.  My veggie paella was good, and our waitress was friendly and efficient (and, interestingly, obviously pregnant).  A DJ provided a fun electronica/techno sound track which was emphatic but not too loud for us to talk.  On the walk home, there were crowds of young people circulating among the various bars and restaurants, some eating outside.

During my drive to work this week, I heard the end of an interview with a British writer whose name I missed (his new book is about London and religious extremism).  He recounted a dialog in his book between two people who said they liked to read.  One said he read to escape, and the other said he read for the opposite reason:  to dig into reality.  He explained that in everyday life, people don’t ordinarily have the time to really think carefully about their perceptions and feelings, the social time with others to discuss them, and the verbal skills  to articulate them.  Writers of books do such things.  Of course, not all do, and probably only a small minority do.  But the books that interest me are exactly those the British writer described:  those that tell me something meaningful about reality that couldn’t be discovered any other way.

I don’t set the bar as high for movies.  I don’t mind a good 2 hour escapist movie, but I’m happy when they do more.  Sally and I recently saw one that qualifies as much more — Precious.  The setup sounds unbearably grim:  the story of a morbidly obese, illiterate, sixteen year old, pregnant African American on welfare with one baby already (and it gets worse — I don’t want to be a spoiler) who’s detested by her mother and ridiculed by most everyone else.  It takes place in Harlem in the 1980s, and it was a gritty urban environment.  But the movie was exceptional in showing the teenager’s inner life — her powerful fantasies, but also her courageous grappling with her reality.  It made me recognize that my assumptions about such people and situations don’t have much experiential basis, and should not be firmly fixed.   It also showed an unexpected oblique angle on the beauty of everyday life.