Could I Be Happier?


Somehow or other, my subconscious belched up the old Mickey Mouse Club song lyric: Hey there, hi there, ho there, we’re happy as can be!

Which is a statement that’s always true, right? Especially if, like me, you doubt the existence of libertarian free will. (Let’s not dive too deep into rabbit holes or anything, but studies suggest that free will doesn’t exist. Of course this doesn’t absolve us of blame for our actions and it’s not that simple, but it seems most likely that on a moment-to-moment basis, we don’t control our actions the way we think we do.) (In fact, while typing this very paragraph, I committed a few typos. When pondering the question of free will, one must wonder: if I believe in a lack of free will, must I not therefore conclude that I was predestined to commit those typos — and further, to spot them and to fix them — from the moment of the birth of the universe? Making typos isn’t a thing I chose to do, after all. It just happened. And when you pause to consider the sheer number of things that just happen in your day-to-day existence — the things you said without thinking, did without thinking, etc — the question of free will can become really scary really fast.)

But anyway, the moment I thought of “we’re happy as can be,” I thought: is that true? It’s kind of depressing to consider, isn’t it, if we’re as happy as we can be? Not to sound nihilistic or anything, but there’s a depressive trend in our culture, a bent toward the unhappy, the dissatisfied, the everything-is-awful-let’s-burn-it-all-down.

Could we be happier?

The question sounds dumb on its surface, but take this moment. This one, right now, with these photons streaming out of whatever device and striking your retinas, while your brain interprets the signals and constructs meaning out of them. Or this moment, the breath you’re taking, the things happening around you, the synapses firing in exactly the pattern they’re currently firing in inside your brain. It’s the electrical impulses moving from one part of your brain to another that create your emotional state, that force you to feel one way or another. There’s no getting around that. At bottom, we are simply biology, simply chemistry. Given all of that, considering that your emotional state right now is a result of electrical signals which are themselves a response to stimuli in the environment, could you feel any differently than you do?

It seems impossible.

But at the same time, to say I couldn’t feel any happier seems untrue, too. Of course I could be happier than I am right now. Isn’t that what makes life worth living, the attempt to make things better than they are? Yet to say that I could feel happier seems to suggest that I could, if I chose, not feel the way that I feel. I could feel some other way. That’s choice. But is it the case?

On some level, it’s equivalent to the old nonsense statement that “if things were different, then things would be different.” Which is obvious, and gets you nowhere. Obviously if things could be different, if I could choose to feel a certain way instead of this way, I’d have that choice. But things are what they are. Can we change that? Much as we might like to (and certainly depending on your personal political leanings), we can’t alter the facts of the world we live in.

So, could I be happier? No, I don’t think that I could.

End of analysis. Right? Well, no. Because to say I couldn’t be happier is a bit too dark for me. Free will in the classic sense may not be the way the world works but that doesn’t mean we have no control over our experience at all.

I can’t be happier in this moment (remember, this one, right now, which is of course a different moment than the one we were in a few paragraphs ago and carries with it its own truths and circumstances). But what I can do is learn from the present state of affairs, our current state of happiness (or lack thereof) and attempt to effect changes in myself and in my perspectives to cultivate more happiness in the future. In other words, I can’t be happier right now, but that next moment just coming around the bend? I can be happier when that moment gets here.

That part is easy.

Make some simple baseline realizations about the world and my place in it, and have a good hard look at the paradigms shaping my course through the world, and I can inflict happiness on myself almost immediately. For example:

  • Sure, it’s raining today, but I could also have had a flat tire on the way to work.
  • Sure, I slept later than I planned to and had to hurry to get together for work on time, but at least I have a job to go to, I have a paycheck coming. And I made it through all right.
  • I have a family that loves me, friends that care for me. Maybe not as much or as many as some, but certainly more than I could have (if things were different).

The truth is that I have things better than I feel like I have them, as long as I measure that life against the right set of standards. This is true for almost anybody living in Western civilization at the moment, I would wager. The culture wants you to be dissatisfied, to compare yourself to those who are better off, to keep striving for the things you don’t have. This is a broken way to live. (Say you pull even with those people who are better off — aren’t there even others still you could set your sights on? Say you get those things you desire — won’t there always be more things?)

Take those things that feel like shortcomings and see them in a different light.

I’m not a millionaire, but I’m also not destitute.

I won’t retire by the age of 45, but I could retire by the time I’m 60.

My kids misbehave sometimes — okay, often — but on the whole they’re pretty darn awesome, and they certainly don’t seem to have any disorders or conditions or other impediments to functioning perfectly well in society one day.

My car isn’t the nicest or the newest, but it gets me from A to B without a fuss.

My house may not be the fanciest one on the block, but the roof doesn’t leak and there’s room for us all.

A simple shift in perspective can make for an immediate increase in happiness.

Could I be happier right now? I don’t think so.

But could I be happier tomorrow, next year, five minutes from now?

No doubt.

(This post was inspired at least in part by this video, which is totally worth your time.)

Also, upon further review, I have discovered that the actual lyric to the Mickey Mouse song was Hey there hi there ho there, you’re as welcome as can be, which absolutely destroys the entire premise for this post. Sigh.


The Urge


I feel the urge to get on the ol’ blarg here and post something, despite the fact that it’s been…

*checks watch*

*not enough, checks day planner*

*nope, still not enough, checks calendar*

…something like two months since I made a post?

Dereliction of duty.

But I feel the urge to post, and that’s probably because I actually do have a fairly big task I have to finish this morning, and my procrastination is tricksy. I can put off working on a thing for days, weeks, months at a time, but suddenly when it’s time to work on something *else*, something that I really don’t want to do, then the thing I’ve been putting off suddenly seems not just appealing, but downright irresistible.

Which is to say, there’s a post coming later today.

Not this one, another one.

Hi, by the way. Missed you.

bom dia hello GIF

Story-Matic #63


Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to write short fiction again. Stories that I can dip my toes into and move on from without feeling like I have to explore all their murky depths. Stories that I don’t necessarily feel strongly about, or feel the urge to finish, stories for stretching the legs, for limbering up the ol’ bean, for exploring. That maybe don’t go anywhere, or end satisfyingly, but that tickle my fancy anyway.

Here’s one of them. The prompt: “Bodybuilder, revenge”.

################

This is the last straw.

Dimitri slams his locker in disgust, snarling at his phone as he thumbs through his feed. That damned Kurtis. It’s not enough that he’s got the biggest deadlift in the gym (and everybody knows it), that his girlfriend is better-looking than Dimitri’s (and everybody agrees — even Dimitri), or that he drives a nicer car than he should even have access to (an unreleased next-gen Maserati, not even on the market for this year or next, apparently handed down from some Arabian prince. How Kurtis ended up in it is anybody’s guess).

And now this.

In the video, a jubilant Kurtis mugs for the camera. He calls out his haters. He points right into the lens, shouting words of encouragement. He reaches down, locks his meaty hands around a barbell. The camera pans slowly out to reveal that, on the ends of the barbell, superimposed over the weights (but not superimposed so well that a viewer wouldn’t notice that the amount of weights is extravagant, Kurtis, you colossal bastard), is Dimitri’s face. Not a flattering picture, either, but a picture snapped by Erik and Josef some months prior as they burst in on Dimitri in the shower after flushing the nearby toilet. The face is a face full of shock, of pain, of a man betrayed and in doubt over whether there is any goodness at all in the world.

The picture had made the rounds in crude memes slapped together by the crew at the gym, and Dimitri’s embarrassment and anger were tremendous. But as with all things in social media, the picture had run its course — or so Dimitri thought. But here it is. Kurtis has resurrected it on his motivational weightlifting account for thousands to see.

The snarl on Dimitri’s face deepens.

The Kurtis in the video presses the barbell once, twice, five times. It’s a Personal Best for Kurtis (you hell-spawn, you absolute rat-chomper). He howls in triumph, drops the barbell to the mat (Dimitri’s superimposed face wincing as it hits) and runs to the camera, his perfectly symmetrical face filling the frame.

“You can do it too, ja?” says the Kurtis in the video, eyes wide with intensity. “You push the haters around, show them you are strong. That we are strong. Throw them around like they are nothing, ja? You make the power in yourself. You take the power from them.” He flexes. Sneers. Then smiles. He even winks. Goddammit.

It’s nonsense, every word of it, but somehow in Kurtis’s imperfect English and his heavy (if vague) eastern European accent, it sounds like pure honey. In real time, Dimitri watches the likes and the upvotes ticking upward like the numbers on a gasoline pump at the height of the oil crisis.

“What you think of my video, ja?”

Dimitri whirls. There stands Kurtis, leaning against the far bank of lockers, sculpted arms folded across his cast-iron bare chest. Perfection personified, damn him. Dimitri says nothing.

“Your face was so funny in that picture, ja? I had to use it.” Kurtis crosses, plucks the phone from Dimitri’s fingers, scrolls down. “Look at all the comments, ja? ‘Keep pushing, Kurt.’ ‘Don’t let them get you down, Kurtis.’ ‘We do it together, Kurt.’ ‘Kurtis, you’re amazing.’ Isn’t it great?”

Dimitri reaches for the phone, but Kurtis keeps it neatly out of reach.

“And the views, Dimitri. Did you see? Over a hundred thousand this time. That’s a new record too, ja? A personal best for views to go with my personal best for lifting. Ha, ha. It is irony, ja? Think of it, my friend.”

Friend?

“Think of the exposure for the gym, and for us. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Dimitri finally snatches his phone away. He imagines all the things he’d like to do to Kurtis. Many of them involve heavy weights and various sensitive parts of Kurtis’s body. These thoughts make him smile, and Kurtis smiles back.

“They love us,” Kurtis says, and leaves.

Dimitri watches him go, knows he won’t do any of those things to Kurtis. But he can do one thing.

He downvotes the video.

This, too, makes him smile.


Story-Matic #46


Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to write short fiction again. Stories that I can dip my toes into and move on from without feeling like I have to explore all their murky depths. Stories that I don’t necessarily feel strongly about, or feel the urge to finish, stories for stretching the legs, for limbering up the ol’ bean, for exploring. That maybe don’t go anywhere, or end satisfyingly, but that tickle my fancy anyway.

Here’s one of them. The prompt: “Librarian, reunited.”

#################

Alise reaches for her mug of tea, brings it to her lips, braces for the scalding bite. It doesn’t come. She looks at the digital desktop clock; an hour has passed, and she’s barely registered it. She looks around the empty aisles, sniffs the comforting, musty air, swigs her cold tea, grimaces at the cool grainy mix sticking in her teeth. She stands up.

Seems like her bones crackle and pop and creak more than they did even a week ago. She presses a hand into the small of her back as she begins her familiar plod through the library. This she can do without thinking, and with a glance she confirms that all is as it should be. Too many years spent making this circuit, too many years without a change. The biographies have always been there, the kids’ section there, nonfiction there. Why not switch it up?

Because she doesn’t have the energy for it anymore, she tells herself. As she has told herself before. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not going to happen. At least she has the place to herself; no unshelved books to sort through, no messes at the card catalog station, no strewn toys in the kids’ section. Not unusual for a Thursday, but welcome. Ah, but it’s Thursday, isn’t it? She goes to check on Gary.

She likes Gary. Likes him a lot, actually, which she tells herself must be a little odd since Gary is homeless. But she does. He’s good at conversation, he smiles when he speaks, and he looks at her in a way that makes her feel actually seen, which is a nice change from most of the people she encounters. Still, liking Gary is the problem, because in fifteen minutes’ time she’s going to have to send him away, back out onto the street, knowing that whatever is in his backpack is all he has to get him through the night. And it’s getting colder. Maybe she has enough in her purse to offer him a few dollars for a sandwich, at least. But maybe he’d bristle if she offered him money. She’s thought about it before, but never done it. Doesn’t seem right. Might ruin the relationship they have, whatever that relationship may be.

But Gary’s not here.

His backpack is, though, leaning like a storm-smashed tree against the internet station (ten cents a minute, but she lets Gary use it for free). She looks around — he’s nowhere to be seen.

“Gary?”

No answer.

With a note of worry in her step, she visits all his likely spots — the restroom, the periodicals, the stoop outside the employee entrance — he’s not anywhere.

He must have just forgotten it.

Forgotten his pack that contains, presumably, everything he owns?

She returns to the backpack, eyes it like a dieter eyeing a piece of cheesecake at a buffet. She takes it to her desk, has a brief moment of doubt, and unzips it.

The first thing that hits her is the smell — an unmistakable fog of spoiled food and rain-fouled clothing. She shoves aside some hastily-folded shirts and balled-up socks (slightly damp, she shudders to notice). And then her fingers close on a book. A hardback book with a distinctive plastic covering.

A library book.

Gary never checks anything out, he just reads in the library. For hours at a time. Books would just be more weight to carry around. She lifts it out.

And immediately drops it, her breath catching in her throat.

With trembling fingers, she reaches to pick it up again.

It’s a bit weathered but in good shape for riding around in Gary’s pack. Good shape for being impossible.

It’s a first-edition copy of her unpublished book from twenty years ago. Same title, the same cover she had always envisioned, the pen name she’d planned to use emblazoned on the bottom. Impossible. She opens it, reads the opening lines. Her opening lines.

Lines she never shared with anybody.

“You weren’t meant to see that,” Gary’s voice says behind her.


The Theory of A-Holes


  • Problem: Everywhere I go, I run into a-holes.

I don’t know what it is, but lately, I keep running into a-holes. People cutting in line. People blocking up roads with their cars and grocery store aisles with their carts. People arguing with authority when they are 100% in the wrong (and usually they know it). For a while there, I was thinking I must just be an a-hole magnet: something about me, or my particular effect on my locality of the universe, causes people to act like a-holes when they’re in my orbit.

But I’m a skeptic, so I know that’s ridiculous. And because I’m a skeptic, I started digging into this weird thing I was noticing. And after months of study, I have a few conclusions to share with you.

  • Theory: The dispersion rate of a-holes is high, while the concentration rate is low. Phrased another way: you can find an a-hole just about anywhere you look, but the actual number of a-holes in the population at large must remain a small, perhaps even minute percentage.

We need to define terms, here, or at the very least, define one term: the a-hole. The a-hole is a person (I’m gonna go out on a limb here and wager that they’re mostly men, though I don’t have statistics to back that up — or any other claim in this post for that matter) who routinely puts his or her own interests above the interests of the group in which he finds himself, to the extent that it causes those others pain, discomfort, or inconvenience.

To simplify, the a-hole could be characterized in a single thought: “what I’m doing right now is more important than anything that anybody in the vicinity has going on.”

To clarify, a few examples of a-hole behavior:

  • committing just about any traffic offense
  • blocking the aisle at a grocery store at full Saturday crowd
  • being on his cellphone in the line at Starbucks who hasn’t decided yet what he’s ordering by the time he gets to the front
  • doing the “nice guy” thing by letting you go first even though he’s blocking people behind him from going
  • standing right behind you on the train or in line when there are literally dozens of other places he could be standing that wouldn’t involve invading your personal space

We could go on, and ladies in the audience could certainly give many more examples that I’m sure don’t even occur to me, but the point is, we recognize the a-hole when we see him. (I’m saying “him” from here on just for simplicity, but c’mon. You know.)

We don’t like a-holes in our societies. The non-a-holes dislike them for obvious reasons: they’re inconveniencing us, annoying us, or at worst, actively causing us pain. Other a-holes also dislike a-holes for the same reasons plus a few more: the other a-hole is stealing resources, or making the environment inhospitable for other a-holes, or is just straight-up getting in the way.

Luckily, there are self-correcting measures for the a-holes out there built into our evolution.

  • Big Fishes, Small Ponds

Consider a pond. In this pond are several fish of varying sizes and temperaments. Every fish has to eat. Some fish eat plants, some fish eat bugs, some fish eat other fish. A simple study of the food web you know from third grade will tell you that a small pond can only sustain so many big fish. The big fish does what it wants because it’s the big fish; who’s going to stop it? The big fish gets what it wants by being an a-hole and just taking it. All well and good as long as the big fish is the only big fish.

But what happens when the big fish is not the only big fish?

The moment one big fish takes what another big fish wants, there’s trouble. Now, fish don’t have a lot of tools in their belt: these fish are either going to fight or one of them is going to have to move on. Either way, of the fish in the conflict, one will be forcibly removed from the picture.

One a-hole takes the other a-hole out. The problem rectifies itself; the pond is back to just one a-hole of a big fish.

  • A Bug’s Life

A-holes self-regulate in another fascinating way. Consider the movie A Bug’s Life from the early days of Pixar. In this movie, there’s a colony of ants living together, working hard, storing up food for the winter. But every year, a roving band of grasshoppers demands a share of the food, else they’ll start squishing ants. You know; being a-holes. Now the grasshoppers are bigger and meaner than the ants, so there’s not a lot of point in fighting them; it wouldn’t work. Perhaps more to the point, the ants are generally peaceful and don’t want to fight, so they figure paying a bit of food is worth avoiding the conflict.

Until the grasshoppers make life so absolutely untenable for the ants that they can’t take anymore. The ants rise against the grasshoppers like a tsunami, risking life and limb to fight the injustice. While individual ants might get squished in the conflict, the grasshoppers are simply no match for the unified numbers suddenly coming their way with pitchforks and torches.

An a-hole (or group of a-holes) can push their luck past the point of reason, and the community casts them out.

  • Extra-Strong Charmin

The last resort against a truly nasty a-hole is exactly what you’d expect: toilet paper. (Look, I’m sorry. The metaphor is disgusting. But hear me out. I’ll be discrete.) The toilet paper are those people who hold jobs — often menial, unglamorous, or practically invisible to the average person — that carry a surprising amount of power when it comes to cleaning up sh*t.

Make no mistake, it’s unpleasant being toilet paper. And not every a-hole you come across demands your full attention. But when the TP gets involved, it’s over for the a-hole.

An a-hole running into some toilet paper has options. He could attempt to make himself look small and unassuming and not worth the trouble of cleaning up — but let’s face it, the a-hole isn’t going to do that because, well, he’s an a-hole. No, he’s going to make the other choice: Inevitably, the a-hole is going to go to war with the toilet paper — but anybody who’s been there knows that this particular path isn’t going to go well for the a-hole. The toilet paper has reinforcements. The more the a-hole struggles at this point, the worse it gets.

These are your idiots arguing with cops, acting smug with judges, getting drunk and disorderly in public. And when they act out enough, well … they get forcibly cleaned up.

  • Conclusions

So: a-holes are everywhere. Or rather, there is a self-regulating number of a-holes regularly spaced such that it feels like a-holes everywhere.

But I feel like it didn’t used to be this way, so … why am I suddenly noticing a-holes everywhere?

I see two possible reasons.

  1. I’m a-hole-sensitive. I’m a dad, and I’m trying to keep my kids from growing up to be a-holes themselves, so I’m extra-finely-tuned to a-hole behavior to help me catch it and point it out as Things You Should Not Be Doing for my kids.
  2. I’m an a-hole myself, and I’m extremely conscious of other big fish swimming into my pond.

I guess there’s nothing saying both answers can’t be right.


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