Public Opinion: Happiness

This being my second day on the East Coast, I got to thinking about why people relocate. That nebulous pursuit of happiness coaxes us into doing all sorts of things, both smart and stupid.

And I recalled a below-average night back in San Francisco two years ago. That night I got to engage in one of my favorite bad habits. It’s not smoking. Or misquoting The Big Lebowski. It’s talking to strangers. Not just yapping about the weather, mind you, but getting to the core of a person’s humanity. Listening with sympathy. Seeing the face of a stranger light up with a certain remembered hope, with a rekindled memory of a loved one, is perhaps the biggest reason I got into journalism. It’s what gives me a glimpse of connectedness and hope, too, especially when I need it most.

Anyway, that glum Saturday night two years ago, I was particularly preoccupied by the definition of happiness. Did it exist? Or was it just a marketing ploy designed to make us buy self-help books and tight-fitting jeans?

The first stranger I accosted with my question was a middle-aged club bouncer downtown. “Well,” he drawled, “happiness is when my wife takes the kids out of the house and I get to watch TV all by myself. What makes me truly happy is when I can watch TV and she go to her room and watch her Lifetime from over there.”

Inside the club, I witnessed two friends getting into altercations with their loved ones. Neither the repetitive music promising that “tonight’s gonna be a good night…like oh my God” nor the modestly-priced drinks assuaged my growing worry.

Oh my way home, I asked (more like implored) a tattooed cab driver whether he thought he had a pretty solid grasp of happiness.

“I’ll tell you what happiness is,” he said with a sound of finality in his voice. “It’s Krav Maga. I go five times and week and I feel damn good after. We live in an era of the internet. If you don’t get what you want in a few seconds, you’re just not gonna bother.” He sighed as we turned onto Market Street, with shady characters stumbling under the streetlights and into darkness.

“My grandparents have been married sixty years. But I just went to my friends’ wedding three years ago. Now they’re getting divorced. I’d like to hope true love exists,” he added as he dropped me off. “I just don’t see any around me.”

I suppose there are times when the happiest thing to do is acknowledge that the night won’t get any better, to hit the lights, and wait for something better tomorrow.

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