I was sitting in a coffee shop near my dentist’s office. I just had my teeth cleaned, which is always a treat – is it weird that I get excited to read old People magazines in a waiting room by myself? The orange fluoride (mint was on backorder??) my hygienist applied mingled with the decaf Americano I was sipping to form a truly unfortunate flavour combo. That wasn’t the only thing leaving a bad taste in my mouth, though. Witness the conversation I overheard between a barista and an elderly customer:
Cute old lady: “You always seem to be smiling and happy!”
Barista: “Well, I just don’t see a reason to be anything other than happy. I mean, you ask why people are happy, but the real question should be why AREN’T people happy? What’s the point of life otherwise?”
Cute old lady: “So true!”
I’m all for baristas being pleasant and “happy” to customers, but this exchange rubbed me the wrong way, and not just because the barista gave off the vibe of “I am determined to be happy if it kills me and/or irritates everyone around me.”
I don’t think it is necessary, possible, or even desirable to be happy all the time. Here’s why:
Happiness is an emotion. I really enjoy feeling happy. It feels good. I suspect most people feel the same way. But at the end of the day, it’s just that: a feeling. It’s a product of our temperament, hormones, life circumstances, beliefs, the weather, and whatever else. It’s nice. But when we start trying to manufacture it, I think we’ve missed the point. There’s got to be a better, more truthful way of living than simply trying to feel a certain way all the time.
Everyone pursuing personal happiness all the time is going to make our world miserable. Sometimes I think that our culture has borrowed the famous line from the Declaration of Independence and elevated it to a decree: I must pursue happiness all the time. But what makes me happy in a given moment is not necessarily what will be good for other people, or even what will bring me happiness in the long run. When my two-year-old is throwing (yet another) tantrum at the zoo, it would make me feel much happier in that moment to leave her in the dinosaur park than to try (yet again) to lure her to the car. But that won’t end well for either of us. And I’m sure that Donald Trump feels a warm glow of happiness when he fires out tweets late at night, but again, that never seems to end well for anyone.
Acting happy all the time can make us inauthentic. I’m not arguing that everyone should act exactly as they’re feeling at all times. Personally, I prefer a little fake happiness to road rage any day, (both in others and in myself). And if baristas started weeping into their jugs of steamed milk, we’d all end up under-caffeinated and miserable. But a chronic veneer of happiness can shut down real conversation, and create a cultural aversion to “negative” emotions. It can distract us from dealing with our internal issues, and it can be downright offensive as a response to struggle and tragedy in the lives of others.
Happiness is not the same as joy or peace or gratitude. Maybe this is just a case of semantics, and I misinterpreted what the barista was trying to say. It’s crucial to live with gratitude for what we’ve been given. And I think/hope it’s possible to consistently experience joy and peace. But joy and peace aren’t emotions; they’re states of being. It’s possible to experience joy and peace even when we aren’t particularly happy. I think we can feel a whole range of human emotions on the surface, both “negative” and “positive”, and still have peace in our souls. But that’s not the same as chronic happiness.
Rant is finished.
I eventually left the coffee shop in search of a toothbrush. As the warm fall sunshine gently shone down on my face, I felt an involuntary rush of happiness chase away my irritation and overthinking. Next time I’m in that coffee shop, I’ll try to appreciate the barista’s perma-grin. But I’ll also subtly insert my shoulder next to the milk steamer, in case he needs to let some real emotion out.