Lisa King: Happiness: A Misunderstanding
This post from Lisa marks the end of her Blue Haven book tour! Want to check out all the stops on the tour? Head on over to Pump Up Your Book for a full list of the blogs. Thank you for joining us and don't forget to pick up your copy of Blue Haven from your favorite retailer.
My newest novel, Blue Haven, is a twisty sci-fi psychological thriller about a young woman named Aloe who moves into the world’s newest and most exclusive tropical housing community, Blue Haven, where happiness is practically guaranteed. The cerulean ocean is always perfectly tempered; dinners are expertly crafted in swoon-worthy restaurants by celebrity chefs; residents are clothed in designer ensembles, waited on hand and foot.
What’s not to love?
A few things, as you may have guessed (it being a thriller and all), and while Blue Haven is definitely a tale about paradise gone wrong, it’s also a story about the perils of artificial happiness. Since I’ve been spouting one-liners like happiness isn’t a destination all over the internet lately, it seems appropriate to chat about the real(ish) kind of happiness, since I’ve spent the better part of my adult life trying to understand what happiness actually … is.
In one sense, this is a terribly silly question, because everybody knows what happiness is, right? That emphatic cartoon smiley face you’ve been seeing since Day One, as one of the first emotion concepts learned by literal babies. An ethereal feel good state, and also what Aristotle argued was the ultimate purpose of human existence: to be happy. A concept so blatantly self-explanatory, Oxford Dictionary describes it as: Happiness, the state of being happy.
Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? And yet, in my continued pursuit to better understand happiness (both in writing Blue Haven, and as a personal conquest), I’ve learned more about what happiness isn’t, than what it is. Turns out, at some point I was blatantly misinformed, primarily by the idea that happiness actually exists, which apparently it doesn’t—at least not the version I’ve internalized since childhood.
According to this starry-eyed and popular notion of everybody’s favorite emotion, happiness is the byproduct of securing things in life we desire, be that falling in love, receiving a top-dog promotion, or swindling your mother into buying you the bubblegum pink Easy-Bake Oven you really, pretty-please want (side note: I’m a 90’s kid). From here, happiness purportedly builds with each continued acquiring, like a collection of baseball cards you catalogue until your roster’s full, and maximum happiness has been achieved. Conceptually, this process looks like climbing a mountain of happiness until you reach the peak, at which point you presumably scream, “Made it, suckers! I’m the HAPPIEST EVER. Sweet!” And because you’re so happy, there’s no room for the bad feelings, like sadness or anxiety, obviously. Double sweet!
If only such a state were physiologically possible.
The “highs” of joy we feel from securing objects we desire are short lived, because the human brain is a total party pooper like that: hardwired for survival, not enlightenment. It’s impossible to feel good all the time, or humanity would have died out sometime circa 200,000 B.C., savaged by a pack of sabretooths in the midst of naming cloud shapes.
Fast forward a couple million years, and human beings have a vast and evolutionarily advantageous arsenal of emotions to guide our behavior and continued alive-ness—many of which admittedly suck. Anyone familiar with “the emotional wheel” will have a solid understanding of this vastness; not to mention, emotions aren’t mutually exclusive (i.e., I can be worried and grateful and irritated and proud, simultaneously), thereby allowing for endless and complex permutations of “The Feels.” All of this to say, we can’t cherry pick happiness as our permanent life vibe. It’s impossible.
The conception of happiness as some buildable achievement we can acquire, making us happier and happier and happier still, is what psychologists in the 1970s termed the hedonic treadmill, or the human tendency to pursue one pleasure after another. That was fifty-years ago. Yet, here we are, many of us still running on this treadmill (or “rat race”) praying the next big fix will be larger and lovelier and (fingers-crossed!) sustainable—only to end up exactly where we started, perpetually unsatisfied.
Realizing almost everything I thought I knew about happiness to be completely untrue in my early thirties sounds like a major bummer. But to be honest, I was relieved. You see, for a lot of years, I thought it was just me, screwing up the human experience with all these feelings. Outside, the world looked so damn happy, with all its perfectly curated Instagram feeds, showcasing how GREAT! and GOOD! life was for those who’d figured it out. Meanwhile, I felt anxious and overwhelmed and self-conscious at times, even sad, like some human defect in need of a happiness tuning.