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Apr 25 2014

Can You Be Happy for 100 Days in a Row?

The 100 Happy Days project.

“Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?” the website wants to know, taunting me with its cheery font and yellow color scheme.

No, I can’t.

“You don’t have time for this, right?” the next line asks rhetorically.

I’ll answer anyway. I have time. I, despite my grad program and 3-hour commute, have plenty of time to be happy. What I lack is the capacity.

It goes on:

We live in times when super-busy schedules have become something to boast about. While the speed of life increases, there is less and less time to enjoy the moment that you are in. The ability to appreciate the moment, the environment and yourself in it, is the base for the bridge towards long term happiness of any human being.

But I do enjoy the moment I’m in. I enjoy watching the skyline from the train during my commute. I enjoyed my four-hour trek through Central Park yesterday. I enjoy the moment the shutter snaps. I enjoy the food I put into my body, especially when I’ve cooked it myself. I enjoy the feeling of my muscles straining at the gym, several times a week. I enjoy the early morning sun over the Hudson. I enjoy the relief of jumping into bed with a book or a paper after work. I enjoy the music I listen to for hours a day. I enjoy every minute I spend writing, and I spend many minutes on it every day. I’m enjoying the moment I am in right now, despite the subject that I’m about to discuss.

All of this, and yet.

I can’t be happy for 100 days in a row. I can’t be happy for ten days in a row. I can’t, except for certain very rare instances, be happy for a day.

I can be happy for an hour or a few.

And by “happy,” I don’t mean “entirely free of negative emotions.” That’s a simplistic view of happiness that few people probably subscribe to. By “happy,” I mean that the good definitely outweighs the bad. I mean feeling that your life is, basically, what it should be and that the decisions you’ve made to get to where you are have been generally pretty good. I mean feeling like you’re a good person overall, give or take a few flaws. I mean being able to wake up in the morning and feel glad that another day is starting.

I don’t know what the folks behind the 100 Happy Days project meant by “happiness” exactly, but I’m sure it’s closer to what I just described than to “entirely free of negative emotion.”

Nobody expects to be entirely free of negative emotion, so I hope that strawman is now happily burning out in the field.

I can’t be happy for 100 days in a row because my brain doesn’t work that way. The good feelings don’t “stick.” When they happen, they’re genuine and meaningful, but they wash away like words scratched into the sand. I argue against them without meaning to. That essay was shit. He doesn’t give a fuck about you. Everything about you is ugly. Your parents will die and you won’t even have the money to fly to their funerals. Your siblings barely remember what you look like because you’re never home. Your partners will leave you for real girlfriends, as opposed to the sloppy facsimile of one that you are. Everything good is temporary; everything bad is permanent.

I don’t know what the nice people who made the 100 Days website would say about this, if anything. Maybe they would say that I’m just not making enough of an effort, giving enough time, to the project of Being Happy. Or maybe they would say that they’re sorry, but this is just a fun little experiment that was never meant for People Like Me.

And there it is. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this idea. It’s a neat idea, for certain people, for whom the biggest obstacle to being happy and satisfied with their lives is failing to stop and smell the roses.

But I can’t tell you how often I come across these things, accidentally or because a friend recommended it, and think, “Oh, right, that’s not for me.” All those self-help books, anything that addresses mood without explicitly trying it to mental health and psychology. (This one especially.) All these little projects. The mere idea of self-care.

While I know many people with mental illnesses get a lot out of self-care, and self-help, and what have you, for me personally, it’s never resonated. I’ll tell my friends that I’m sorry, I can’t go out tonight after all, because I just can’t and I’m sad and I can’t. And they’ll be supportive, they’ll say, “It’s okay, everyone needs some time to recharge and take care of themselves.” And I get frustrated and I want to tell them that NO I’m not going to “recharge” and this isn’t “taking care” of myself this is giving up and it’s NOT going to make me feel better to sit alone in my room looking out the window all night, it’s just that crying in public is inappropriate whereas crying in your room is okay, so that’s what I have to do.

For me, “self-care” and “enjoying the moment” aren’t things I do because they make me happy, since almost nothing makes me happy. They’re things I do because they help me feel like there’s a purpose to my being here. And I need to feel that way to continue to be here, because I’ve been close enough to the edge to know how slippery and ephemeral that belief can be, and what chaos breaks loose without it.

People say, “You should do what makes you happy.” They say, “I’m glad you moved to New York where you could be happier.” They say, “The most important thing is to be happy.”

Well, I have to measure my outcomes in other ways. I don’t care how much money I make (I won’t make much) or how far up on the career ladder I get (I won’t get very high) or how desirable of a person I marry (I might not marry anyone), and I can’t really be happy. What does that leave?

How many interesting and fond memories I collect. How many people I impact positively. How much and how well I write. How much I influence the causes I want to influence. Of course, it’s much harder to get a sense of these things than it is to get a sense of how happy or sad I am at any given moment.

It’s entirely possible that in a few months or years I’ll be taking this post back. Maybe happiness the way I define it is in my future, maybe one day I’ll stop bitterly regretting all the choices I’ve made and scanning communications from my friends and partners for signs of imminent departure. Maybe the view of the skyline, beautiful as it is, won’t be the best part of my day anymore, because there will be something better. Maybe the flowering trees along Broadway will be the nice little extras that push the day from good to great, as long as I remember to stop and smell them.

But if anything, all these years of feeling like my brain is a science experiment gone awry have taught me that happiness isn’t always an accurate or precise measurement of anything. When I’m achieving everything I want to achieve and I’m surrounded by loving friends and family but I still feel miserable, the failure to be happy isn’t a “sign” of anything. For me, mood is mostly decoupled from the things that are actually supposed to create happiness, whether that’s professional success or pretty flowers or whatever.

I can’t be happy for 100 days in a row, but that means nothing other than my brain doesn’t work that way. All things considered, I think I’m doing pretty okay for myself, despite and regardless of and, most importantly, because of the challenges my mind creates for me.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    What you said.

  2. 2
    keelychaisson

    Maybe I’m doing #100happydays wrong, but I haven’t thought about it in terms of being literally happy, continuously, for 100 days. I’ve been doing it as essentially a gratitude project–something to make myself NOTICE and APPRECIATE those moments where I’m enjoying the skyline or the flowers or a nice cup of coffee or a phone call with a friend.

    I’ll be honest–initially I was skeptical, but what made me join was seeing a friend of mine, someone who has always struggled with depression, and who would typically describe themselves as a pessimist, started doing it in the way I just described. And I saw her photos every day, and knowing that she was taking a minute every day to appreciate something good in her life seemed… nice. And then I was fortunate enough to see her in person for a few hours (a rarity–she lives in Chicago and I live in LA, I was in the midwest for a wedding and to visit friends in Indiana for the first time since I graduated four years ago) and talked to her about it, and she explained that the project was helping her be more optimistic day-to-day.

    So I got home from my trip, and I started doing the project myself. And it hasn’t been easy–it isn’t a super happy time for me. My girlfriend and I have lived together for the last year, and we just broke up. I’m now trying to grieve the breakup and find and move into a new apartment, while trying to keep my shit together during a very busy and stressful time at my [still relatively new] job. And, oh yea, I also am prone to depression and anxiety, and since the breakup happened I’ve been having several panic attacks a week and I want to sleep 12+ hours a day (and keep sleeping through my alarm).

    I’m not that happy, in a general sense, right now. But I have happy/grateful MOMENTS. I enjoy LA’s unrelenting gorgeous weather. I make myself a cup of tea while on a break at work, and for a minute enjoy the calm and ritual of that. I have a silly moment with a friend, or accomplish some moving-related task I’d been avoiding at home. And sometimes I capture those moments with a picture and tag it #100happydays.

    Trying to take note of and appreciate the good moments is not a new idea. The writer of that book you linked (who, by the way, had a blog on the subject before the book and did address mental health issues there to some degree) is a big advocate for daily gratitude journaling for precisely the same purpose–there is experimental evidence showing that taking time to appreciate parts of our lives that we enjoy tends to make us happier overall. This is something I try to do anyways, but I’m doing #100happydays because having other people expecting my picture everyday helps to reinforce the habit, and I could use that right about now.

    In general, I appreciate and empathize with your feeling that “happiness projects” often leave out those of us whose brains are predisposed towards unhappiness. The idea that happiness is entirely in our own control can even be actively harmful to depressed people, as it can inspire guilt that makes the depression WORSE. Hell, I’ve written both school papers and blog posts on the damage done by “positive thinking” self-help books/movements.

    But at least the way my friends and I are doing it, #100happydays is pretty innocuous. I’d agree, the tone their promotional materials takes (“You don’t have time for this, right?”) is a little off-putting, but the point I thought they were [awkwardly, perhaps] trying to make was that it doesn’t take much time to spend a little time every day choosing to enjoy/be happy about something, and that being in that habit can make you happier.

    Obviously, you don’t have to like this silly “movement”/meme or participate in it, and I don’t even care if you think it’s stupid. But I wanted to throw my 2-cents in because you seemed to perceive it as being anti-depressed/sad-for-reasons-beyond-their-control people. And I am both a person who leans heavily in the direction of depression, and a person who is in a sad place right now, and I’m finding it helpful.

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Maybe I’m doing #100happydays wrong, but I haven’t thought about it in terms of being literally happy, continuously, for 100 days.

      I wasn’t thinking of it in those terms either:

      And by “happy,” I don’t mean “entirely free of negative emotions.” That’s a simplistic view of happiness that few people probably subscribe to. By “happy,” I mean that the good definitely outweighs the bad. I mean feeling that your life is, basically, what it should be and that the decisions you’ve made to get to where you are have been generally pretty good. I mean feeling like you’re a good person overall, give or take a few flaws. I mean being able to wake up in the morning and feel glad that another day is starting.

      I don’t know what the folks behind the 100 Happy Days project meant by “happiness” exactly, but I’m sure it’s closer to what I just described than to “entirely free of negative emotion.”

      In any case, though, I definitely didn’t mean to imply that the project is “anti-depressed/sad-for-reasons-beyond-their-control people,” and I apologize if it came across that way to you. I deliberately used “I” and “me” in the post and did not attempt to include any other people (depressed or otherwise) in the group of “people who might not like this project.” It’s about my feelings about it AS a depressed person, yes, but that doesn’t mean I believe that ALL depressed people will view it similarly. For instance:

      While I know many people with mental illnesses get a lot out of self-care, and self-help, and what have you, for me personally, it’s never resonated.

      Just wanted to clear that up. Anyway, I’m glad you’ve found it helpful and meaningful.

  3. 3
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Are you my brain? Because, other than me being far far away from New York, this sounds very much like my experience.
    I’m having that “happy moment” right about now, but just a couple of hours ago I was feeling like the weakest most useless, repulsive person ever. And of course, the feeling is mostly still there, only reduced to “well, maybe not the most“. I do occasionally stumble onto a good decision.

    It feels like each and every happy moment is just a short break from reality, where I manage to, for a short time, ignore all the truths I otherwise have in the forefront of my thoughts. And I’m not sure how it happens, or how to make it happen again.

  4. 4
    Kevin Kehres

    Seriously, NOBODY can be happy 100 days in a row.

    I’m the happiest person I know (quite privileged in every way) and I’ve never been happy 100 days in a row. It’s not possible. It’s not human.

    Humans are complex creatures with complex, ever-shifting emotions. I’m really happy most of the time — but then I break a tooth, or stub a toe, or my dog lands right on my nutsack when it’s jumping in my lap. Or I get cut off in traffic, or my mother tells me bad news about my niece, or something or something else or something else. Or I just have a little moment of feeling sorry for myself for no good reason whatsoever. Oops, not happy. I guess I’m a failure at the 100-days-of-happiness schtick.

    No. I’m human. That’s how humans act. That’s how humans feel. Shit on a shingle, what kind of a demand is that? To be happy for 100 days in a row. I’m getting positively not happy just thinking about the sheer ass-hattery of such a demand.

    Nobody, not one person ever in the history of humankind, has ever been happy 100 days in a row. That “project” ought not to be merely ignored, it ought to be reviled. And hounded out of existence.

    And that’s something I’d be happy about.

  5. 5
    Jadehawk

    when I first saw this “1oo days” thing, I also reacted to it with “obviously not for people with depression”. Later, I decided it’s rather “how to deal with depressed mood, for beginners”; like the journals counselors sometimes tell a patient to keep, to write down nice and enjoyable things that happen so they’re aware that enjoyable things sometimes DO happen and it’s not just all a miserable hell all the time.
    Except you and I, we’re not “beginners”, we’ve got this coping strategy down pat; we don’t need this experiment to learn to notice and keep track of these ephemeral bits of pleasure. So still “not for people like me”, but not because of my inability to be happy, but because I already learned how to do this (on account it’s kinda necessary for survival).

    Now, if someone tried insisting that this would improve my mental health beyond what it is now, that would be pure bullshit; but everyone I’ve talked to about this understood where I was coming from.

    1. 5.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      This is a really helpful framing and I appreciate it.

      I’ve done this type of journaling to various amounts of success before. But like you say, I’ve largely found it superfluous. I already notice pleasant things plenty. If I didn’t, I doubt I’d find life worth living.

    2. 5.2
      Jadehawk

      well, I should be more precise. My first reaction was “ugh, not another one of these ‘positive thinking’ projects”, and that cycled through my standard thoughts on “positive thinking”, and settled on “bah, obviously not for me, my brain don’t work that way even when I’m not having anhedonia”.
      All that before I looked at what you’re supposed to do for the project. Once I realized it’s about training yourself to remember the small nice things, I figured that wasn’t so bad, horrible positivity language notwithstanding. Still not useful for me, but I wasn’t angry at it anymore.

  6. 6
    Onamission5

    My first response when I heard of this a few days ago was “Oh great, yet another fake positivity meme based upon the misguided idea that feelings are a choice.” But maybe it’s not so much that as a shallow attempt at self-conditioning? I dunno. Anything that promises to make me feel a certain way if I only do X, Y, and/or Z usually gets the double bird along with a mighty eyeroll. I am dubious.

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