Settling and the Happiness Paradox

You are not Beyoncé. And it's fine.

I recently had a conversation with my best friend, who I don’t see very often thanks to the distance that separates us. We catch up here and there, with longer catch-up sessions every few months. During our chat, on a rare occasion when we both had the time to really talk, I asked her how things were and she confessed, tentatively, “I am… not as happy in my marriage as I sometimes think I could be.”

“I’m not as happy in my marriage as I sometimes think I could be.” She backed into this statement so uncomfortably, and I don’t blame her. Admitting you’re unhappy is hard.

Because if you aren’t happy, then, well… you’re sad. Pathetic. There’s a perception that if you’re not having the time of your life, loving your job, surrounded by friends, and building a life with someone awesome, you’re doing something wrong. You’re not trying hard enough. Or, worse: you’re settling.

Could I do better?

When Lori Gottlieb wrote, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, women were (understandably) not pleased. But as much as I dislike Gottleib’s overall approach, I don’t hate the basic idea. That she framed her argument as “all women want to get married and have babies and if you say otherwise, you’re lying,” sucks. But I loved that she called out the concept of settling, writing in The Atlantic:

It’s not only politically incorrect to get behind settling, it’s downright un-American. Our culture tells us to keep our eyes on the prize (while our mothers, who know better, tell us not to be so picky), and the theme of holding out for true love (whatever that is—look at the divorce rate) permeates our collective mentality.

Ostensibly, the desire for others to never settle for less than they deserve is a good thing. “I just want her to be happy”—really, who can argue with that? The problem arises when it becomes just one more thing to worry about. Not only are we expected to be beautiful, talented, and smart… successful careerists, good friends, amazing wives, and loving mothers. Now we must be happy too. We need to relax and enjoy the moment. And if we’re not happy, if we can’t seem to relax, well, then we better do something about it.

Self-help texts have existed for thousands of years; Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, author of Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Self-Help Culture writes that forms of self-help existed in ancient Egypt and Greece, and that the genre isn’t going anywhere. Forbes reported in 2009 that self-help was an $11 billion industry. Americans are big on self-improvement, and so much of that improvement is tied to our personal happiness. If you could just be better, you would be happier. If you were happier, everything in your life would be better. Being happy is the new goal, and the new way to win. As Ruth Whippman wrote in The New York Times:

As soon as an American baby is born, its parents enter into an implicit contractual obligation to answer any question about their hopes for their tiny offspring’s future with the words: “I don’t care, as long as he’s happy” (the mental suffix “at Harvard” must remain unspoken).

And so after seeing so many others’ personal happiness questioned and dissected, analyzed in essays and op-eds, we begin, without really thinking about it, to ask ourselves whether we’re as happy as we could be. We ask ourselves because we know others are thinking it, and we want to have an answer prepared if they ask (or accuse, as the case may be). Is my partner good enough for me? Do I love my job? Could I do better? Am I giving up on what I always wanted? Am I settling down? Am I settling?

Fear of missing out

If happiness is the goal in every facet of our lives, “settling” is a particularly taboo word when it comes to engagement and marriage. But the truth is, it’s perfectly normal to have moments when our partners let us down in ways big and small, when we say to ourselves, “No he/she isn’t perfect. But he/she is good enough.”

And then we pause. Because: Did I really just think that? Did I really just describe my life partner as “good enough”? 

For many Millenials, the idea of accepting good enough, of being not totally happy when that truer happiness seems within reach, is unnerving. And the idea that you aren’t one hundred percent thrilled with a part of your life and not actively trying to change the situation is even worse. Because so many of us grew up believing we would have the best of everything as adults. And what happens if we don’t have it? If we have a partner who disappoints us sometimes, if we have a shitty job, if we never left our hometown? Even if our life didn’t go as planned for completely legitimate reasons—like, say, the goals we made at age eleven aren’t necessarily the most informed—there’s still a sense of shame there.

And this feeling that we let everyone down gets reinforced by those closest to us. There’s the well-meaning relative who asks you at the holidays how the acting thing is going, if you’ve gotten that Oscar yet… even though you realized a decade ago that you were better suited to teach high school English. There’s your close friend who is encouraging you to not to accept the frustrating things about your partner, because there are so many people out there and is this person really the one? These moments when others’ hopes for us butt up against the reality we’re pretty cool with (and that’s totally normal) can make us feel defensive and insecure. And so we take to Facebook, to our Tumblrs, or just go to our friends and family and do our best to remind everyone we’re happy. And the thing is, we probably are. Or we were, until we started overthinking it.

To talk about this openly is scary. It’s why my best friend of two decades was afraid to tell me that she wasn’t happy. But even then, she wasn’t sure. Was her marriage actually making her unhappy? Or was her fear that she she could be happier in her marriage the real issue? Is the paradox of choice rearing its ugly head? Are we all on anxiety meds because of fucking FOMO?

In either case, it’s unsurprising that my friend was worried about her happiness, and about how I’d receive the information. The sheer amount of self-help titles available on Amazon sends a clear message that our culture isn’t very accepting of those who are unhappy for too long. If you’re single, you better be single and LOVING IT!!! (While also saying yes to every single date.) If you’ve put on some weight, you must aggressively love your new body and snap a selfie in your underwear that will then go viral. If you’re laid off, you should start a blog, take up CrossFit, and never, ever complain about (or even talk about) the soul-crushing days you spend sending resumes but mostly feeling sorry for yourself as you watch Golden Girls in sweatpants.

There is a perfect amount of happy to be. It is not so happy that you get complacent, but it’s not so unhappy that you make the barbecue awkward. Basically: your happiness level mustn’t ever make others uncomfortable.

how to be perfectly happy

If you’re a woman, there’s even more pressure to be the “right” amount of happy. Perhaps it’s because if we subtly imply that a woman isn’t completely happy, we can throw her off her game for days. It’s hard for women to get ahead (of us) if they’re filling all their time with eating/praying/loving and trying to fix themselves. When was the last time you heard a man described as “frazzled”? Why are women the main consumers of self-help?

This pressure for women to be happy is less about us actually being happy, and more about what that happiness proves. Being happy isn’t the end goal; being happy sends a message to others that you have the best of everything—job, partner, home, friends—because you are the best. That is why we want to be happy, and that’s why questioning another woman’s happiness is such an effective way of cutting her down. As Whippman wrote in The New York Times:

Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.

When writing this article, I Googled “how to be happy,” and the suggestions that came up repeatedly were exercise, spend more time with friends/family, and volunteer. Oh, and smile! I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these activities are tied to existing female expectations. Be attractive. Be well-liked. Be selfless. If you can just woman a little harder, you’ll be happy.

Are you happy? Probably. Have you settled? Surely. The real question is… does it matter?

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