One surprising thing about happiness is that it has such a bad reputation.
The other day I happened to remember a poem from Shel Silverstein’s classic book of children’s poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends (Amazon, Bookshop). This poem, called “The Land of Happy,” caught my attention, for obvious reasons—it’s about happiness!
In the poem, Silverstein describes how in the Land of Happy, everyone is happy all the time, they joke, they sing, they’re jolly. The poem concludes with the line:
“I’ve been to The Land of Happy – What a bore!”
In fact, many people assume that happiness is boring, that it’s a complacent state of mind for self-absorbed, uninteresting people. Consider the scene in the movie Annie Hall, when Alvy asks a happy couple how they account for their happiness, and the woman answers, “I am very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say,” and the man agrees, “I’m exactly the same way.”
In fact, however, studies show — and experience bears out — that happiness doesn’t make people complacent or self-centered or boring. Rather, happier people are more interested in the problems of other people, and in the problems of the world. They’re more likely to volunteer, to give away money, to be more curious, to want to learn a new skill, to persist in problem-solving, to help others, and to be friendly. They’re more resilient, productive, and healthier. When we’re unhappy, we’re more likely to become defensive, isolated, and preoccupied with our own problems.
Some people are argue that it’s better to be interesting than happy. But that’s a false choice.
It is indeed true that if you’re trying to tell an interesting story, unhappiness makes a much easier subject. There’s more conflict, more drama. Unhappy circumstances hold our attention. The negativity bias means that negative information is more compelling and memorable than positive information. But real life is different.
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.
I’m not arguing that a happy life should be free from all negative emotions — not at all. Negative emotions play an essential role in a happy life. Nevertheless, while the Land of Happy might be a boring place to read about, I imagine it would be a pretty nice place to live.