Wicked Happy
June 9th, 2010

Happiness has been on my mind a great deal lately.  It was one of Momalom’s Five for Ten themes.  It is the sole subject matter of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I’m currently devouring.  And it comes up on track 12 of the soundtrack from Wicked which has gotten significant airtime in my car since we returned from New York nearly three weeks ago.  While all three of these venues have addressed the topic admirably, it is the last one which has crawled into my mind and been poking at me with irritating regularity. 

I’ll spare you the context for track 12 (which is properly entitled “Thank Goodness”) because for the purposes of this discussion it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that Glinda (“the good witch” as most of us know her) hits on an uncomfortable truth.  Gretchen Rubin would probably tell us that these lyrics address the “arrival fallacy” of happiness (p. 84 in THP, for those of you following along at home).  And she would be right.  But for me these lyrics hit me at more of a gut level than an academic one.  I care less about why they scare me, and more about the fact that they do so in the first place. 

That’s why I couldn’t be happier
No, I couldn’t be happier
Though it is, I admit
The tiniest bit
Unlike I anticipated
But I couldn’t be happier
Simply couldn’t be happier
(spoken) Well – not “simply”:
 ’Cause getting your dreams
It’s strange, but it seems
A little – well – complicated
There’s a kind of a sort of… cost
There’s a couple of things get… lost
There are bridges you cross
You didn’t know you crossed
Until you’ve crossed
And if that joy, that thrill
Doesn’t thrill you like you think it will
Still – With this perfect finale
The cheers and ballyhoo
Who wouldn’t be happier?
So I couldn’t be happier
Because happy is what happens
When all your dreams come true
Well, isn’t it?
Happy is what happens
When your dreams come true!

So there you have it: the one minute of a four-ish-minute song that I’ve listened to over and over and over again for three weeks, trying to understand why it’s plaguing me.  After much head scratching I’ve come to the conclusion that these lyrics bother me because they are true.  Glinda addresses the fact that when we get what it is that we think we want, we may be surprised at how the experience isn’t just as we pictured it.  More bothersome still, Glinda’s approach to this truth – skittish and furtive – almost says more than the words themselves.  She almost goes there – to that place of full-bore disappointment – but stops short of it, not treading past the allusion.

This is a frightening truth to broach.  We want to believe that when we achieve whatever goal we have set for ourselves that happiness, pure and unadulterated, will pour forth into our lives.  Yet rarely is this the case.  My friend Aidan touched on this very phenomenon in a post of hers just last week, causing me to contemplate it further.  This whole premise feels much more frightening when someone you know personally (rather than a witch in a musical…) is experiencing it in real time. 

I have goals and dreams and ideas about my future.  Naturally, in my head the attainment of said goals and dreams comes equipped with clouds parting, angels singing, cartoon birds sitting on my shoulder (a la (500) Days of Summer), and sickeningly sweet bliss at every turn.  With a finish line like that on the horizon, why wouldn’t I run full speed ahead toward my goals?  But understanding that actual finish line may be something more bittersweet I pause to think carefully about the goals I have set.

I turn back to Gretchen Rubin for a life-line.  She writes:

The challenge, therefore, is to take pleasure in the “atmosphere of growth,” in the gradual progress made toward a goal, in the present.  … the arrival fallacy doesn’t mean that pursuing goals isn’t a route to happiness.  To the contrary.  The goal is necessary, just as is the process toward the goal.  Friedrich Nietzshce explained it well: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the meolody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either.  A parable.”

And so it turns out that the means is the end.  Leave it to Nietzsche and Gretchen Rubin to explain this fearful premise in a way that makes me feel as though I’ve been handed a gift with a bow on top.  Now someone just needs to explain this to Glinda.  Perhaps it is the kind of philosophy that would resonate better with Elphaba.

8 Responses to “Wicked Happy”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    This is very resonant for me … much of what I’ve been digging through in the past year or two is the fact that in spite of my life looking exactly like I had planned it – including the realization of some of my biggest dreams – I wasn’t… well, happy. And why? What was missing? I think this is one of the hardest things to accept. Because if the things we dream coming true doesn’t make us happy, then what will? This is a scary thought, right? I think it’s scary because it forces us to stop imagining that happiness is coming as long as we get to X or achieve Y, and insists that we realize that all we have to work with is right here in front of us. At least that’s scary for me. But also so immensely rewarding.

  2. Gale Says:

    Lindsey – it’s hard isn’t it? Such a challenge to shift your focus from the achievement of something planned to the gradual process of getting there. I’m a very goal-oriented person, so this is a tough one for me. I hope that with all of your soul searching you’ve been able to make peace with the journey/destination conundrum.

  3. Anne Says:

    You hear it all the time…life is a journey, not a destination. But we can’t all wander through life with no destinations either…I know that wouldn’t bring me happiness all by itself. Somewhere is the mix…where our destinations don’t become everything–merely happiness-inducing bonuses on the trip.

  4. Eva @ Eva Evolving Says:

    A frightening topic indeed – an unsettling truth about life. Our happiness is always a moving target. And while I think it’s good to have goals to work toward, to set the bar higher and challenge ourselves, to continue to learn and grow, we must also learn to fully revel in the happiness that is right now. Oh so hard!

  5. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    This is fascinating, Gale (and makes me want to see Wicked and read The Happiness Project). And I see the wisdom of Rubin’s advice when I look back at happy periods in my life. Those rainbow and chirping bird moments don’t come to mind, but rather periods of purposeful pursuit. Just last night I was thinking about the very satisfying summer I spent working on my master’s thesis. Yes, I was excited about the goal – writing the thesis – but I was also engaged and happily working on the process toward the goal. Thanks for providing the context for understanding why I might be looking back at that time with such fondness.

  6. Meg Says:

    i like what anne said. I think its a mixed bag. Most days, if i don’t try to relax and enjoy whatever i’m doing, i feel just tired at the end of the day, not happily tired. But if i play as i go, i can smile when i go to bed.
    On the other hand, while i did not really enjoy lots of grad school, the end result was so rewarding for me. That i actually did something i set out to do was cloud-parting, birds singing happiness to me. Now what i actually do with that degree, most days i could care less and would rather play with my kids.

    I take happy where i can get it. That’s why i’m eating M&M’s while I type this. They make me smile today. yum.

  7. Gale Says:

    Meg – Thanks for your comment. You’re right, happiness can come in big and small packages and I think it’s important to find both. As for the M&M’s, were they peanut? Those are my favorite!

  8. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Oh, Elphaba would TOTALLY get it, don’t you think?

    I really do struggle with this. So often I get what I want and should be happy, but yet…I’m not as happy as I thought I’d be.