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.
GAP and I saw a traveling production of Wicked last night which got me thinking about this post which was originally published in June 2010. Amidst all of the stress I’ve intermittently mentioned lately I’ve been giving thought to my goals and dreams, and thought this post was worth revisiting. I will have one more new post to cap off the year sometime between now and Christmas, and will then take a bit of a break for the holidays.