Companions in Misery –

I had just arrived home from my summer vacation — a week in a Minnesota cabin whose brochure warned “no crabbiness allowed” — when I came upon a study that declared New York the “unhappiest city in America.” I doubt many people were surprised by the results — New Yorkers, both in lore and reality, can be hard to please, and famously outspoken about their grievances — but as a born-and-raised New Yorker, and as a philosopher, I was suspicious of how the study defined happiness.

The survey in question, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked how “satisfied” Americans were with their lives — very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. But the National Bureau of Economic Research used the data to conclude things about their “happiness.” Some might not have minded that the terms satisfaction and happiness were used interchangeably, but I did. The study was titled “Unhappy Cities,” and the headlines that followed it came out swinging against New Yorkers.

I was certain that a person (even a New Yorker) could be both dissatisfied and happy at once, and that the act of complaining was not in fact evidence of unhappiness, but something that could in its own way lead to greater happiness.

At times like this I appreciate philosophers’ respect for words, and a number of them have argued to keep happiness separate from satisfaction. In his 1861 essay “Utilitarianism,” John Stuart Mill carefully distinguished between the two, saying that a person can be satisfied by giving the body what it craves, but that human happiness also involves motivating the intellect. This means that happiness and satisfaction will sometimes conflict, and that those of us who seek happiness, and even attain it, may still be dissatisfied. Mill considered this a good thing: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, one of history’s best-known pessimists, also believed there was more to life than satisfaction. Better to honestly describe a negative world, he believed, than to conceal it with beautiful lies. That sounds very New York.

There’s plenty to complain about when living in a big city: overcrowding, potholes, high prices, train delays, cyclists, bees. When I was growing up in Rockaway and schlepping to school in Brooklyn, it was perfectly normal to complain, and almost everyone I knew did. Our complaining was not an indicator of our level of happiness. In my experience outside the city, however, people routinely misinterpret my casual expressions of dissatisfaction as unhappiness. They consider complaining to be a sign of negativity, which they think should be replaced with positivity in order to be happy. “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is an example of this ubiquitous, if banal, attitude.

When I relocated to Texas, I quickly learned that kvetching about rain was no longer socially acceptable. “We need it!” became my new small-talk response to rain to avoid being dubbed a Debbie Downer. In a world where cheerfulness is applauded and grumpiness frowned upon, those who express dissatisfaction are often politely bullied to “look on the bright side” of rotten things.


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