Monday, March 8, 2010

On a Scale of 1-10, Am I Happy?

It was perfect. Here I was feeling sorry for myself for no reason, a sure sign of genetic depression I've been warned (PLEASE!) and who should come right into my home, through my land line, but a Gallup pollster to pose to me the question, straight up, "On a scale of 1-10, picturing it as a ladder where 10 is the top and 1 is the bottom, how good would you say your life is?"

I wasn't sure I heard him right. I had agreed to answer some questions just 'cause I was curious, but really? First off? Rating my life overall? I laughed. "Wow, that's amazing?! Are you really asking me that?" I was making pasta with chicken sausage and leeks, I hadn't really been paying attention.

"Yes," he said, all seriousness, repeating the question, "How good would you say your life is? 1-10."

Me being me, it was hard to give the simple number he needed. I needed to explain. I thought about it, I think about it all the time, it's what I write about every day, except when I'm too busy thinking to even write.

"Look," I said, "I, very arguably, have a very good life. But I wasn't feeling it today particularly, I wasn't in great spirits. I know I should be more grateful, so I'll do this: even though it should be higher, but I currently feel like it's actually lower, I'll give it a 7."

This was awesome. Someone called, out of the blue, and was asking straight out how happy I was with my lot. He asked me not just how happy I was now but, also, how happy I expected to be in five years. "10, definitely a 10," I said, ever hopeful.

He asked me if I was healthy, if I had enough money, if I had a job, how respected I felt by superiors in my job, if I was married, if I liked the place where I lived, where I banked and how I liked it (?), what I thought about America's economy overall...I was rarely on the receiving end of so many questions. I tried to be honest, but, really, how can you be? Some of these, most of them, are not simple 'yeses' or 'nos' or a distinct number. Don't we feel different from moment to moment? Day to day?

As it turns out, I was one of the 1,000 calls made every day to Americans as part of The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (, a 25-year-effort to measure America's health and well-being daily, a poll that is the self-proclaimed "voice of Americans and the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to measure what people believe constitutes a good life."

Funny, as I got off, finally, finished with the exhausting out-of-the-blue summarization and statistical analysis of my life, I offered the guy a verbal gold star, told him maybe we could dovetail our efforts. After all, I said, "if you find out people rate their life a 3 or less, maybe you could give them a gold star? Help them be happier?"

Happy shmappy. There is a debate raging in this country right now, exhibited on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, about whether or not "happiness" is a good thing. Gretchen Rubin's "The Happiness Project" attempts to suggest that happiness is as happiness does, that acting out little maxims like "be yourself" and "acting the way you want to feel" will lead to this seemingly elusive thing called 'happiness.' Meanwhile, Eric G. Wilson's "Against Happiness" rails that the whole American notion of making people 'happy,' through self-help mantras and anti-depressives and the lot, is actually what's killing our creative spirit: maybe we're not meant to be 'happy.'

I have to laugh. I listened to people today in lines where I waited patiently. I wait more patiently now, taking it as time to sniff out potential gold-star receivers. I listened, first, to the cook at Naidre's talk about his need for sleep since working a full day there the day before, then catering an Oscar party, then returning to work for another full day. I listened to the woman at the checkout at Costco in her pretty turquoise scarf talk about how she was hungry. She had worked all morning at her other job, at the hospital, and was going to be on 'til 10:30. Strangely enough, I didn't think to ask either of them, "Are you happy?" or "Do you like your lot?" They smile, they laugh, they joke around with colleagues and friends, they're real people, trying to make their way through their lives. I give them gold stars, no questions asked. I just want to recognize their efforts, their AWESOME no-wheat oatmeal raisin cookies, their speedy ring-ups and return of my credit card. I want them to know that someone notices but doesn't judge, that they are actually more than just statistics for government or commercial enterprise.

It is not research that I do every day, it is a reward, for both me and, I dare to hope, for those that receive the stars. It is an automatic now when I hear certain statements, certain epiphanies people make about themselves or their lot, that I reach into my bag for a star. Happy? Happy? One can only dare to hope that there are many moments of great ecstasy in life. But, in between, in between laundry and cleaning my white-painted wood floor, I have a lot of other feelings too, feelings often too ferocious to name without four-letter words. But, I dare say, that's life.


  1. Re: After all, I said, "if you find out people rate their life a 3 or less, maybe you could give them a gold star? Help them be happier?" You would give someone a gold star just for being unhappy? I thought the point was to recognize people's otherwise unrecognized efforts, not just to cheer people up. Conversely, are people who rate their lives a 9 or 10 less deserving of a gold star?

  2. Point well taken...absolutely, everyone needs a gold star, everyone should get one. I guess my thinking was that if the number was really, really low, those people might need a little more prompting to recognize that they are deserving. But in terms of my overall philosophy, I stand corrected and certainly in my actual dissemination, rating oneself unhappy is certainly not a main criteria!!! Thanks for keeping me honest:)