Incidental Insights: Why I Hate Happiness


By James

Happiness is the most boring emotion. If you can take nothing else away from this article, know that happiness is boring. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that it’s a bad thing, just boring. My favorite books, movies, and even songs, are all tinged by dark characteristics. For example, my favorite movie, Adaptation, features a heartbreaking killing. The next movie,Being John Malkovich, features the loss of free will, and the slow but eventual onset, as a man spends his days trapped in someone else’s head. In fact, scrolling through my list of my twenty favorite movies, it is almost impossible to find a movie that isn’t in some way depressing. The only comedies on the list are Hot Fuzz, Dr. Strangelove, Death at a Funeral, andLock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. As it turns out, even my taste in comedies is dark. My musical predilections are similarly peppered with grim titles. My favorite album is calledHunger and Thirst, and contains such lighthearted songs as “White Liars”, “The Sickness Unto Death”, and “Happy People”, which oddly enough is not that happy. I would not consider myself a very dark person. Sure, sometimes I brood, and occasionally I stay up at night, convincing myself I am a vampire, but who doesn’t? The problem then resides in the material rather than my tastes.

I don’t search for depressing films. I really don’t. Of the movies that I watch, only around fifteen percent try to evoke sadness. And even if a film contains death, it doesn’t necessarily make me cry out with ecstasy. The book Hidden Empire by Orson Scott Card contains a major character death part of the way through, yet I didn’t find the book particularly entertaining. The movie Sweeny Todd had more blood than Dracula in a room full of polycythemia verics (for the record I had to look that one up).  Therefore, it isn’t the drama created by death itself. The only thing that I can think of that could explain my appetite for sorrow is the fact that sorrow is far more interesting than happiness.

Bear with me for a moment here, because the argument that I’m going to make would sound appropriate for the bassist in a grunge band. Which I definitely am not. One of the deeply imprinted social constructs is the pursuit of happiness. We are driven towards happiness through a biological imperative. Happiness is food, sex, and sleep. It’s only through abstract thought that we can find happiness in looking at art, and listening to music. The happiness that we get from movies are similar abstractions. You are happy because the imaginary woman that you knew for an hour and a half found her imaginary love who she knew for a few days. You are happy that an imaginary character managed to escape from the alien beasts, while learning about the value of friendship. Nothing in this is particularly natural, as a great depth of abstraction is required to identify with a person that you don’t know in a place that might be imagined. However, due to the residual drive towards happiness, abstractions still tend towards happiness, driving people to like happy media rather than sad.

Now for the question: Why is happiness boring? Well, what I said before is something of misdirection. Happiness itself is not boring in its own way. What has gotten boring however is the overuse of happiness in media. The gut reaction of most producers seems to make things happier. Books get adapted with fewer hard choices and more romance. The movie adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ novel Dear John allowed the two protagonists to be together. The reason was purely economic. Producers didn’t want the movie to tank, and made the calculated risk that a happy ending fixes everything.  The evisceration of the source material is expected, but the overuse leads to an immunity from real danger. Take Transformers. Sure, we were all sad when Optimus Prime died in the third movie. But did you really think for one second that his death and sacrifice would mean anything? The note of finality leads to a level of pride. A permanent sacrifice is noble. A temporary sacrifice is an inconvenience. Comics, of course, are the worst offenders, with a Superman that refuse to die for longer than a few months. But the happiness felt at the return of a character feels cheapened by the knowledge that death is impermanent, as lowering the stakes removes any drama. Nowadays,the easiest way to show that you are counter culture is therefore to make a movie sad. I’m not talking about romantic tragedies, with idealized deaths and an almost Victorian penchant for drama, but the gut wrenching tragedies wrought by the horrible realization that one man’s death may not mean a lot. We need the break from happiness, and from ultimately the repetition of the same emotion: static happiness, because while happiness is all well and good, we need a little sorrow once in a while.