Happy International Day of Happiness! Why Don’t We Want to Read it?
March 20 is the International Day of Happiness! My first thought upon learning that was, Why do we need this? (It turns out the holiday is actually a UN campaign to improve human quality of life around the world.) My second thought was, Holy hell do we need this. And then, because me, I started thinking about books.
Why don’t we like to read happy books? Or is that question even well founded? Why aren’t there more happy books—more books about happy people? Not just books with happy parts or happy endings, but books about people who are genuinely happy? Is it that we don’t actually seek happiness in our lives, or simply that we don’t want to read about it? What is it about the nature of story consumption (or creation) that makes us crave turmoil and conflict instead of pleasantness and joy? And is that the opposite of what we seek in life?
First things first, maybe I’m inventing this whole problem. Or at least that’s what I told myself (knowing it wasn’t true). Just because I, personally, am drawn toward the dark side of literature doesn’t mean that the bright side doesn’t exist. So I started poking around the Google machine, searching for lists of “happy books,” and a few things quickly became clear:
- My definition of a happy book is not the same as some people’s.
- A book making the reader feel happy is not the same as a book about happy people.
- Happiness is a slippery idea.
For example, check out this slideshow list by Good Housekeeping called Books That Make You Happy. Seems straightforward enough, yeah? Three books in we get to The Giver and I’m dubious. This heartbreaking dystopian novel about all happiness being drained from humanity so we can hide from our sadness is… happy? Keep flipping. Stop at number seven, The Book Thief, which for the record is one of my favorite books, but this is not a happy book. This is a book about a literal, real life holocaust. Narrated by Death itself. About a kid trying to stop the evil bad guys from burning books. Did I miss something? Give it one more chance. Flip to number eight and it’s The Giving Tree. I’m done.
Then, to be fair to this list, it does say "books that make you happy," not "books about happy people." But when I think about those three books, they don’t make me happy. The make me feel, yes; they are all exquisite examinations of humanity and what it means to be alive, and I suppose that is ennobling and maybe even uplifting if you’re a true optimist, but it is certainly not cheering. Frankly, I find them all devastating. Okay, so maybe I just found the wrong list. But searching for books about happy people only brings up a deluge of nonfiction books promising to help you become a happy person.
But I’m talking about story, not how-to. Sure, you can turn to stand up comedy, silly poems for children, or podcasts about how to live your best life, but where are the novels about happy people? What do I read when I need a break from the horror and heavy I usually angle toward? Well, romance, obviously. No shame. A girl’s gotta have some refuge from the nihilistic and the macabre; I love me some sexy times and, ehrm, happy endings.
But happy endings… that’s the thing. Even in the world’s lightest, sweetest book, a happy ending is where we end, not how we get there. If a book has a happily ever after, it starts out in rags and ruins. The characters are alone, lonely, poor, dissatisfied, you name it. They want change. They struggle through change. And then they get their happy ending. What’s more, as soon as they are happy, it’s the end. We don’t hang around to watch them be happy. We close the back cover and pick up the next book, which also drags us through hell to get to happiness.
And if a character actually does start off happy, then mercy on them, because we know they’re headed straight to tragedy. Books require journey and change; conflict is what makes story story. So if we see some poor fool start off feeling great, we know we’re here to watch their downfall.
Why does story require conflict? Conflict is so integral to story that it’s often the only component of the definition. Story is a character in conflict. Why do we seek out in fiction that which we avoid in life?
I don’t have an answer, exactly. Instead I have many conflicting (ha), swirling thoughts and lots of questions. Is it possible that happiness is not actually at odds with conflict in real life? Is it possible that we’ve all only deluded ourselves into thinking that happiness is a peaceful thing? Is it possible that happiness is at odds with conflict and that we seek both simultaneously anyway?
Or, perhaps, do we seek in entertainment the opposite of what we seek in life? As an outlet so we can avoid blowing up our own happinesses? Or as a learning tool to overcome our own conflicts and get back to happy? That, I think, is the closest to a universal truth. We consume stories as guides, and we keep consuming them because real life doesn’t end with happily ever after; it keeps going. And so our guides must keep going too. We keep seeking, keep reading, keep journeying through examples of conflict to happiness or happiness to conflict to make sense of our own messes and successes. Or maybe I’m just a pessimist.
What do you think?
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