DEBATE: How Can You Be Happy When the World is Melting Down?
In which we discuss what may be *the* question of our age.
Remember fifteen years ago, when something really horrible would happen in the world, and someone would say, “Man, it feels like civilization is collapsing,” and then someone else would inevitably roll their eyes and say, “Oh, please! People have always thought civilization was collapsing!”
No one ever says that now, do they? At least not about America.
Why would they? First, you had Trump’s election, and then his presidency, which turned out to be exactly the shitfest everyone thought. Then we had Covid. And Cancel Culture. And George Floyd and the protests, which some people used as an excuse to riot and try to burn down buildings. And then we had an insurrection against the U.S. government. And also the backlash against Cancel Culture. And then rising crime rates. And Democratic infighting. And sudden massive inflation. Meanwhile, all this time, we had a series of natural disasters very obviously related to climate change.
And now Omicron. Of course. Looking back, were we really so incredibly naïve as to think that vaccines would solve Covid?
Now toss all this into the Destroyer of All Hope, social media, and it seems like America — and, as a result, the entire world — is in deep, deep shit.
People have been talking about the threats to democracy and the fall of America for a while, but now smart people are openly talking about actual civil war.
At this point, even ancient Chinese philosophers are thinking, “This is nuts! We were kidding about that ‘may you live in interesting times’ thing!”
Personally, I still don’t think America’s collapse is inevitable. I think the most likely scenario is that we will continue to muddle through. Also, living in authoritarian countries like Turkey and Hungary this year, I was sometimes struck by how “normal” things seemed — at least when we weren’t being tear-gassed.
But that’s a pretty thin reed to hang your hopes on, isn’t it? The optimistic scenarios are “muddle through” and “well, maybe fascism won’t be that bad”!
None of this is even the issue I wanted to talk about, though. Yes, I’m curious about your “official” I-will-put-this-in-writing take on all this. But I’m even more curious about what you think we, as individuals, should do about it. In light of all this, how are we supposed to be happy?
Because we do still want to be happy, right? We all have to live our lives. The future isn’t like that asteroid in that movie Don’t Look Up! — an absolutely certain disaster. And even if it was, what would be the point of just curling up into a quivering ball of despair? That always makes things worse, not better.
And anyway, the worst hasn’t happened yet. Whatever the future brings, there’s still beauty in the world. My own life is frighteningly finite, and I still want to live it.
Part of what’s so weird about the last five years is that the night of Trump’s insane election, you and I decided to leave America — on the drive home from a horrible election eve-party, we decided to sell our house and just go, because we were worried about exactly all the kinds of things that are happening right now.
And, frankly, our strategy worked. The last five years have personally been among the absolute best of my life. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that even Covid hasn’t really affected us very much.
I’m not sure what I think about all this — and I’m not sure what I should think.
What do you think?
Confused in Croatia
Dear Confused in Croatia:
Maybe fascism won’t be that bad!
Now there’s a bumper sticker sure to sell like hotcakes.
You said so much above, I’m not really sure where to start. But start I must.
No, I don’t think the end of American democracy is inevitable. But I also never thought I’d live to see the day where every single warning light on the dashboard of this plane we call the United States is flashing red while the computerized voice shrieks, “COLLISION ALERT! COLLISION ALERT!” as we hurtle toward fascism, armed conflict, and reboots of Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, and Conan the Barbarian.
And while I wouldn’t say that I’m pleased that way back in 1985, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and immediately said, “Oh, yeah. I can totally see this happening,” well, I did say that. And I’ve been talking about the possibility of another American Civil War ever since the Republicans impeached Bill Clinton back in the 90s. (But I didn’t predict America’s extreme left would have their own version of The Handmaid’s Tale. Let’s call it Reeducation Camps Are Fun!)
But this debate is supposed to be about how we are supposed to be happy while an endless volume of shit hits the fan.
I will say this: I don’t believe the default setting for humanity is happy, and though our rapidly fraying Declaration of Independence does say there is a right to pursue happiness, it doesn’t actually guarantee it.
No, I think we have to choose happiness.
In the 2016 election, I started getting into it online politically with some of my high school classmates, who had become very right-wing.
And it was absolutely pointless. Beating my head against an actual brick wall would make more sense, because at least a brick wall stays where it is. Whereas my awful high school classmates would simply refuse to answer certain questions, move the goalposts in debates they were losing, or just outright ignore facts they didn’t like.
These debates left me furious, my gut churning with acid and bile. I ended up wishing for bad things to happen to these people. I mean really bad.
And I hated feeling that way — hated being the kind of person who wished misfortune on others. And no matter what ultimately happened to them, it was already hurting me. Since I’m no Jesus or Martin Luther King or Gandhi able to engage with people I loathed, I simply had to walk away from those fights.
And once we left the U.S., I found myself retreating from politics in general. I still scan newspaper headlines. But honestly, I now think much less about American politics in general.
And that makes me a lot happier than I used to be.
But my happiness isn’t only about what I don’t do. It’s just as much about what I do.
Namely, I focus much more on the things that, well, make me happy. Going on long morning walks in whatever place we happen to be living. Taking pictures of what I see on those long morning walks. Focusing on growing this newsletter, which I enjoy tremendously. Reading good books in cool coffee shops, spending time with old and new friends, trying different restaurants, going on hikes up mountains and along coasts, and thinking about where we might travel next.
There is a downside to this, of course.
And that is that I feel guilty — in part, because we were able to escape America, like you said. We’ve mostly left all that behind, although I agree with you that what happens there will absolutely affect the whole world. But I also feel terrible that our family and friends are still living in the middle of that madness.
I have been politically active most of my life, trying to fight the good fight. And part of my fight now is this newsletter, and other activism we’re doing. And, of course, in my personal interactions with the people we meet — helping them any way I can, and also trying to get their stories out to the greater world.
But is that enough?
Still, as you say, life is finite. I know the road ahead of me is already shorter than the road behind. So that makes me even more determined to be happy now, even if that means I’m personally doing less of the fighting.
Who knows? Maybe my final thoughts will be “I wish I’d done more.”
But I doubt it.
You’re rebuttal, counselor?
Happy but Guilty in Croatia
No rebuttal. On the subject of your high school friends and social media, I can totally relate.
It’s all such a Dumpster Fire. But that’s the whole point of social media, isn’t it? To attract our attention. Hate, anger, fear, cynicism, extremism, and misinformation divide us, but they also keep us engaged so the media companies can target us with more ads.
As for feeling like you’re not doing enough, I can relate to that too.
Even so, I do think we should all try to be happy — choose happiness, as you say.
So I appreciate your personal efforts to be happier. That’s not something you should have to apologize for.
Even so, I do think there are two kinds of happiness, and they’re not equally good. Call them Other-Centered Happiness. And Selfish Happiness.
I think social media is the epitome of Selfish Happiness. Even though it’s “social” media, it’s ultimately mostly about the self. What makes you look or feel good.
For me, the jury is now in: the bad of social media obviously outweighs the good — for me personally and for society at large.
So I’m cutting way back. I’ve deleted all my apps, so they’re only accessible on my laptop.
I’m opting out of the sound and fury and smoke and mirrors. I refuse to live in my own self-imposed information bubble, where people just repeat back more extreme versions of the things I already believe.
And more than anything, I refuse to fall into the bottomless pit of cynicism. I categorically reject the idea that everyone outside of my own little tribe is stupid, or bigoted, or driven by the worst possible motivations in life.
For my own sanity, I’m choosing to believe there’s still goodness and decency in the world, even if social media is making it harder for me — for everyone — to see it.
Cutting way back on doom-scrolling is the first part of my own quest for personal happiness.
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