Bargaining With Happiness: The Suck Stops Here

Sometimes I make a bargain with my life: I won’t be happy unless I’m happy with our workload distribution, with my day-to-day opportunities, with how I got here, with my level of control. As if I could only allow myself to be happy when I look out and judge everything good. As if I were saying, shape up, Life, or I’m withholding my happiness! I see Ted bargaining with his happiness, too, though making different agreements: I won’t be happy, unless my family is happy. Be happier for my sake.

Here’s what the intersection of these approaches looks like: When I have something I’d like Ted to do, I first make myself unhappy that he’s not doing it. I present my unhappiness as an argument for action, Ted fixes it, and we’re both happy again. Usually I ask him directly, but after twelve years of cohabitation, sometimes the unhappiness itself becomes a question. Like I never seem to snap at Rebecca unless there’s someone else around, because my snapping is quasi-performative: Can’t you see how much I’m doing? Why aren’t you helping me? Ick. In the background there’s a fear that if I’m not unhappy, then I won’t be able to negotiate for help when I’d like help. I mean, how can I justify asking for help when I’d be happy either way? But that question assumes that helping other people must be terribly unpleasant and that I have no coin but my own happiness to pay for what I want.

Those are bad assumptions, but historically, this approach has more or less worked for us. I was invested in grad school, which Ted couldn’t help with no matter how strung out I got, and typically I didn’t care enough about the state of the household to make myself unhappy about it. I didn’t even realize we were playing a game with happiness until we moved in with our beloved housemates, Shayna and Vernon, who not only don’t play the game, but threw the existing emotional economy into confusion. Ted does things Shayna wants him to do, expecting to be paid enthusiastically in happiness. He feels frustrated and inadequate when her happiness proves not to be so mechanical, so he redoubles his efforts–and still may or may not make her happy. To make matters worse, now that there are multiple people openly bidding for Ted’s time, I sometimes feel like I’m on the verge of a bidding war with unhappiness as the currency. Poor Ted.

Vernon, for his part, is calm and solid no matter what’s going on.

One Tuesday afternoon in February, I was rocking Rebecca with my sweater and her hair both smelling like puke, baby’s first stomach bug. Not the day I’d planned. Ted already had the flu, so I’d been doing most of the parenting all weekend and I would’ve told you I needed a break–when something slipped into my heart. Now? You’re happy now? Because this was my job, and yeah, I’m gonna do it. Later Ted identified the feeling as pride.

And with brief blips, I’ve been happy ever since, even when I came down with the same flu and had to do as much parenting as possible sitting down and trying to puke quietly so I woudn’t wake Rebecca and was too weak to do the laundry, which now included the bathmat, several towels, my sweater, a shirt, two pairs of my jeans that had succumbed to diarrhea, and our bedding, because we had fleas. However, I’m better at handling nausea with equanimity since I’ve been pregnant. On the phone I told Ted, “It would definitely be nice if you came home, but we’re holding it together for now.”

So he didn’t come home. And we held it together. I got to be proud of myself for being strong, but I was thoroughly depleted by the time he got back. He took care of everything and made me miso soup while I sat wrapped in a blanket and told my war stories. He said, “Oh no, I should’ve come home”–remember our happiness game. I said no, that I’d gotten the best of both worlds, being both strong and taken care of. (But thank goodness his mom was in town to take care of Rebecca the next day.)

This is not a post about how the things we think will make us happy don’t. Sometimes they do, after all. Other times happiness happens on its own, flowering by grace, if you stop promising yourself you won’t be happy Until.