When Happiness Makes Me Grouchy

The New York Times has been running a weeklong series of articles by Jancee Dunn (informed by a Harvard research project) on how to improve your happiness. Each article has a particular focus coupled with a “challenge”: an assignment for readers to complete. The recurring theme is that people should strengthen their social lives, no matter how robust they might already be. I tried to take this all in stride, reminding myself that it is directed at people who want such advice or who are genuinely miserable. But the premise—that you should make happiness a project, upping the levels systematically and continually—calls for a fat rebuke.

Why on earth should people have to adopt a happiness plan? Probably all of us have areas of our lives that could be happier and that we are addressing in some way (or not). We might jump rope, write in diaries, sing, study languages, climb a mountain with a friend, enter therapy, or do other things that bring us closer to what we want and need. It’s our own business and combines with other priorities besides happiness: for instance, doing things that we consider important, meaningful, or fun; fulfilling responsibilities; being alone and with others; learning about the world around us; allowing for a bit of silliness.

Although each of the tips, taken on its own, has some wisdom to it, I find the overall tone condescending. (“Happiness Challenge Day 3: Chat up someone you don’t know.”) Those producing the series (editors, author, researchers,* others) apparently don’t stop to consider that (a) happiness is an area of liberty, not a homework assignment;** (b) there is no shame in being content with your general level of happiness, even if there are types of happiness that you still pursue; (c) no one is obligated to be happy all the time; and (d) there’s much more to life than being happy, even though we may at different times feel happy, pursue happiness, ponder the nature of happiness, discover happiness in unexpected places, or rediscover a happiness we have forgotten.

The first article comes with a quiz that purports to tell us how strong our social relationships are. My results stated that I was in “tip-top social shape”; they went on to recommend that I “double down” on the relationships that bring me happiness and become “even more proactive” in broadening my “social universe.” Why are they so sure that I need to do this or be told this? They have no idea what my social relationships are like.

The series falls in line with an American assumption that we should all be on some improvement plan that never stops. On and on, up, up, up. Not only that, but we supposedly lack the gumption to create it ourselves. Experts, informed by what “research has shown,” dictate it to us. How sad! A lost opportunity to enjoy life and trust ourselves a little!

Yes, many long for happiness and find it. It comes in all sorts of forms, sometimes in disguise, sometimes by surprise. It mixes with sadness, which is not its opposite, no matter what anyone might say. Happiness does best when not insisted upon, not formulated, not pushed to the supposed next level.

On Day 4, the author advises the readers to “get vulnerable”:

For today’s exercise, we’re going to get vulnerable and tell an important person in our lives how we feel about them. “Think about what they have done for you in your life,” said Dr. Bob Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of the new book “The Good Life.” “Where, or who, would you be without them?”

I see this as a private and delicate matter. Yes, it is good to express gratitude and to receive it from others. But such a declaration can feel strange (to both the speaker and the recipient) if forced. Also, there are friendships that have a certain reserve at their core, a respect for the other’s privacy and our own. We do not have to tell everyone how we feel about them. Such declarations can create pressure; vulnerability is not always kind.

On Day 7, the author, quoting Dr. Waldinger, gives advice on ways to keep the happiness going throughout the year: for instance, to set specific goals.

Dr. Waldinger advised to commit to making strengthening your bonds an ongoing practice. “Be realistic,” he said. “Could you do one small thing a few times a week to promote connections, like send one text or email to someone to say hello? Could your goal be to get together with a friend once each week?” Start small and level up as time allows, he said.

Why the assumption that numerical goals—an email or a text a week, or a get-together with a friend—will do any good at all, for oneself or the other person? This could help people who feel isolated and have trouble making contact with others. But what if you have a rhythm of contact that already suits you? What if you and your friends are overloaded with messages? For me, rather than commit to X number of contacts per week, it is more important to think of how I can be a better friend. Sometimes that even means pulling back a little, if a person needs space or is extremely busy. An example: in October when I went to the U.S., there was a friend I wanted to see, but she was in the middle of all sorts of things: preparing for a European tour, performing, getting instruments repaired…. I recognized the situation and went to one of her shows, just hours before flying back to Hungary. That was a joyous meeting, even though we barely said hi.

I added substantially to this piece after a friend wrote to me (not in the comments, but elsewhere) and challenged what I had said. To him, the series is much more nuanced than I have given it credit for. I see his points; I may have been too harsh in some ways. But I still find the series too preachy; it doesn’t recognize how vast and diverse people are, with so many different ways of being happy or not. Nor does it recognize that people have their own deep sensors; they know, better than anyone else can, when something is off and what adjustment might be needed.

Also, there’s a fundamental difference between solicited and unsolicited advice. I like reading The Ethicist, the NYT series by Kwame Anthony Appiah, because he takes ethical questions that have been submitted to him, considers them from different angles, and offers his (complex, humane) opinion. He doesn’t tell his readers how to live, but he gives us important principles to consider, in relation to a specific quandary. Often I agree with him, sometimes I don’t, but in both cases I learn from his way of considering problems.

Or on a different order of things, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: solicited advice, filled with humility. A person, poet or not, can find a friend and guide in it. “You are so young, so before all beginning, and I would beg you, dear sir, as best I can to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books penned in a language most foreign to you.”

The picture above is from a rather happy bike ride I took to Abony last week. Not tip-top happy. But happy enough that (and partly because) I saw things along the way. Could I have made that bike trip happier? No; I would have ruined it by making a happiness task out of it. The best thing about it was that it didn’t have to serve anyone else’s terms, or even my own.

*An afterthought: Psychological research often gets reduced to simplistic takeaways by those reporting on it. I do not equate the NYT series with the research itself—and am grateful to my friend Joyce for making the distinction (see the comments below).

**Another afterthought: The aforementioned friend who wrote to me pointed out that any kind of disciplined activity involves “homework assignments”; a disciplined pursuit of happiness may yield a lot more fruit than a haphazard one. Yes, this is true (and a very important point). But once we reach adulthood and finish formal school, we take on homework voluntarily. Granted, no one’s “making” anyone do the tasks presented in this series. But there’s an I-know-what’s-good-for-you tone to it all.

Leave a comment


  1. Andrew James Chandler

     /  January 10, 2023

    I’m involved with a UK-based group, founded by the historian and educationalist, Sir Anthony Seldon, called ‘Action for Happiness’. There’s a Hungarian group belonging to this umbrella organisation. I integrated well-established programmes in Mindfulness and Well-being from both sides of the Atlantic into my teaching of Behavioural Economics here in Hungary. I also think that some of C. S. Lewis’s writing on ‘Joy’ can be helpful. I do agree that some of the ‘Happiness’ strategies and techniques can be rather superficial.

    • Thank you for your comment! Happiness is intriguing indeed. We want to be happy for the most part, we want others to be happy, parents want happiness for their children, teachers for their students, friends for their friends. Yet when we stop to ask what it is, we arrive at different answers. For some, happiness means freedom from all material cares; for others, endless learning; for others, devotion to a worthy cause; for others, achievement and success; for others; encounters with beauty; for others, profound and light relationships of different kinds; for others, understanding; for others, a bit of peace and quiet. Or maybe we carry all these possibilities and more, and focus on different ones at different times.

      In my experience, happiness comes partly from the willingness to experience a range of emotions and thoughts. A melancholic mood can lead into intense joy. These states are idiosyncratic and hard to explain. They make their own sense.

  2. Joyce

     /  January 11, 2023

    I often appreciate your deeper take on shallow presentations. I took this 7 day challenge and I too felt that some of the suggestions on several days were very surface level. Despite some disappointment in the article, I”m looking forward to the upcoming release of this new book, The Good Life, based on the research from the 80 plus year Harvard study of Adult Development that followed the lives of a cohort at Harvard and from Boston neighborhoods. The study is now following the lives of the children of the original subjects and included health data, in depth interviews and surveys over the years. One of the authors (and co-directors of the study), Dr. Robert Waldinger is also a zen priest with whom I have sat in meditation at the Boundless Way temple. I have heard his dharma talks and have found him to be very wise, very kind, very grounded. Happiness sells, especially in the US (NYT is aware of this when shaping this ‘happiness’ series, I suppose. But I think the teaching here is so much deeper. The results of the Harvard study is that those who feel most connected tend to live longer “happier?” lives… that loneliness (the inner sense of not having enough in quantity or most importantly in quality) kills. Being lonely or not having enough social connections is a greater risk factor for mortality than smoking or heart disease, etc. I often see you as speaking about the glories of solitude. Each one of us has a different need for people connection, a different balance between time in solitude and time in connection. It’s not only quantity but also quality. Some people are satisfied with hundreds of acquaintances. For me, I’d rather have a small number of very close, intimate connections. The suggestion to have an 8 minute phone call (was it day #4)… well, that would not in any way satisfy… at least for me. Thank you for diving deeper into this, my friend.

    • Dear Joyce, thank you for this wonderful comments and for your kind words about Dr. Waldinger, whose research, as you describe it, sounds much deeper than its representation in the NYT series.

      Regarding loneliness: I have no trouble believing that long-term, consuming loneliness has a terrible effect on health and longevity. But temporary loneliness may be a good thing! It may be telling us something. I don’t feel lonely very often, but when I do, I am grateful and even relieved, because the feeling gives me a chance to ask: What kind of relationship or connection am I longing for right now? In some cases it might be any kind of human contact; in others, it might be a particular kind of relationship. Or sometimes I might not know for sure, but the question still helps in some way.

      Loneliness is probably our body’s (and mind’s) way of alerting us to a need that we might not otherwise know we had. Like physical pain, it’s responding to something. But when it becomes general and persistent, when a person feels lorded over by loneliness, then, yes, it can kill.

      I will write to you soon.

  1. Friends Are Not Vitamins | Take Away the Takeaway

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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