Misha Glouberman: The Happiness Class

Misha Glouberman is the co-author of The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City. He is a is a performer, facilitator, and artist who lives in Toronto.

As told to Sheila Heti.

I taught a class on happiness to my friends, and one thing that came up was that the topic was seen as sort of trivial. I found that really weird. It was seen as some sort of sickness of Western consumerist individualism. Happiness seems to me the most untrivial thing to talk about or think about. I think it’s really worthy of investigation. Pretty much everything that people do, in one way or another, is done in the interest of trying to be happy. So it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to spend a bit of one’s time thinking about it.

You can say, for instance, that environmental damage is a more important issue than happiness, but a huge part of what drives environmental damage is people’s weird consumerist appetites for goods, acquired in the pursuit of happiness, which don’t actually make their lives any happier. Most of history is about people killing each other for things they imagine they want and things they imagine are going to make them happier, which in most cases aren’t the sorts of things that make people happier at all.

I find it interesting that people spend their whole lives aggressively pursuing things, at great cost, that they imagine will make them happy, when in fact these things don’t. And I think this is a problem for many people.

opens in a new windowIn the past few years, there has been a lot of research into happiness, and along with that, a lot of press, and a lot of books taking that research and trying to apply it to people’s lives. A couple of years ago, I discovered that there was an undergraduate course at Harvard which had quickly become the most popular undergraduate course in the history of the university. It was a course in how to be happy. I was really delighted by this. I thought it was a great idea, and I was sorry they didn’t have that class when I was there, and I was very excited to know more about it.

I invited a dozen friends to my house so that we could take it together. The course, famously a comically easy course at Harvard, still involved several hours’ reading a week. So I took on the task of presenting a condensed version of the course to my friends, which involved me watching all the videos and choosing select moments to show and trying to select the most useful readings.

Every week for a couple of months, we would get together in me and Margaux’s kitchen, which is also our bedroom, and I would set up my laptop and bring in the screen from my desk and set it up on the kitchen table, and we would watch this guy, Professor Tal Ben- Shahar, lecture to something like seven hundred Harvard undergraduates on how to be happy. Then we would talk about it, and I would ask if anybody had done the reading, and no one had ever done the reading. It was great.

I thought the material in the course was really interesting, and I also really wanted to alter my own immediate social environment. I had all these people around me who were really interesting and kind of eccentric and sort of crazy, and I wanted to establish a common language about what the hell we thought we were trying to do in our lives, and I imagined this would be a good way to do it. And it was. It was really exciting to get people talking about what they were trying to do in their lives and their work, about why or whether they thought this might contribute to their happiness, and to expose the differences that were there, and just to find out what people thought they were up to. It’s funny: you can talk to people for a very, very long time about what they’re doing without ever finding out what they think they’re up to.

Among everybody in the class, there was incredible disagreement about the relationship between difficulty and happiness and work and where pleasure comes from, and the conversations about this were really heated and contentious.

For Margaux, difficulty is everything. She’s an artist and she thinks that making art is really hard and should be hard. Not to say that there isn’t a great amount of pleasure in it, but part of what it means to do that work is to encounter the difficulty in it. She always seems to be working. When she does stop working, she tidies the house. When she watches TV, she makes a quilt. It’s very hard for her to understand sightseeing if there’s no effort involved. So driving up to the top of a mountain to look at a beautiful view seems to her a completely useless activity, whereas walking up a mountain to look at a view is something that really excites her. This is the reason we have a lot of fights when we go to mountains.

Almost diametrically opposed is my friend Edward. One of the complicated things in his life is that when he was younger he was in bands. A lot of the people around him are artists and writers and things like that, and he thinks of himself as a creative person and sort of has this fantasy of being an artist, and he maybe feels bad not to be doing that kind of work. He’s a really smart guy and my impression is that he’s super-good at his job designing databases, and he seems to like it. But there’s this part of him that feels he should be doing something more creative. I think he imagines that there’s an emotional place he can be, where he’s inspired to make art and does it because it comes naturally and it’s fun and exciting. I think Edward believes mostly in hedonism. He mostly believes that the trick to life is to do things that are easy and fun, and that it’s possible to avoid things that are difficult. And he’s frustrated when that doesn’t seem to work out. He imagines if things were just a little different, he’d have this easy, inspired, creative life. Yet making art is difficult for people who do that kind of work.

My friend Mark is working on a book. He wants working on the book to be something fun in his life, so he only works on it when he feels like it, and when he doesn’t feel like it, he doesn’t. Margaux finds this completely outrageous! She thinks you can’t make art by working on it when you feel like it. You have to work on it when you don’t feel like it, partly because otherwise it will never get done, but more important because those times when you don’t feel like it—when you encounter resistance or difficulty—are the times when the really important work happens. She thinks that difficulty is an indication that you’re going somewhere new or challenging.

Darren O’Donnell, a theater artist we know, thinks that all the difficulty in his life can be traced back to an unjust society. He thinks he’d be much happier if he could spend all of his time at leisure, but capitalism means he can’t, partly because he needs to make money and partly because he feels morally obliged to address an unjust system through his art. His feeling about having to work and having to encounter difficulty in his work is primarily one of resentment, and he spends a lot of time thinking, If only things weren’t like this.

An idea I’ve come across a lot in my reading about happiness is that maybe we’re not really designed to be happy—from an evolutionary standpoint. Maybe happiness is, at best, a temporary state that functions as an incentive to the behaviors that biology wants from us, and that we’re meant to strive for.

So we strive and we strive. And a lot of the striving on the face of it can seem meaningless or dumb. Mark sees people around him who work hard so they can have a nice apartment and nice stuff, and Mark thinks that’s silly; why not just have a small crappy apartment and not much stuff and not have to do all that hard work?

And it’s true: we get caught up striving for things that can seem really important at the time but which don’t actually help us at all. If you step back, it’s easy to see that a lot of this striving is meaningless or pointless. At the same time, to imagine that we could be happy without all this effort is unrealistic. It’s to imagine us as something other than what we are. I think we’re always meant to do some meaningless striving, or at least that we’re not happy without it. It’s a bit of a cosmic joke, I think, but I do think it’s the way we’re built.

You’d think that a good way to be happy would be to maximize the number of things in your life that are pleasurable and easy, and to minimize the number of things in your life that are unpleasurable and difficult. But my own experience doesn’t seem to bear that out, and neither does the research on the subject. A confusing thing about happiness is that hedonism happens not to work. At least not for most people. Certainly not for me.

So Darren really believes that he would be happy if only the wickedness of society didn’t require him, in all these different ways, to continue to work. You work and work and work, then you get to spend ten minutes lying on the grass, and lying on the grass feels wonderful. And it’s easy to think, Man, if only those fuckers didn’t make me work all the time, I could spend all my time lying on the grass and I’d feel good. But it wouldn’t feel good to lie on the grass all the time.

I mean, even Buddhist monks, who are sort of the counterexample to all that—they say that maybe you can be happy sitting in one spot, breathing in and breathing out, accepting everything as it is—and it’s a strong point they make, and a pretty shocking one, too, to suggest that maybe the path to happiness is to give up pretty much everything, to not really do anything at all—but even within that, those monks, with their adherence to not striving, they work really hard on that, you know?

See Also:

The Chairs Are Where the People Go:

Harvard and Class,” The Paris Review Daily

An Interview with Sheila Heti, LA Weekly