No Waves

Lately I’ve taken to asking people if they’re happy. We’ll be having a pretty normal conversation and I’ll blurt out, “Are you happy?”

I’m not sure why this has become the question du jour.

Today I was having lunch with a friend and he seemed to me to be not happy and so I asked him the question. As it turns out, there was just a part of his life that he wasn’t happy with but the rest was fine. So the job was a headache and unfulfilling but what he did with the rest of his life was okay. Not fabulous, but reliably okay. He didn’t seem exactly taken aback by the question but did have a look that said, “Is this germane to anything?”

Why are you asking me if I’m happy?

A while ago, a therapist who worked with teenagers told me that the most important question you can ask a teen to see if they’re doing okay is “How are you sleeping?” The thinking behind this, I believe, was that, first of all, if a person isn’t sleeping well it influences how able they are to cope with the day, and second, what is keeping them from sleeping well? Is it anxiety or depression, nightmares or caffeine, or the drugs that psychiatrists prescribe so that tired people can get it together during the day that they often take too late in the day because they can’t get to sleep until dawn?

I like that question, “How are you sleeping?” But I also really like “Are you happy?”

Both are disarming. For someone to stop our conversation to ask me if I’m happy puts me in a strange, reflective place that I didn’t expect to be. Am I happy? I think to myself. I don’t know. Sometimes ‘happy’ seems like am extravagant word for what I usually am which is a fairly robust okay. Still, I appreciate someone asking although sometimes it makes me think they suspect I might be seriously unhappy, depressed, clinical and maybe they should call someone to get me help. I’m suspicious of mood checkers, a fact that should deter me from being one but it hasn’t so far.

So are you happy?

These days the bar for happiness is set pretty high. Now to be really happy, you have to be flying on a plane that used to be labeled joyful. Being okay, even a fairly robust okay, hints at the potential for descent into an unhappy place, a precarious place; okay, but barefoot on a thin wire strung between two distant poles. When did being okay become so insufficient and tenuous?

“How are you doing?”


“Really? Is there anything I can do?”

So if I ask someone if they are happy and they respond by saying they’re okay, I need to remember that it’s okay to be okay. Being okay is not a symptom in search of a disease. It hints at an even, uneventful keel like my friend today explained as he moved his hand in a straight line, “not a lot of ups and downs.”

And that’s good, right? Yes?


Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash


7 Comments on “No Waves

  1. I ran into an old friend from childhood and he asked me that very question. It took me by surprise, and I’m not even sure how I answered. So unexpected.

  2. Most of the time I am just pleasantly happy and that’s okay. 🙂 Maybe I’m more often pleasantly happy than I am pleasant. Your post made me mischievously happy which is better than before I read it when I was in my 4 in the afternoon slump of energy that makes me unhappy. This morning I looked at JB after we had french toast and fresh strawberries, and said “Life is Good” – which is better than Life is Happy. Okay, Jan, you can tell me to shut up and go fix supper which will make me giggle – but not jump up. Now that thought makes me happy.

  3. I try to appreciate every day and embrace the challenges. Sometimes I stop and think, “Yes, I am happy with this moment, this day.”

  4. It sure beats the useless “How are you?” which none of us tend to respond honestly to. I’m sure hearing it put the way you put it shocks people into feeling like they have to answer honestly. Not such a bad thing:).

  5. A friend, someone I knew in high school and lost and reconnected with on Facebook, messaged me her doctor was pretty sure she has breast cancer. On her public page, she wrote “A deer tentatively crossing the Chesham Road, waiting first for me to pass…four small children with a rubber band, apparently the most entertaining thing since water, since snow, running around the yard half naked, screaming with glee and shooting the rubber band on marvelous trajectories… grandparents enjoying wine and pizza on the picnic table in the back yard, in the distance, hills covered with white clouds… what if this is as good as it gets?”

    That IS as as good as it gets, when it comes to happiness. But you can see, knowing her context, why she might say she was “okay.” It’s a place of equilibrium between joy and terror.

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