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Happiness: The New American Dream

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“Find Your Beach”

I rarely write these days. I’ve never been the writer of the family — that was always my Dad — but I enjoy the art of expression from time to time. I’ve found that when I do write, it’s usually after a one-two combination from a life hurdle and finding an inspirational article online. Either way, who am I to knock inspiration?

It’s no secret that I, nor most people my age, don’t watch the news these days (much to my mother’s chagrin, by the way — particularly when she asks me about wildfires in Los Angeles that I didn’t even know were happening; even more, to my own chagrin when I’m stuck in traffic for three hours because some kid decided he wanted to try to jump off the 101 Freeway. I digress). Sadly, I installed the NBC7 app on my iPhone last week, only to be met with disdain shortly thereafter at the incessant number of highly negative news updates filling up my notification window. As if we need more notifications and more bad news in life. Anyway — the point is, my primary source of real, thought-provoking material always comes from Facebook (at least based on today’s algorithm. I’m sure after posting this, it’ll start sending me ads for help with existential crisis…).

There, I stumbled upon this amazingly written short piece from novelist, Zadie Smith, on NY Books.

Across the way from our apartment—on Houston, I guess—there’s a new wall ad. The site is forty feet high, twenty feet wide. It changes once or twice a year. Whatever’s on that wall is my view: I look at it more than the sky or the new World Trade Center, more than the water towers, the passing cabs. It has a subliminal effect. Last semester it was a spot for high-end vodka, and while I wrangled children into their snowsuits, chock-full of domestic resentment, I’d find myself dreaming of cold martinis.

But that was all some time ago. Now the ad says: Find your beach. The bottle of beer—it’s an ad for beer—is very yellow and the background luxury-holiday-blue. It seems to me uniquely well placed, like a piece of commissioned public art in perfect sympathy with its urban site. The tone is pure Manhattan. Echoes can be found in the personal growth section of the bookstore (“Find your happy”), and in exercise classes (“Find your soul”), and in the therapist’s office (“Find your self”). I find it significant that there exists a more expansive, national version of this ad that runs in magazines, and on television.

Find your beach. The construction is odd. A faintly threatening mixture of imperative and possessive forms, the transformation of a noun into a state of mind. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. On the one hand it means, simply, “Go out and discover what makes you happy.” Pursue happiness actively, as Americans believe it their right to do. And it’s an ad for beer, which makes you happy in the special way of all intoxicants, by reshaping reality around a sensation you alone are having. So, even more precisely, the ad means: “Go have a beer and let it make you happy.” Nothing strange there. Except beer used to be sold on the dream of communal fun: have a beer with a buddy, or lots of buddies. People crowded the frame, laughing and smiling. It was a lie about alcohol—as this ad is a lie about alcohol—but it was a different kind of lie, a wide-framed lie, including other people.

Here the focus is narrow, almost obsessive.Everything that is not absolutely necessary to your happiness has been removed from the visual horizon. The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if—as in the case of this wall painting—it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.

In an exercise class recently the instructor shouted at me, at all of us: “Don’t let your mind set limits that aren’t really there.” You’ll find this attitude all over the island. It is encouraged and reflected in the popular culture, especially the movies, so many of which, after all, begin their creative lives here, in Manhattan.According to the movies it’s only our own limited brains that are keeping us from happiness. In the future we will take a pill to make us limitless (and ideal citizens of Manhattan), or we will, like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, use 100 percent of our brain’s capacity instead of the mythic 10. In these formulations the world as it is has no real claim on us. Our happiness, our miseries, our beaches, or our blasted heaths—they are all within our own power to create, or destroy. On Tina Fey’s television show 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy—the consummate citizen of this new Manhattan—deals with problems by crushing them with his “mind vise.”

The beach is always there: you just have to conceive of it.It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak. Jack Donaghy’s verbal swordplay with Liz Lemon was a comic rendering of the various things many citizens of Manhattan have come to regard as fatal weakness: childlessness, obesity, poverty. To find your beach you have to be ruthless. Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas.A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue.

 

Whew. No pressure?

Have we really gotten to a place where if you are not drenched in solitude, isolated from the world, and living life on your own beach of “happiness” that you are mentally fragile? What does that say about us as a society?

Regardless, she’s making an incredible point that I fear few people are thinking about. The entire world today is predicated on self-empowerment, happiness, self-motivation, The Secret, Oprah, and every other kind of self-help mantra you can come up with. Living in Los Angeles, you see it everywhere you go. From the Cold Pressed Juice stores to the crazy Cross Fitters doing their WOD’s on the sidewalk to Trader Joes to the chalk art outside your local pub with “empowering” advice on how you should life to its fullest and have another beer!

Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her beach and God help you if you get in their way. I suppose it should follow that I am happier in pragmatic England than idealist Manhattan, but I can’t honestly say that this is so. You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. “A reality shaped around your own desires”—there is something sociopathic in that ambition.

 

A reality shaped around your own desires. Sociopathic.

The Future: A World Full of Sociopathic, Isolated, Narcissists. (Or SIN, if you’re the Religious Kind?)

Anyone who knows my Dad knows that he had a lot of “sayings”. One of them was, “has the world kicked you in the ass yet today?” This is somewhat ironic, given that my Dad also told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up, but his approach to parenting was something I sometimes long for in today’s society: real.

My parents never sugarcoated anything. I saw every fight. I saw every conversation. I saw every logic-based decision from inception to execution. Being an only child, I also got to hear logic from both sides of the coin, unfettered and uninterrupted. I got to be in the control room for every major thing that ever happened in my life. And if it pertained to me? I got to make the choices, because my parents always treated me like an adult. Perhaps that’s just the perks of growing up, but I would also like to think I have some pretty salt of the Earth folks.

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And despite all of the empowerment talk of being whatever you want to be, there was also never a void of the “reality”. The reality that if you wanted to be a certain something, you had to go where those certain someones who did that something were and step up to the batters box and swing. Sometimes you were gonna strike out, and sometimes you were gonna hit a line drive, and sometimes, you’d knock it out of the park. But without stepping into the batter’s box, you weren’t going anywhere. Period.

As I re-read the remnants of this article and think about life, I fear the outcome of a society continuing on this trajectory. If left to our own devices as is, I fear we are truly becoming these isolated, sociopathic narcissists. People so selfish and consumed with their own thoughts, their own happy, and their own well-being while being glued to their phones with no real attachments or experiences in life outside of themselves. What kind of world is that?

It’s scary, from a societal standpoint. And from an every day standpoint? It just makes me crave real. It makes me want to smash my phone, delete social media accounts, and only foster real relationships and real scenarios.

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Think about it. We all fill the void of connection with our phones, choosing to connect with all the whomevers on our Facebook chat at that moment instead of valuing the people we’re already with in the flesh. We choose to Facebook and Instagram and worry about likes and followers as validation for who we are as people, instead of valuing ourselves internally without a like or a comment attached. We don’t know how to unplug. We sit there with our phones, thinking we are being isolated and living on our own specially crafted beaches, when really — we’re just clouding our minds with algorithm-induced bullshit that already leans in a biased direction for a click and a coin in the bank to an advertiser under the guise of actually living our lives. Hallelujah, user behavior!!! All of this is predicated on the concept that we’re building our perfect little lives, our own imaginary world in our own head built just for us while searching for true happiness. My world is mine! All mine! Eff the rest of you and your anti-synchronistic concepts that don’t fit my world! ME ME ME ME ME! HAPPY! ME! MINE! LISTEN TO ME! LIKE ME! MY OPINION IS RIGHT AND YOURS IS WRONG IF YOU DISAGREE!!!

It’s bullshit.

And I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it’s not real.

A Dose of Reality

A month or two ago when Spotify rolled out their “weekly” discover playlist that served up curated content based on music you listened to, I realized just how wrong we were getting it. My favorite musician of all time is Jason Mraz. Love him. Have for decades. I still play a lot of his music. As a result, most of my playlist was acoustic-y coffee house type music. Almost every. Single. Song. After the third song, I wanted to turn the stereo off altogether.

The most beautiful aspect of life is the magical surprise — the surprise of something you hadn’t expected. There’s nothing new in the singer-songwriter coffee house genre, and none of it is appealing to me in a 20 hour playlist full of just that. I want to find something new. I want to find something to awaken my soul and snap me out of my traffic-induced trance.

Which is why magic is the key to life. It’s the surprise of trying your new favorite food for the first time, of arguing differing viewpoints with someone from the complete opposite end of the spectrum from you and learning more about life because of it, of meeting someone you fall in love with at the soul level, of laughing until your face hurts because you’ve finally met someone funnier than you, of having crazy wormhole discussions about art, life, physics, and blackholes. You see it when you meet that person who turns you on to something you’ve never known before that you probably would have never known before you met them. When you discover that cute little place on the corner by accident just because you happened to walk by. When you find a new book to check out because of a friend of yours insisted that you borrow it.

Happiness isn’t a destination. It’s a state of mind. And all of the self help books in the world can’t teach you that. It’s not something you can strive for, it’s something you work on every single day. And it doesn’t come from you, because life is not about you. Life is about us, collectively. You are me, I am you, we are life. So is the cat. And the dog. And Cecile the Lion. And the trees. This world is one that was given to us, how and why isn’t important. We have it, it’s a blessing, and it is up to us to take care of it, of us, and of ourselves.

And in that — it’s also about realizing that sometimes you have to be okay with reality. It’s okay to be sad sometimes. It’s okay to experience every emotion under the sun because it’s what reminds us that we are alive. We’re breathing. We’re here! Don’t let some effervescent pursuit of some fake new-age bullshit take that away from you.

At the end of the day, I hope, if nothing else, you take away that life is not about what you or I want. It’s about learning the delicate balance between exploring our own passions and desires while also giving love, insight, knowledge, and inspiration back to those you love; perhaps, even strangers. And I think that’s why most people consider some of the richest people in the world as the most miserable at their core — they gave up everything to get something they thought would make them happy — without really knowing what happiness is.

Life. Is. Not. A. Beach.

Neither is happiness.

It’s about time to change a few things;
we’re enslaved to the bank and we only wanna buy new shoes,
but the way that we think — we can do anything that we really wanna put our minds to.
The american dream is a pyramid scheme
And it feels outta reach when it’s hard and times are tough
But change starts with us yep, yep
We all want freedom yea to be who we be
I don’t wanna be afraid when I speak to say what I’m feeling
Yea together we’re strong but divided never been so weak
It’s time we get even, yea yea, and really what I mean is, is, is
This change I can feel it, yea yea, Mr. President I think it’s all gonna be O.K.

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Tori Kyes is a Los Angeles-based writer/producer and entrepreneur. She specializes in social media, technology, and entertainment. She's also an advocate for social change, a marathon runner, Ph. D student (Media Psychology), gratitude giver, and lover of life.

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