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January 31, 2009

Are you happy?

January 31. Day 215.

"Three frustrated women!!!""

These was La Divina's conclusion, to myself and a 24-year-old visitor from Germany who's in town for an internship, after we each lamented all day that we have no idea what to do with our lives. We're all at transitional points -- about to graduate or between jobs -- and we each have a selected path -- academia, biology and marketing -- which neither of us wants to pursue. Are we picky? Blessed with too many options? A trio of damn fools? Or just figuring things out, like anyone between 15 and 40 these days...

"Don't worry," I replied. "It's not like anyone else is happy. Everyone is frustrated. Who's actually happy out there?"

"Why don't you ask?!" she replied.

So I did.


The Security Guard

He was standing outside an art gallery in La Jolla, where we were strolling, working the Saturday night shift. He was also the first person I saw, ten seconds after we hatched this idea.

"Excuse me, can I ask you a question?"


"All righty."

"Just kidding. Sure."

"Are you happy?"


"Excellent. Thank you."

The working woman

Just before we got to my car, a woman walked by.

"Excuse me, can I ask you a question?"

"I'm in a rush! On my way to work. What?" she called as she bounded past us.

"Are you happy!" I called after her.

"Yes!" she bellowed back, halfway down the block.

The caricaturist

We dropped off the visitor from Germany, and on the drive home Jem called propose drinks in Old Town. Since we got there first, La Divina and I strolled around the smorgasbord of souvenirs shops and came across a youngish artist.

He was sitting on a bench, hunched over, drawing, and he looked quite happy to me.

"Can I ask you something?"

"Would you like a portrait?" he asked, in return.

"No, thank you. I was actually just wondering, are you happy?"

"Depends on the day."

"I see. Thank you."


"I'm doing a poll."

"I see. Well, I don't know if this is good material for your poll, but I don't think anyone is just happy, or unhappy. I don't know if I can answer so directly."

I would have liked to talk more, but it looked like a small crowd was gathering -- potential customers -- so I thanked him and wished him a nice evening.

The contractor

We took a seat at the bar of the Old Town Mexican Cafe, which is known for its margaritas. Next to us was an older man who seemed eager to talk to chat.

First he asked La Divina where she's from and decided she couldn't possibly be from Italy. When she slipped out for a cigarette I took her seat, next to him. He smiled and opened his mouth to find out where I'm from.

"And you?"

"Me? I'm from here. San Diego. And I'm wondering something..." He waited for me to continue. "Would you say you're happy?"

"Happy. What do you mean by happy? Are you sure you want to know if I'm happy, and not content?"

"I'm pretty sure I want to know if you're happy, but if you want to talk about contentment, we can do that. Which do you think describes you better?"

"I need a little more guidance. I can't just answer that."

"On a scale where this is happy, and this is content, where do you fall? Or are you off that scale?"

"What about you?"

"I'd be happy if I got and answer."

"I am happy."

"That's great!"

"Why are you asking me this?"

"I'm a missionary."

"Really. Are you in town working for Fifth Street?" He sounded disgusted. 5th street??

"No! I'm from the Vati-- I'm totally kidding. I'm just doing an informal survey. No religious affiliation. Just pleasure."

We talked more about happiness versus contentment, and he suggested I phrase my question with some context. Are you happy about your life, about the present, about your job, whatever. You can't just ask "Are you happy," since that is a meaningless statement, he said. You need to be happy about something, for a reason. You're not just, simply, happy.

I asked him what he's doing in town, and he replied he's an engineer working a short term job. Visiting from Maryland.

"So is it fun to be here? Kind of like vacation?"

"No! It's really stressful! It's a lot of work, I have a lot of material to absorb in a very short time."

"So then you're not happy?"

"I'm totally stressed out."

The gossip girls

"Excuse me," I asked two dolled up middle aged women who were dishing the dirt about their ex-boyfriends in the bathroom. "Do you mind if I ask you a question? I'm doing a poll."

They waited for me to proceed.

"Are you happy?"

"Yes, I am."

"I'm happy," they both answered.

"Who would say they're not?" the first one mused.

"I've had a mix of answers. Some people do admit they're not," I explained.

"Really? Well. I would never say I'm not happy."

"Hmm, that's good to know. Thank you. You're right, people are probably not always honest with me."

"I would be honest," her friend interjected.

"You would?" the other replied.

"I absolutely would. Until recently, I used to be miserable. I was so so unhappy. And now I'm out of that stage, and I'm very happy."

(Something to do with the ex?)

The cashier

After nursing our margaritas, we headed to Saffron, a Thai place nearby, for some shrimp salad rolls.

"Are you happy?" I asked the cashier. "I'm doing an informal poll."

Her eyes shot up, to the right, pensively. She was about my age.

"I would say that I'm..." she paused, and thought some more... "I'm content, but not happy. I don't know, I mean, contentment describes more than your current state, so in that sense yes, but happiness, I mean, I'm..."

People were behind us, within earshot, and I suddenly felt intrusive. "So you're content, but not happy happy! Got it. Thanks."

"Sure," she smiled.

Over dinner, Jem offered her opinion: "Being happy is a decision you make. It's an attitude, it doesn't just happen."

She related a story about a work retreat she just had. Her department convened at the beach to deal with some sticky management issues. At the end of the day, when everyone was completely bored and disgusted with the whole process, the leader asked them to go around in a circle and talk about how they felt about the day.

People replied cautiously but honestly that they weren't too thrilled to be there. Then, one woman said, "I'm actually thinking about what's on the other side of the horizon [that would be China, fyi]... just how different things are over there, how much people work, for so little, and here we are on the beach, with jobs in this economy, complaining about how bad we have it."

No one said anything, but their eyes lit up with a flashes of recognition, gratitude, guilt.

It kind of reminded me of a proverb: Happiness is wanting what you have, not having what you want.

The tango pro

Our evening continued at Tango Del Rey, my favorite tango venue in San Diego.

After a dance -- or was it before? -- I asked one of the pillars of the tango community what he thinks. Is he happy?

However, by that time, I'd had some wine and swirled around the dance floor a few times. I wasn't concentrating anymore... and I've forgotten what he said! I do remember we talked at some length about tango moves and pretzles and bagels... and I remember he was making some compelling arguments for (or against) happiness... but darn that cabernet and seductive music!

The high school chompers

We rounded out the evening with burgers and shakes at In-n-Out.

It was almost 1 a.m. -- exactly seven hours since this quest began.

We were about to head out the door, when I thought of asking someone in the restaurant for a finale. Everywhere, groups of teenagers were chomping and slurping in fancy clothes. School dance? Or just a Saturday night?

I approached a table with three girls and a guy. They caught my eye because the girls, who walked in 10 minutes earlier, rolled their eyes and mumbled about some people in front of them.

"Can I ask you guys a question?"

"Sure," the guy replied.

"Are you happy?" They stared at me for a second. "I'm doing a poll. Asking around, you know?"

That was enough to mobilize them.

"Yeah." "Yes." "Yeah!" "Yeah. When it's not finals," a girl said.

"Is it finals now?"

"No! When it's not finals, we don't have to study anything," she said, smiling now. "That's how we're here."

"And so you're happy?"

"Eating In-n-Out after midnight. Of course I'm happy," the guy said.

Gained: Seven hours thinking about happiness. No conclusions...
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