Some Things That Are Supposed to Make Us Happy, But Don’t (And Vice Versa)

Here’s my personal list of things that are over-rated.  And, of under-rated things that aren’t supposed to make me happy, but do.

What’s on your list?


I know that some people dream of their loved one throwing them a surprise party, but it seems to me like the social version of a practical joke, or that nightmare where you show up in a clown’s costume to an important business meeting. Even the moderately vain among us might like to prepare to be the guest of honor at a party, by having our hair done, or dressing nicely. And we might want to psych ourselves up for it, and review our guest list, to avoid potentially awkward situations and social dynamics.

I don’t want to have people jumping out of my (disheveled) closets as I return from the bank in jogging shorts with my hair tied back with a rubber band.


This holiday is sentimentally over-leveraged to the hilt. We’re compelled to stay up past midnight, which leads to “drinking malfunctions,” and there are scores of songs that talk up New Year’s Eve as a barometer of your love life. Those without partners are glumly reminded of their unpartnered status; those with partners, but who aren’t married, might secretly hope for a proposal at midnight, but it doesn’t happen; those who are partnered, or married, just want to go the hell to bed at a reasonable hour. But good luck finding a cab.


It’s a visual cliché of luxury. The 1% is always taking bubbles baths, it seems. But it gets boring so fast, the tub is uncomfortable, and it’s hard to get the bubbles and bath salts off of your skin. Often, they produce skin irritation and itchiness. I know I’m supposed to be wallowing indulgently  and saying, “ahhhhhhh,” but, privately, I’m eager to have it done with and take a proper shower.


New things are supposed to be the capstone of consumer culture. You work so hard to get the new car, the sofa, the technology. The problem is, until the hallowed new thing becomes a comfortable old thing, I worry about it. Every scratch hurts. The new car might get dinged. The new dress gets stained. It’s rather exhausting, actually, to be such a vigilant sentry of the new thing’s… newness.


These are vibrant celebrations of idiosyncratic urban neighborhoods. What a load of hooey. Baltimore is so jam-packed with Summer Festivals that you couldn’t attend all of them if you wanted to, but why would you want to do that. You’ll end up shuffling along, sweating, on the hot asphalt of a random street on a humid day with thousands of other fun-seeking hopefuls, looking at the same food vendors and stands selling cheap but ephemerally alluring sundresses that will unravel en route from booth to home. And all just to prove to yourself and others that you HEART city life! The festival has an aimless, meandering, post-apocalyptic mood: lots of strangers with no reason to be there, wandering the streets, dazed, while gnawing on a turkey leg cooked over an open fire.


Lots of razzle dazzle for a little buzz.


This quaint anachronism used to include the chance for an endearing gem. Now it’s catalogs and bills. The thrill is gone.


It’s not like From Here to Eternity’s famous beach frolic, is it? Take care not to walk into the fishing lines, or on the washed-up hypodermic needles, fish heads, seaweed and miscellaneous aquatic carcasses, and don’t get clobbered repeatedly by the wake. Hopefully, none of your cuts will sting as they get pelted by the ocean spray. And you get to choose between burning your feet on the dry, sun-baked sand, or slogging through the muddy but cooler wet sand.


Any putatively happy -making opportunity that comes with a WARNING sign that has to be continued on a second panel, and over a dozen red circles with lines through them of things you CANNOT do while relaxing isn’t all that relaxing. Are you heart-attack prone? There’s only one way to find out. Go steam yourself in a sauna while resting your head on a hot lava rock.


Under-Rated Things that Aren’t Supposed to Make Me Happy—But Do



This summer, for the first time, I really “got” gardening. I’m not good at it, but weeding and clearing up small patches of land finally elicits some soothing, therapeutic pleasure, and my mind focuses more clearly while I’m doing this work.


Assuming that everyone’s reasonably comfortable and their health isn’t threatened, the power outage has some charm. It’s a chance for some indoor camping and a mandatory detoxification from the Click-itis affliction of our times.


I love work—but I’m fortunate not to have to stand on my feet, deal with customer service phone lines, or do hard manual labor. It’s thrilling to get totally absorbed and in the flow, and not even to notice the time.


These are the movies that my son might “drag” me to, but, come on, secretly, they’re kind of fun, aren’t they, in the afternoon, on a really hot summer day, in the cool, dark air-conditioned theater with your buttered popcorn?


The dread of moving probably keeps many a relationship together. But when I used to move frequently, the box-packing ritual, while arduous, was like a casual stroll through the archive of my life, and the act of organizing things in boxes and even shedding and pruning things had a cathartic effect, decanting the future from the past.


You should have been home hours ago… and you’re tired, but there is a hypnotic, surreal lure to being on the road late at night. 

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