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Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy

By Lisa J. Mogilanski

“The saddest spot in Manhattan.” That’s what The New York Times and Science Magazine called my high school several weeks ago, citing a study that analyzed the emotional content of tweets from across the city. Last week, the study’s authors admitted they’d made a mistake—the flood of negative sentiment was not from Hunter College High School’s “intellectually gifted” students but instead generated by a single user just south of the school. (There’s one disgruntled hot dog vendor I’d put my money on, but I’m not naming any names.)

Most of my former classmates were pleased with this reversal, but for me it raised a number of questions. Do people actually get paid to do studies like this? Is Twitter a thing at Hunter now? And, on a more serious note: Could being the saddest group of people in the most neurotic city on earth be something other than a point of shame?

Ernest Hemingway observed: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” Another great thinker, Lisa Simpson, corroborates: “As intelligence goes up, happiness goes down. See, I made a graph.” (Hemingway may have had a longer resume and might not have been too animated, but Lisa Simpson is the better dresser. And she has a graph.)

Does this relationship between intelligence and misery hold? Statistical evidence suggests otherwise: I.Q. and happiness appear to vary together. Statistics can be powerful, and it is generally irresponsible to ignore them. But when they contradict the conclusion that you’re trying to establish, I recommend pointing out that rogue and lackadaisical econometricians can get up to all sorts of funny business, like forgetting to use heteroskedasticity-robust standard errors (the nerve of some people).

In any case, common sense and observation lend support to the Hemingway-Simpson hypothesis.

As Jonathan Safran Foer notes, it’s much easier to think yourself out of happiness than into it.

Cerebral people do more thinking. They process more data and notice more problems with themselves and the world.

And so, Harvard, I have a question. If I ask how you are, you’ll tell me you’re tired; you’ll tell me you’re stressed. I’m sure it’s true some of the time, but I also suspect that it’s just as close as you think you’re allowed to get to “crummy” or even “depressed.” What really rattles your chain, grinds your gears, makes it so your boat doesn’t float?

Of course, I could be projecting. Maybe I’m the only one who is seriously troubled by the fact that she hasn’t yet figured out the meaning of life, who has periods of all-but-paralyzing self-doubt (which is why parentheticals are great—they let you disclaim and qualify like it’s nobody’s business).

But is it really enough to be pre-law, pre-med, or pre-money? Is it enough to be drunk? Does that “wellness” study break make you feel better, or does it add insult to injury by insinuating that frozen yogurt could assuage your angst, existential or otherwise?

Abraham Lincoln suggested, “Most folks are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” Indeed, there’s a strong argument to be made that we should fight the melancholy, focus on the positive, and be grateful for what we have instead of anxious about what we lack. If this directed thinking works in theory, it should work in practice, in theory.

But for some people—Lincoln, who suffered from clinical depression, probably included—choosing to be happy is easier said than done. At the risk of attracting your pity, disgust, or “fremdschämen” (this word roughly translates to “vicarious embarrassment,” and we should buy it from the Germans before they realize how good it is and raise the price), I have a hard time imagining being content. The show would be over, the curtain would fall, and the backup dancers would all go home.

Satisfaction would be a simple matter if all we had to do to achieve it was to fulfill our basic needs—the world is full of sandwiches, many of them bologna and muenster. But we are people, not planarians. We require more than food and an aqueous environment with the right salinity and pH. Our capacity to reason might make us sad, but it may very well be what makes us human.

I don’t think it’s impossible for some to marshal their intelligence to serve their mental states. Nor do I believe that our SAT scores absolve us of our responsibility to try to be happy, even when this feels like treading water with no land in sight.

But we live in a society that’s perceptibly uncomfortable with the ill-at-ease, even when 50 percent of the population is of below-median happiness. Whether that’s the smarter half, I cannot say. What I can say is that, if you are feeling bad, it seems unfair that you should have to add that to your list of things to feel bad about.

Lisa J. Mogilanski ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Currier House.

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