The Unhappiness Gap

Karen Maezen Miller looks at why people the world over are finding themselves unhappy, despite being told of more and more ways to find happiness.

Karen Maezen Miller
5 June 2016
Photo by Kayla Nicole.

Happiness is my new pet peeve. Just the idea of it makes me cranky.

We’re steeped in happy talk. Research and theories, projects and workshops, books and blogs on nothing but happiness and how to find it. Happiness is a new industry. But then, every industry is a happiness industry, and all pursuits are pursuits of happiness.

The other day I googled “ways to be happy” and the articles on just the first page of results enumerated 129 ways to be happy. If someone had the free time to look up and do those things you’d think they’d be plenty happy already. Yet even with all the advice, a lot of us say we are less happy.

A couple of years ago researchers made headlines out of what they called a “happiness gap” between men and women. These days, men say they are more happy and women, less so. Social critics on all sides have had a field day with it. Some blame inequity at work and home. Others see the failure of feminism. Reasons abound on either side of the argument, but I don’t put much stock in reasons. I wonder instead if the answer lies in the question itself.

The Second Patriarch said to Bodhidharma, “My mind has no peace! I beg you, master, please pacify my mind!” “Bring your mind here and I will pacify it for you,” replied Bodhidharma. “I have searched my mind and I cannot take hold of it,” said the Second Patriarch. “Now your mind is pacified,” said Bodhidharma.

Given a chance to think about it, I never run out of reasons to be unhappy. I could say that life today is too fast and cruel, too demanding, alienating and unfair. But I spent a summer reading each of the nine books in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series to my daughter, and I had a glimpse of how hard life used to be. No money. No help. No heat. No food. No water. No medicine. No roof. No floors. No windows. Plus flood, fire and pestilence. And these were on the good days!

Or I can recall my grandmother’s life: Up at dawn. Feeding the sheep and the chickens. Making daily bread and breakfast by the heat of the stove. Laundry in the washhouse. Curing meat in the smokehouse. The trek to the outhouse. Sewing, baking, canning, cooking, cleaning and raising five kids in four rooms during the Great Depression.

Was grandma happy? I don’t think anyone asked. I don’t think she asked.

The happiness gap I’m concerned about isn’t the one on a chart or survey. It’s the gap between the question and answer.

Are you happy?

Well, no, not very, come to think of it.

Given an invitation to go back into my ruminating, judging mind, weighing this against that, I’m not surprised that what comes out of it is the idea that my life isn’t good enough.

Ummon addressed the assembly and said, “I am not asking you about the days before the fifteenth of the month. But what about after the fifteenth? Come and give me a word about those days.” And he himself gave the answer for them: “Every day is a good day.”

The telltale line in this koan is “he himself answered for them.” Where do you suppose the monks had gone, lost in thought, deliberating and dumbstruck? Into the unhappiness gap.

Could it be that the secret to happiness is always staring you in the face? Don’t ask me, I’m happy not knowing.

Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller is a priest in the Soto Zen lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and a student of Nyogen Yeo Roshi. In daily life, as mother to daughter Georgia and as a writer, she aims to resolve the enigmatic truth of Maezumi’s teaching, “Your life is your practice.” Miller is the author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, and most recently, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden.