Easy Chair — From the October 2015 issue

The Mother of All Questions

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Maybe part of the problem is that we have learned to ask the wrong things of ourselves. Our culture is steeped in a kind of pop psychology whose obsessive question is: Are you happy? We ask it so reflexively that it seems natural to wish that a pharmacist with a time machine could deliver a lifetime supply of tranquilizers and antipsychotics to Bloomsbury, so that an incomparable feminist prose stylist could be reoriented to produce litters of Woolf babies.

Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.

We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments; the prison of the imagination traps many in the prison of a life that is correctly aligned with the recipes and yet is entirely miserable.

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