the trouble with happiness

For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about (and writing and teaching about) happiness and it’s limits…as a concept, goal and demand placed on most of us to smile (or die). Much of this work is connected to my interest in queer ethics and my extreme dislike of self-help literature. One of these days, I will do a larger project that engages critically and creatively with the limits of happiness and its connections to the U.S. self-help industry. Soon, I hope. For now, I wanted to bring it up again because I recently started watching a documentary on instant Netflix: The Happy Movie.

I haven’t watched much of this film yet (maybe 10 minutes?), but I’m already troubled by the filmmaker’s failure to provide a substantial definition of happiness. The film opens with a series of people on the street claiming that they “just want to be happy.” But, what does that mean? Whose definitions of happiness get counted? And whose don’t? How is happiness directed towards particular (and limited) goals, like making lots of money or having a successful career (or, like one person interviewed on the street suggests, achieving “the American Dream”). I’m not against happiness (I like feeling happy), but I’m extremely skeptical of happiness studies and how scientists’ efforts to measure happiness are generating a whole industry of products and experts that can help you “turn happiness into money” through seven easy steps (FYI: Marci Shimoff, a leading happiness expert, did the voice-over for this documentary).

Before writing more about this documentary, I want to watch it. And, when I do, I want to think about it beside a few critical engagements with happiness that I’ve encountered in the past few years:

Sara Ahmed: The Promise of Happiness
Barbara Ehrenreich: Bright Sided
Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

In addition to these critical assessments of being happy and the happiness industry, I’m also thinking about a song that my son recently sang with his fourth grade class: Happiness. It’s from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I remember singing it in fourth grade too (when I lived in Salem, Virginia). I had forgotten about this song until I found out that FWA would be singing it. “Happiness is…2 kinds of ice cream….”

Two New Digital Stories

Here are two new digital stories that I’ve created in the last week: Driving and Gardener. Wow, as I look at those titles, I’m struck by how boring (utilitarian) they sound. Oh well, for some reason (maybe as a form of resistance to my academic training, where elaborate, multi-clause titles are the norm?), I like pithy, almost generic, titles.

Driving is inspired by footage I shot on my recent trip, with FWA, RJP and STA, to Utah and Arizona. It’s primarily a reflection on family vacations and how my understandings (and experiences) of them have changed since I was a kid.

Gardener was shaped around 1992 footage of my mom giving a tour of her amazing Iowa garden. I decided to create it now because I’m fed up with winter (yes, here in Minneapolis it’s still snowing…today…right now…until tomorrow) and needed to think about spring and gardens and things that are warm and green.

I like posting these on my trouble blog because I’m trying to practice my own forms of making and staying in trouble through digital storytelling. What do you think?

Edit and Forget It?

Back in December 2012, I decided to craft a brief digital story using footage of my kids from 2009. I didn’t spend that much time quickly editing it down. Maybe an hour or so? A few things that I cut but that I can still recall (even without reviewing the footage) are:

  1. At the beginning of the footage, my daughter Rosie (who was 3 at the time), was sucking on a toy. At first I couldn’t tell what it was, but when I did, I said “Hey! I thought I hid that a few weeks ago! How did you find it.” Throughout the footage, I repeatedly tell her to stop sucking on it. And she repeatedly refuses to listen.
  2. Before heading outside, the kids stop and put their shoes on. I’m struck by how easily and quickly Rosie is able to put on her own shoes.
  3. At the very end of the footage, while Fletcher (my son, then 6) and Rosie are “riding” the broom, they run into the fence. Rosie falls down.

When I first showed the kids this video, Fletcher was disappointed. What had happened to the part where they ran into the fence and Rosie fell down, he wondered. I was surprised that he could remember this fleeting moment from almost 4 years ago. I told him that I had edited it out. Why? I have a fuzzy memory of deciding to take it out because I wasn’t sure that Rosie falling after hitting the fence would be something that we would want to remember. Plus, I was originally crafting this moment for my love in fragments project. Rosie falling at the end of their cute “ride” around the backyard didn’t seem to fit. 

Last night, Fletcher (who turns 10 next week) and I watched the video for the 10th (20th?) time. And, again he lamented the loss of his favorite part. So, this morning I re-edited the digital story and put back in 6 seconds at the end. Instead of replacing my original story, I added Fletcher’s version as a new Vimeo video with the following description:

An updated version of Fletcher and Rosie singing and saying the word “poop” a lot. In the original version, I cut the ending short, leaving out the part where Fletcher and Rosie run into the fence and fall down. Fletcher was very disappointed. To please him and to ensure that repeated watchings of my story didn’t encourage us to forget Fletcher’s favorite part of that event (even before I showed him the video footage last year, he was talking about that day and remembering running into the fence) I decided to re-edit the video.

Working on this footage again has prompted me to think about the power of editing in shaping which experiences/events in our lives are meaningful and important, and which are rendered invisible. Having spent years reading and engaging with theories on deconstructing texts/narratives to challenge dominant readings and to look for the blind spots and the suppressed/repressed moments that are forgotten because of those dominant readings, this idea of editing as shaping is not new to me. But, it’s good to be reminded of it, especially when I envision one of my roles to be that of family storyteller.

Even as I try to craft stories that avoid becoming master narratives (the Story of an event), I find it difficult to avoid not allowing my particular point of view to dominate. Some may argue that this is just an inevitable part of the process, but I wonder, are there things we can do, strategies we can try, that allow us to move beyond (or move beside?) our limited perspective in our storytelling and account-giving? And, what might this look like in our written or visual accounts?

In the midst of writing this post, I’ve come up with an idea that I’d like to try. I want to give my immediate family (as in, STA, RJP and FWA) a few minutes of video footage to edit. I think it should be footage that hasn’t been edited before. Then, individually each of us will spend a little bit of time editing it down into a 2-3 minute story. The kids can easily use the iMovie app to edit and craft their own stories, which is really cool. Finally, we will screen the videos for each other and discuss them. Will we tell the same stories? Use the same footage? How will our perspectives differ?

How to be…

booksWhen my son was little, his godmother sent him a wonderful book called How to Be by Lisa Brown. In this book, she offers up examples (and illustrations) of how to be a bear (brave), a monkey (curious), a turtle (patient), a snake (charming), a spider (creative), a dog (friendly) and a person (brave, curious, patient, charming, creative, friendly and yourself). I love how this book represents the virtues through the actions and characteristics of animals. And how it doesn’t explicitly gender them.

As of today, I’m embarking on my own creative project of illustrating/exemplifying some virtues that I think are essential for human flourishing. This morning, I crafted my first digital virtue, Beauty/Joy. It’s inspired by footage I took of my daughter at the playground yesterday. I’ve tentatively titled this example “beauty/joy” but, after thinking through it some more, I might hone that title a bit more in the future. For now, here it is: