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#MicroblogMondays 38: Stealing Happiness

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I just finished We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler (totally enjoyable read!), and he had an interesting thought on page 268:

We steal the happiness of others in order to be happy ourselves, and when it is stolen from us we voyage desperately to steal it back.  We are pirates.

So often, without meaning to, due to the way life is set up, we do steal happiness from others.  For one person to win, a lot of other people need to lose.  For every actress chosen for a part, she has inadvertently left a lot of unhappy people in her wake.  And when we are coming from behind, the idea of grabbing happiness ourselves (not thinking about the people who will be made unhappy due to our happiness) causes us to strive ahead, reaching for the brass ring, so to speak.

There are obviously situations where more than one person can be happy at the same time.  Where no one loses something due to someone else’s gain, but I think we also know that our own unhappiness feels so much heavier when we compare it to someone’s happiness.  That we tell other people about our happiness without being conscious of the idea that we are making other people jealous.  So there is that, too.

What do you think?  Do you think someone needs to be made unhappy in order for other people to be happy?


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1. My Path To Mommyhood (Jess) 14. Junebug 27. A.
2. Mali (No Kidding) 15. Solo Mama 28. Loribeth (The Road Less Travelled)
3. Cathy 16. Parul 29. torthú il
4. Mali (A Separate Life) 17. deathstar 30. Savannah (Countless Tomorrows)
5. Bohemian NERD 18. Accio Baby! 31. Savannah (Because I Can’t Have Babies)
6. Jessica 19. Shail 32. trendyvulcan
7. No Baby Ruth 20. Cynthia Samuels 33. Laurel Regan @ Alphabet Salad
8. Shilpa 21. Baby Blue Sunday 34. Good Families Do
9. Persnickety 22. illustr8d 35. Vinitha
10. Mary Francis 23. Daryl 36. Just Heather
11. Non Sequitur Chica 24. Cristy
12. Isabelle 25. One and Done?
13. The bespectacled mother 26. Amber


1 Jess { 05.18.15 at 6:44 am }

I don’t think that someone HAS to be made unhappy for someone else to be happy, necessarily… I was made very happy last night by some delicious ice cream, and I don’t think anyone unduly suffered for me to have that kiddie-sized cup of Caramel Caribou, unless you think about the person who wanted it at the end of the night or days from now and can’t have it because I had that serving? This does make me think a LOT about adoption, though. I am keenly aware, more and more so the closer we get to the profiling/matching process, that I will have the best joy of my life because someone else is suffering an intense loss. It’s incredibly emotional to think about. So sorry, from ice cream to grief in a just a few sentences… 🙂

2 Mel { 05.18.15 at 6:51 am }

The adoption example is clear, but maybe the ice cream one is, too? Maybe for you to have ice cream, someone else had to make themselves miserable at a noisy factory. And give up time with their husband in order to make a product that makes other people happy. Or someone had to serve you at the shop who is tired from standing for four hours, but does so to make other people happy.

Working in a factory or an ice cream store doesn’t mean you can’t be happy (work doesn’t equal unhappiness). But not knowing the emotional state of the people who made and served the ice cream, is it possible that for you to be happy, a few people needed to be unhappy?

3 Cathy { 05.18.15 at 7:14 am }

Gosh Mel you are going a bit deep here aren’t you lol
Being passed over for promotion could be an example of someone stealing your happiness – I’m sure nobody in the workplce thinks of it in that way tho. Your discussion with Jess on the ice cream situation opened my eyes to what you were actually alluding to .
I did have someone once tell me i was privileged to be able to travel – she had never been able to afford it and felt those who could should donate to a charity instead! Strange lady

4 Valery { 05.18.15 at 7:17 am }

When you phrase it like this it suddenly makes a lot more sense to buy fair trade products. My favourite chocolate brand aims to avoid child labour in the production chain. (although you never know, maybe the kids hate going to school instead?)
But in the karma sense? I prefer to think that happiness creates happiness, and that sharing sadness reduces sadness.

5 Mali { 05.18.15 at 7:18 am }

No, I don’t really agree with that. Take infertility, IVF and pregnancy. I don’t need to be unhappy for someone else to get pregnant. Their pregnancy doesn’t require me to be unhappy. Yes, sometimes it might be true, but to see it as a blanket rule is a bit sad really. It seems bitter and begrudging.

6 No Baby Ruth { 05.18.15 at 8:01 am }

Perhaps in certain competition-based things, someone must be left unhappy, but I don’t think that’s the daily norm. I am happy when dinner time goes smoothly and I guarantee nobody is unhappy because of that! I am happy to see my kids after school and I doubt even their most loving teachers are sad to see them go. So, no, I don’t really agree at all with that statement.

I do like very much what Valery said, “happiness creates happiness, and that sharing sadness reduces sadness.”

7 Linda { 05.18.15 at 8:29 am }

Oh geez, you’ve made me think far too deeply on too few hours of sleep. (Thanks, insomnia.)
My first coherent reaction was about the happiness my dog Sami brings to my life. But, because she was a rescue dog, I know there are people, perhaps even children, who had to, surely sadly, give her away. I hope they know that she is happy and makes people happy.

8 Persnickety { 05.18.15 at 8:55 am }

There are times when someone has to be unhappy to bring about the happiness of someone else, but most of the time happiness is not a zero sum game.
In terms of winning and losing, I played soccer most of my childhood and teenage years, and started again in my 20s. My childhood and teen years, with one exception, were teams that won almost all of the time. We placed first or second in the league every year. Then I moved to Australia (where soccer for girls had lagged), the team I played with lost every game. Sometimes badly. It was a surprise, but so was the fact I was not overly upset by the constant losses. When you win most of the games, that one loss can be tough, but when you lose most of the time, you come to appreciate the game itself, the time on the field and playing with friends. That is the happiness, not the winning, and that happiness is not stolen by the winning team.

9 Ana { 05.18.15 at 10:23 am }

Some great examples upthread, but I also disagree and share the sentiment that happiness creates more happiness (and yes, unhappiness is similarly contagious). Recent things that made me happy that I’m pretty sure did not steal anyone else’s happiness: a stress-free morning with my kids, killing a really challenging workout, playing with my dog, a conversation with my husband, thinking about our upcoming beach trip, getting something done that I’d been procrastinating. Some other things that made me happy that may have made OTHERS happy: giving away some no-longer-needed items, having lunch with a friend, correctly diagnosing & treating a patient with a baffling illness.

10 nonsequiturchica { 05.18.15 at 10:30 am }

I don’t think that with everything someone else has to be unhappy to make you happy. But this is quite a deep topic for a Monday morning. I like the examples Ana gave in her comment.

11 Northern Star { 05.18.15 at 10:32 am }

I agree with the adoption example…. But over time I hope that this is becoming a happy situation all around…. And maybe it always was and I just focused too much on my own guilt over being happy?

12 Mel { 05.18.15 at 10:37 am }

I don’t think someone else’s sadness means that the happiness isn’t real. I think the happiness is real for one person, and the sadness is real for the other.

But I mean, take any device we use, car we drive, food we eat — they are all made by people who perhaps don’t feel happy making the item as we do using/consuming the item. It’s not that we made them unhappy, but our happiness stems from someone else’s unhappiness.

I also think that personality comes into play. I’m not a competitive person, so I really don’t care if I win or lose. My happiness isn’t tied to the act. But if I was a competitive person and I did feel happiness over a win, that would mean, since there is a winner and a loser, that my happiness caused the sadness of another competitive person.

I think I’m looking at the statement unattached to specific people or personalities and more the application of it in theory across the majority of people/personalities.

13 the bespectacled mother { 05.18.15 at 11:07 am }

This topic is very subjective and there are intelligent points raised in the above comments. I would not have been able to search for so many effective examples. For me every person is capable and responsible for creating his own happiness and unhappiness irrespective of the circumstances they are in.

14 nicoleandmaggie { 05.18.15 at 11:52 am }

In the words of Callahan’s Saloon (Spider Robinson)… “shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased.”

15 nicoleandmaggie { 05.18.15 at 12:01 pm }

” take any device we use, car we drive, food we eat — they are all made by people who perhaps don’t feel happy making the item as we do using/consuming the item.”

Only if they were made under unfair labor conditions. Plenty of people get pride and feelings of accomplishment out of creation. There’s happiness in a decent paycheck as well. Auto workers were pretty happy back in Detroit’s hey-day.

16 Mel { 05.18.15 at 12:05 pm }

How do we know the emotional state of the worker? I mean, can we really say that the auto workers were happy? And happiness is a temporary state: surely people aren’t happy all the time?

I don’t think work = unhappiness as I said above, but there are plenty of things that bring me happiness that came from someone else’s unhappiness. I just had a nice early lunch and I enjoyed all the ingredients in my salad, but it’s possible that at least some of the people who provided all those ingredients were miserable in the growing/creation process. And then their unhappiness (picking lettuce) becomes my happiness (eating lettuce).

17 Working mom of 2 { 05.18.15 at 12:38 pm }

Definitely the case with jobs, sports (which I used to compete in), and often school (such as law school where you are usually graded on a curve). Oh yes. Whenever there is a limited number of spots, yes. Sure you can pretend to be happy with the “experience” of competitive sports and sing kumbaya but at some point (eg high level) why else compete? You don’t practice long hours and sacrifice etc to get 4th or not make the finals etc. I’m not talking about young children where the “experience” is important.

18 illustr8d { 05.18.15 at 1:28 pm }

Extreme financial inequality creates great unhappiness in any country. A reason why the US isn’t in the top 10 for happy countries any longer, despite our free-flowing water availability and flush toilets. When my son was young, I did team games rather than competitive ones for birthday parties, that were based on a treasure hunt and everyone working together to find the next clue and prizes because I wanted everyone to have fun and not be dealing with competition at something that was supposed to be fun. On the other hand, we can make choices that make us unhappy. So I think it’s a mix.

19 Cynthia Samuels { 05.18.15 at 1:55 pm }

Off topic as usual, I’ve posted about Mad Men; couldn’t help it. Re Handler: I don’t think I like this quote at all. It has been my experience that the best happiness comes when sharing, not stealing, the joy of those we love. Seeing loved ones – or just plain nice people – happy is a wonderuful thing and at least should be an alternative consideration.

20 illustr8d { 05.18.15 at 2:50 pm }

Cynthia S.: You and I are of one mind. It never bothers me to see someone else happy or having something good happen to them. It makes me feel like a tiny drop of good has entered the stream of the world, to join other drops of good, and make the world better.

21 Alexicographer { 05.18.15 at 3:29 pm }

Eh. So I shouldn’t read your books, or your blog, because you had to work to produce them, making you unhappy? I’m not buying it ;), and ditto that autoworkers (etc.) are made unhappy by the work they do. My off-the-cuff (not entirely, pretty much my DH’s entire family is blue collar, so I do hear a fair amount on this topic at family get togethers) guess is, some yes, some no. And, should we care about who’s in which group and why? Absolutely, and certainly about how working conditions, wages, etc., affect such things (and can be improved).

22 Cristy { 05.18.15 at 3:35 pm }

Boy, I’ve needed to think about this one. I think you’re comment above touches on this, but I think it really is person dependent. Some people can find happiness in some trying moments where others rely on others’ unhappiness to be happy. In general, we are so focused on “win-lose” that I think our happiness is dependent on others’ unhappiness to some degree.

Interesting discussion Mel!

23 Amber { 05.18.15 at 4:10 pm }

Being someone that has been involved in sports my entire life, and plans to continue by introducing my kids to sports, I get this! I have had a very successful coaching career, but with that has come some disappointing losses over the years. In the moment, those losses were very heartbreaking, but without it meaning so much, it wouldn’t make the wins quite so rewarding either. I’ve never really thought about it so deeply before. Some people can lose and be unhappy in the moment, but ultimately appreciate the competition, which makes them happy. On the other hand, some people are devastated by losing and take it way too seriously.

24 Jess { 05.18.15 at 4:41 pm }

Oh my gosh, you are so right. Assuming it was a factory, yes, my ice cream did make people unhappy in some way! And the cow probably wasn’t so thrilled about the milking, or maybe it was? I think you can find unhappiness in anything, somewhere down the road, but I’d like to think there are activities out there that are just pure happiness. Like maybe homemade ice cream I made myself. 🙂

25 torthuil { 05.18.15 at 5:54 pm }

Interesting question. I believe I dealt with a real-life example of this in the months before I was married. I had a friend whom I’d been close to for some years (in hindsight we were already drifting apart however). In the months leading up to my wedding she was upset by the fact I was getting married and she was going to lose the some of the intimacy we’d had as friends. Her life was not going very well at that point: difficulty with career, relationships, money, body image, friends: everything was a challenge. And she wasn’t dealing with it well. Every conversation we had seemed to lead to her talking about how much she hated herself and her life, how much easier everything was for me, and how we were no longer going to be such good friends because I was getting married and moving on with my life and she wasn’t. Of course it became a self-fulfilling prophecy! It did seem at times like my happiness was taking something away from my friend. It wouldn’t have mattered nearly as much if her life had been more fulfilled, but it wasn’t. She wasn’t a horrible person either: she was just someone who had good intentions but struggled, a lot.

26 nicoleandmaggie { 05.18.15 at 5:56 pm }

People are supposed to be compensated for their unhappiness (aka disutility) and their productivity. We pay more for unpleasant or dangerous jobs (that’s called “compensating differentials”). (Skill needed is a reason that some unpleasant jobs don’t pay much– many unpleasant jobs don’t require high school education or more, but conditional on the same effort/skill level, the unpleasant or dangerous jobs pay more.) If that weren’t the case, then workers would work at more pleasant jobs or not work at all (opportunity costs).

In cases where workers are not compensated appropriately because, for example, the workers are exploited (slave labor etc.), then the right thing to do is to shine a light on those industries and have targeted boycotts.

27 gwinne { 05.18.15 at 9:34 pm }

Buying something rarely makes me happy.

Like Ana, I can think mostly of experiences shared: playing with my kids at the park, reading a book, baking banana bread.

I suppose you could break that down into miniscule enough components that somewhere someone was negatively affected, but in such an indirect way I’m not sure what the point really is.

And even in the most extreme example I can think of–using donor eggs–I don’t think that situation made the donor unhappy. She made a choice. She was compensated. And in her own descsription saw that act as an opportunity and gift.

I do appreciate thinking about the ways that we’re social creatures, and the way that our behaviors can affect others, though.

28 Laurel Regan { 05.18.15 at 9:45 pm }

I see what you’re saying… and I see how personal integrity and wise choices come into play. But I also like to think that intentions matter, and that it all balances out somehow. At least I hope so. 🙂

29 Justine { 05.18.15 at 10:46 pm }

I have some very unhappy students right now, and the only people who have made them unhappy are themselves. Poor choices.

On the other hand, I get pissed as all hell and unhappy when S. gets to go run and I feel like I’m stuck doing housework. So there’s that. 😉

30 Vinitha { 05.19.15 at 3:27 am }

I think we can be truly happy for someone else’ happiness only when we are already happy with own situation. Otherwise how much ever happy we are for others, there will be a tinge of jealousy, like I felt couple of days ago when I saw status update of my friend enjoying mother’s day in solitude (a vacation from kids and husband) with books to read and write, wine to drink and visiting a serene place!

31 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.19.15 at 11:11 am }

Nope. Nope. Nope. “Love is not a pie” and I don’t believe happiness is, either. I also like Lincoln’s “People are about as happy as they decide to be.”

I don’t see the state of being happy as a tug-of-war rope. I see it as a choice we can make.

There is also the time factor. Sure, someone may have good news now and someone else has bad news (maybe they are even connected). But things are always in flux, and if we factor in time — a long view — people get chances to be happy. Will they take them?

Good news, bad news, who knows? (http://lavenderluz.com/2012/08/new-york-times-adoption-magical-thinking.html)

The thought of a world with finite happiness makes me not happy.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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