While watching Bo Burnham’s comedy special, Make Happy, you first encounter the question: “Are you happy?” Amidst the melancholy of his piano Bo asks you “on a scale from one to zero, are you happy?” You never really thought about it. Am I happy? Do I need to know now? But because you’re in a room with your three best friends, you aren’t willing to answer Bo. His question requires too much honesty. You let the question slither and weave through your mind, until finally it finds its place in your mental filing cabinet marked: POTENTIALLY SELF DESTRUCTIVE QUESTIONS.
A few months later, you see the same video of Bo on YouTube. You watch it alone. I’m not happy. I’m unhappy. Why does this hurt so much to admit? “So if you know or ever knew how to be happy, on a scale from one to two now, are you happy? You’re everything you hated, are you happy?” You don’t know how to be happy. Your mom asks you to smile for a picture and you want to cry. You find the falseness of your smile abhorrent. In your mind, you secretly hope that as soon as the camera’s flash goes off you’ll explode into a frenzy of flesh and gore so that everyone will finally see everything you’re holding in.
You have dreams of honesty. In your dreams you scream into your parent’s faces the thoughts you actually think. But still, you wake up a liar. You hate yourself for hiding the real you, the unfinished shitty first draft. Your dishonesty cripples your happiness. How could you ever feel happy when you can’t be honest about how you feel with anyone in your life? You perform your life just like Bo performs in his shows. Your only option is to pretend to know what happiness means.
* * *
“Hey, Connor. So this girl downstairs says that she’ll do stuff with you, but she won’t have sex with you. Something about staying pure and shit, I don’t know. But yeah, she saw you walk in and she’s into you.” I look up and see Kyle closing the door behind him. Kyle is the reason why I’m here, in this room, mixing Tanqueray and sparkling lemonade: I’m at his girlfriend’s college party. His words whisk through the air and bump into my face that’s focused on pouring the perfect mixture of gin and lemonade. I look up at his grin, then at Jake’s raised eyebrows. I can tell my friends are excited for me, but their reactions are not my own.
“Uh, alright. Probably not gonna do anything with her, but thanks.” In my chest, my heart begins to run. I don’t even know who she is. Why does she want to do stuff with me? All of a sudden I could feel my night adopt a different tone. Maybe she is pretty, or nice, or cool, but I don’t know her. I don’t want to feel obligated to do anything this stranger, but at the same time, I don’t want her to feel badly or feel rejected. I don’t want this pressure on me when all I want to do is get drunk and listen to dope-ass music with my friends. I wrap my fingers tight around my water bottle filled with gin, like I’m begging it for help.
By the time I hop back outside of my mind, Kyle’s leading us downstairs, where everybody else is already drinking and having fun. A girl walks up to us with jello shots and offers one to each of us, which we take and slurp down quickly, realizing we’re still too sober to “party” effectively. In the center of the party, between the kitchen and living room, there’s a pong table. One team is pulling down their pants because they shot their ball into the wrong cup. I can never remember which cup means what, though.
The living room is lit exclusively by a multi-color light bulb, flickering in and out of reds, blues, greens, and yellows. In the mix of whirling colors, there’s a cluster of girls dancing to the music. My eyes strain to adjust to the darkness that’s juxtaposed with the flashing lights, so I aim my eyes at the carpet and find my way to the couch with Jake.
“We gotta get on that aux,” I say to Jake, thinking I may have found a way to make this party fun for us, “Your phone have battery? Pull up Spotify, we can make a playlist.”
“Whaddya we got here? Uh, we gotta throw in some Childish — 3005, Bonfire. Um, Kendrick — King Kunta. I’d love to rap fast so I’m down for Rap God, if you are. Alright, cool. Do we want more Eminem? Okay, how ‘bout Without Me, Shake That. Alright that’s good. Throw in Broccoli, too. It’s a crowd pleaser. There. Yeah, alright.”
“So who’s on the aux?” Jake asks me, as two girls walk in our direction. One of them has dirty blonde hair, blue eyes, and light skin. The other is very tall. The blonde girl approaches us while her tall friend stands behind her.
“Hey, Sam told me you guys wanted to take over. I’m Jessica, by the way. What are your guys’ names?”
“And I’m Connor.”
“Cool, well it’s nice to meet you guys and here you go.” Jessica lets us take over the music and then grabs her friend by the hand, leading her to what apparently is the dance floor. As she leaves us, I gain the suspicion that she’s the one that wants to “do things” with me. I don’t often have beautiful women approaching me at parties. Jessica seems nice even, though, and she is very pretty. Maybe this is just luck.
A few feet in front of Jake and I on the couch, Jessica and her friend start to dance with each other. Jessica starts to grind on her friend while their hands begin to trace each other’s bodies. Their ecstasy is palpable.
In North India, during the British East India Company rule, there were dancers known as Nautch girls. They were known to entrance, tempt, and disarm voyeuristic men. I hope Jessica isn’t like those girls. I don’t want to be tempted, I want to be accepted. I take my eyes off of them, embarrassed that I might be staring, and glance at Jake.
“This is for us, isn’t it?” I ask him.
“This is definitely for us.” Jake’s confirmation only worries me. Jessica is attractive and she seems nice, but I don’t want to be interested in someone simply because they exude sensuality.
Shut the fuck up, I command my brain, before I wring the rest of the gin from my water bottle and leave for a refill. With each drink, my mind is less and less concerned about the ethics of the Jessica situation. Shut the fuck up is now why the fuck not? Although, I have to admit I’m not going to pursue the whole “doing things” with her. Not that I don’t want to, but I just feel like I can’t. I’ll fuck it up somehow.
After my refill, I find myself with Kyle by the pong table, watching one team full of drunken idiots yell at the other team full of drunken idiots. I notice how much they look like they belong here, in this setting. I look down at myself and think about how much I’ve had to drink tonight just to pretend like I can fit in. As I’m lost in my labyrinth of self loathing, Jake grabs me by my shoulder.
“Jessica’s really into you, man. I just talked to her about it. You should just go make out with her.” I chuckle a little, wishing I could say to Jake that I’m not him and that nothing is ever that easy for me.
“Eh, that’s alright. I think I’m good,” is all I can say instead. Quickly, though, another ambassador of Jessica’s arrives after Jake, one I have never met.
“Bro, that girl over there is gonna come over here and kiss you. She likes you and she knows you’re not gonna kiss her.” If I was lucid I’d be angry. I can feel my anger poke me, but I’m too drunk to care. I immediately think that this “bro” is trying to insert himself into my situation with Jessica because he hopes that I won’t want any part of her and then he’ll be the one she “does things” with instead. My insecurities are trying to yell louder than my intoxication. To silence them, I laugh in his face.
“What the fuck are you talking about? That’s not gonna happen, man.” He shrugs at me, dismissing my protest, then passes by and moves into the kitchen. I turn my head away from him, still with a half smile sprawled on my face, and see another person approaching me. Before I can realize it isn’t another ambassador, and is instead Jessica herself, I feel her hands grip my shoulders. She pulls me to her, like she’s holding the joystick for those Claw games at arcades; I’m the claw and she’s nearly earned her prize. She holds me by the shoulders, leans in, and kisses me. I stare at her eyelashes before understanding that my eyes too are supposed to be closed. I close them shut and place my hands lightly on her hips. I’m afraid to fully embrace her, worried that I’ll ruin this moment, but I ignore my hesitant hands and focus on her lips conjoining with mine. Then, I just let go.
“You did good!” Jessica says, happy and fulfilled. She takes her smile back with her, back amongst her friends, leaving me to look to Jake whose eyes are wide with excitement.
“Holy shit, dude! She just walked right up to you!” Jake says, fighting off his intoxication. I say some bullshit response back to him, one that doesn’t express how I truly feel. My heart is running again, but this time I don’t feel like I’m losing my breath, I feel vital. I feel wanted, adequate, ideal. I feel happy.
I can’t imagine a first kiss being any better.
After a week, I can. The kiss with Jessica was nice, but soon I realize my first kiss wasn’t what I’ve been chasing. I want to be wanted, desired. Love would make me happy. I got Jessica’s number that night, and tried to stay in contact with her, but she wasn’t interested in me as a human being. She just wanted a suitable candidate for a drunken kiss. I know now that there’s no tomorrow for us, no future, no real connection aside from the one I felt between our lips. I feel bitter, betrayed, used.
After a week, she’ll no longer answer me. She probably wishes I’d just stop trying to contact her. I was never enough, not for her. I tried to tell you. Why did you risk feeling like this? My only answer to my brain’s berating is a fist thrown through my closet door. Unfortunately, my happiness isn’t solely hindered by my dishonesty. My anger also constricts my happiness until it’s lifeless. Blood leaks from my knuckles, but all I can hear now is my pulse. I feel the peace of pain consume me, forgetting Jessica and placing my attention on cleaning my bloody hand before it drips on my clothes or my carpet. My brain is gagged by the sting of hydrogen peroxide, my dreams of happiness silenced by the orange-red liquid twirling down the drain.
* * *
You don’t understand love. You look at your parents who’ve managed to stay married for a little over 28 years, yet you don’t understand why or how. You see tiny moments where they misunderstand each other. She complains about something, he acknowledges her complaint, she implies he’s capable of fixing the problem, he just wants to eat and go to sleep after working his ten hour day. With X-Ray vision, you see them suffocate their annoyances with one another, deep down, right behind the spleen. The next morning he leaves a note for her. Not an apology, but instead a little stick-man cartoon with his arms stretched wide: I love you thiiiiiiis much. Have a good Monday! 28 years. Apparently this is what’s called love.
You never want to feel that trapped within your anger. Within a passive-aggressive rage casting blights on every simple interaction between you and your (hypothetical) significant other. Love has its way of being infectious, yet you never wanted to see it as a disease. You don’t understand love. You look into the faces of your peers and wonder if you could ever love them, if you could love any of them. Then you snap your eyes down to your shoes and watch them carry you over the cold concrete. Either you’d love them or they’d love you, but you’d never love each other. Your mind plays it out: the awkward getting to know each other, the eventual vulnerability, then the repercussions of squandered intimacy. You wouldn’t be able to be honest, then you’d feel misunderstood. This realization takes you back to the cave behind your eyes so that you can’t do any damage to anyone but yourself.
You look at the empty desk next to you in class and wonder why you’re always alone. What do you do that makes people stay away? Is it your pensive gaze? The way your eyebrows naturally converge in anger? You say that you like to be alone, that you need it, but that’s quite the deflection. People just don’t like you, they never have. You say you don’t like them either, like a retort from a ten-year-old with hurt feelings. The funny thing is, people buy your excuses, but your isolation is hardly optional. You can’t be honest and therefore can’t act genuine. You repulse.
You don’t understand love and you are unhappy.
* * *
I have three friends that I consider to be my best friends. There are others, but I simply don’t get to see them enough anymore since we all went off to college. I grew up with Kyle, Jake, and Jameson in Geneseo, NY. Jake is a year older than the rest of us, but that’s never really mattered. I’ve been friends with Kyle since preschool, Jake since fourth grade, and Jameson since ninth grade. There’s been different bonds between us all. Jake, Jameson, and I all played baseball together, losing in the State’s Finals twice (a feat never accomplished by a Geneseo team before us). For awhile, we all played video games together, gathering PlayStation after PlayStation to LAN at Kyle’s house. Kyle, Jake, and I still play video games together, but mostly online so that we can use the party chat to keep up with each other’s lives, while we’re away at school.
When we do make the trip to Alfred State to see Jake, or RIT to see Jameson, usually we go to drink. These are the rare moments when I get to feel distracted. Alcohol has never made me happy, but it allows me to throw up a sheet metal barrier between my brain and my feelings. My abuser leaves for a night and all that matters is my music, my friends, and my liberation. I don’t like its taste, or its smell, or how I feel the morning after I drink it, but I appreciate alcohol because it’s my emancipator. The next morning I know I’ll be back under my brain’s control, but sometimes I just need one night with my friends where I can feel free.
“Oh God,” Kyle says, as Jake takes the bottle of Jagermeister out of the mini fridge and places it on the desk next to our complementary plastic cups.
“It’s actually not that bad. Like, it looks bad, I know, but it just kind of tastes weird. It doesn’t really taste like other liquors.” I try to comfort Kyle. Jamo (short for Jameson, like the whiskey) starts to open the miniature Coca-Cola bottles we bought to mix with our Jager.
“I don’t believe you.” Kyle doesn’t like liquor of any kind and is prone to vomiting whenever he tries to take shots.
“Eh, it’ll be fiiiiiiine,” I reassure him, “just one shot.” When we try to clink our cups together and say cheers, the plastic hardly makes a sound.
“Oh I lied! It’s so much worse than I remember. Never again.” I say, immediately regretting the choice of liquor Jake and I had made for our trip to Long Island, to see a Watsky concert. Kyle feels similarly, so he calls it quits after the first shot.
“Alright, I’ll do one more,” I say while Jamo and Jake begin to pour the next round. After the second shot I join Kyle on the sidelines, seeing as it’s only ten AM. Jake and Jameson continue to take shots, Jamo ultimately drinking the most.
We call an Uber to take us to the venue. While we sit in the lobby I can start to feel the shots of Jager rush to my head, freeing me slightly from my back talking brain. After a fifteen minute ride, we arrive at a vast parking lot empty of cars but not of human beings. I said earlier that we’re going to a Watsky concert, but it’s actually the Vans Warped Tour, which features dozens of bands. Watsky is just one of the featured artists, but he’s the only one we care about.
A string of people serpentines through the empty spaces of parallel lines. We become a part of the string and are immediately approached by indie bands (not included in the actual tour) asking if we want their CDs; some for free, some for a price. We just try to avoid them as much as possible.
“Man, I’m sober as shit. I did not take enough shots. Ahh, why’d we have to pick Jager?” I say as the July sun starts to stare at us through the tops of trees.
“They’ve got to sell alcohol here somewhere, right?” Jake says.
“Oh for sure. Well I’ve gotta piss, so how about you two stay in line and me and Jake will go look for a bathroom/alcohol?” I say, trying to be an asshole.
“Oh thanks…” Kyle says as Jake and I head on our quest. After a brief search, Jake and I find a concession stand and a bathroom. Jake goes to the register alone, because I’m still only twenty, and orders two beers. Then we speed walk back to Kyle and Jamo to make sure they haven’t been let into the concert without us.
“Here, you and Kyle can have these two while me and Jamo go back and get two more,” Jake says to us. Kyle and I both begin taking big gulp from the cups of Bud Light, as an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. Well, it’s actually three birds. One, we want the beer to intoxicate us as much as one beer possibly can. Two, we’re underage and security guards/police officers are constantly roaming around the seemingly infinite line. Three, the sun has caught us in it’s spotlight and the cold beer actually tastes really refreshing. We toss the cups in the trash long before Jake and Jamo return with their own cups. Two hours later, we’re let into the concert.
The sun spits its heat on us as we worm through the crowd towards Watsky’s stage. We manage to get pretty close to the all black platform, probably fifty feet away or so. We stand in our places for an hour before people start to pop up behind the stage. First it’s his drummer, then the guitarist and bassist, then his back-up singer, then finally I see a brown hat coming up the stairs to the stage. It’s him. I can’t really believe that it’s him. I think this must be what it’s like when you die and meet God. It’s hard to believe that he’s there even though you were told all your life that this moment was coming. With Watsky, though, I’m alive, and so is he, and so are my friends next to me. This is one of those transcendent moments that exists not on Earth, but in one’s proverbial “happy place” — where your brain can’t tell you that you’re going to ruin the moment, or that you don’t deserve such a perfect moment.
Despite my brief escape, the heat reminds me where I am. I’m bumping elbows with dozens of other people dripping with sweat. I’ve never sweat this much in my life. I feel the droplets sprinting down my legs, playing a game of Plinko with my leg hairs. My water bottle is nearly empty, yet the show is about to begin. I have to sweat this one out, dehydration be damned.
Watsky performs “Moral of the Story,” “Seizure Boy,” “Sloppy Seconds,” “Tiny Glowing Screens, Pt. 3,” and “Whoa Whoa Whoa,” a set that lasts only about a mere thirty minutes. Which means that the amount of time we spent in the car, driving to Long Island to see Watsky (six hours and thirty minutes), was about thirteen times longer than the amount of time we actually got to see him perform. By the end of his set, I knew the drive was worth every minute. After his last song, he tells the crowd he’ll be signing autographs and taking pictures at his tent for about an hour. We dart over to get in line.
My heart begins to run. I look at the small man in his army-green Supra shoes, brown khaki pants, plain grey t-shirt, and brown hat while wondering how he’s manufactured a moment that’s allowed me to feel this happy. I’m ripped outside of my mind as soon as we reach the front the line. I bought his book, How to Ruin Everything, for him to sign, but I forgot my copy at home. Luckily, we found a Barnes and Nobles the day before, right near our hotel, so I bought another copy. Say something, my brain whispers.
“Do you think you could sign my book?” I ask as he finishes signing Jake and Kyle’s CDs first.
“Of course!” He says back pleasantly.
“Thanks. Yeah, this is actually my second copy now. I forgot my original one at home so I had to pick up another,” I manage to utter, trying to think of anything to say in the presence of one of my idols.
“Well, thanks for picking this up. I really appreciate it.” We line up for a picture and I’m able to finally smile honestly. I feel like I’m very visibly shaking from being both nervous and excited, but nobody seems to notice. There is no rage. There is no doubt. There’s just Kyle, Jake, Jamo, and Watsky. There’s a single, glittery speck of happiness shimmering in defiance amongst the black sea in my psyche.
After a week or so, I come down. The trip to Long Island ends and my normal life resumes. I fall victim to my brain once again: Why didn’t you tell him how much his words have meant? I guess I couldn’t think that fast. I was too caught up in the moment. You didn’t even thank him for his music. I know, I know. Well you’ll never get another chance, you fucked it all up. I know, I know.
* * *
You need to know how it all works, the nature of happiness. You read online about a “Hedonic Treadmill” theory. It states “that regardless of what happens to someone, their level of happiness will return to their baseline after the event.” So the aftermath of Watsky, is that your baseline? Or is that the low to the Watsky high? Highs and lows. You sound manic. Are you depressed, is that all this is? Could a couple of pills just poof these questions away? You feel like your life is in denouement and your chance at happiness has already passed. Some misstep along your path guided you astray, and denied you of your life’s greatest climax.
Yet you’ve felt happiness before and you know you’re capable of feeling it. Often this thought only adds to your pain, though. To know that you could be happy, to know that some source is out there waiting for you to mine it, only makes you feel more trapped and stagnant.
You go to school and never miss a class. You do hours of work and get good grades, but never feel like it’s worth it. You read what other people write, compare it to your own writing, and hate yourself for not being better. Your self hatred fuels your rage. You’re violent and you hide it from everyone. Your right fist hides tiny scars from the walls and doors you’ve punched. You put up posters so that your family and friends don’t see the holes or through the facade. You’re dishonesty, your anger, your self hatred, your failure to understand love, it all adds up to unhappiness. On a scale from one to zero…well, you get the picture.
* * *
There are too many variables for me to balance: love, anger, happiness, hatred. I’ve proven that I’m inept at keeping them all under my command. For most of my life, I’ve thought being in love might bring me happiness. According to Diener and Diener, in their book Happiness, “the close relationships that produce the most happiness are those characterized by mutual understanding, caring, and validation of the other person as worthwhile.” All three of my closest friends have been in serious relationships and I never have. Often, I feel like I’m behind, like they’ve figured out how happiness works and I’m just supposed to exist alone. And in a matter of time, when we all have to find jobs and buy houses, they’ll have someone to be with and I won’t. At twenty years old, I understand this may be a preemptive and possibly irrational fear, but that understanding doesn’t cause my fear to evaporate. I want to understand love like they have. I want to feel happy like they can.
Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted Diener and Diener, though. Perhaps those “close relationships” they refer to aren’t those that are simply romantic. Perhaps I’ve found three of those relationships already. Kyle, Jake, and Jamo have allowed me to experience happiness and love, even if it’s love that’s purely platonic. And I hope in some way I’ve repaid the favor, even if I’m just one of their many sources of happiness.
I’ve craved an answer to give to Bo this whole past year. Yes or No. Happy or Unhappy. But maybe it’s better if I just think of “are you happy?” as a rhetorical question. I think Bo would even agree. I think he maybe found the best answer to the question himself: “but what the fuck kind of question is ‘Am I happy?’”
What the fuck kind of question is “Am I happy?”