We had a grand time, us two. When we first met, as single "older" gals, our conversations were loud, laughing, and enjoyable. The subject matter was pretty basic: Crummy dates and nasty shadchanim. It was the rich, succulent meat we bonded over, bellowing and shrieking and guffawing. It was great.
"Companions in Misery" by Mariana Alessandri made me realize why. She begins that based on a study ranking satisfaction, it was concluded that New Yorkers are quite unhappy. She argues that "satisfaction" and "happiness" are two separate entities, and furthermore, negativity can have a bright side.
In his 1861 essay “Utilitarianism,” John Stuart Mill carefully distinguished between the two, saying that a person can be satisfied by giving the body what it craves, but that human happiness also involves motivating the intellect. This means that happiness and satisfaction will sometimes conflict, and that those of us who seek happiness, and even attain it, may still be dissatisfied.
Perhaps that is why I am in the throes of emotional crisis. I do want to marry, but I don't consider myself unhappy. Do I have to be unhappy in order to pursue something I really want, such as a family of my own?
Alessandri writes that as a born and bred New Yorker, complaining is a cultural constant that has nothing to do with happiness. She was disconcerted during her years OOT when whining was whacked into Pollyanna cheer.
In a less insufferable way, the ancient Stoics also proposed that we stop complaining, that we minimize negative emotions like sadness and anger in order to maximize joy, tranquillity and peace of mind. The former set will lead to a miserable life while the latter will lead to a good life “in accordance with nature.” They believed that misery is rooted in trying to control things that are out of our hands (wealth, honors and reputation) instead of working on those things that we do have control over (desires, aversions and opinions).
I'm apparently a Stoic. What does complaining get me? And yet, why were my sessions with my fellow single associate so enjoyable? All we did was kvetch. "Could you believe it that's what he actually says on a date? Like, what planet is he from?" "I know! Would you believe what this one said? I was, like, 'Waiter!'"
But what if my worrying and complaining aren’t an attempt to change the laws of nature? Can it be that my negativity is still useful, that it can get me somewhere?
Alessandri continues that complaining isn't about wanting to change unchangeable circumstances.
The 20th-century Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno didn’t recommend banishing the negative emotions or “keeping on the sunny side of life.”
Unamuno believed that a life worth living consists in communing with others, and that this happens most genuinely through negativity. In “My Religion,” Unamuno wrote: “Whenever I have felt a pain I have shouted and I have done it publicly” in order to “start the grieving chords of others’ hearts playing.” For Unamuno, authentic love is found in suffering with others, and negativity is necessary for compassion and understanding. If we try to deny, hide or eradicate the negative from our lives, we will be ill-equipped to deal with people who are suffering.
Where did I hear this before? Ah, yes, mitleid-freude.
Alessandri's husband tells their crying toddler in the back seat that crying won't get them there any sooner, but she says:
My son is not crying in the car to get home faster; he is crying because he is trapped. When I get trapped in crummy situations I too cry, whine, complain. I get it out. I vent. I do these things because they are useful, but not the kind of useful that people usually have in mind. Usefulness doesn’t exclusively mean undoing what we don’t like about our situation; it can also mean dealing with our situation creatively. I use negativity both to change myself — to release disappointment, anger and frustration — and more important, to connect with others.
That's how New Yorkers bond, she continues, by kvetching.
Two strangers complaining on a subway platform can end up cracking a smile or laughing, and though it would hardly be considered the beginning of a lifelong friendship, it is still neighborly. Just because the topic of conversation is negative rather than positive doesn’t mean we are unhappy, and oftentimes the opposite is the case. A funny complaint from the person next to me can quickly lighten my mood, and hers. But the possibility of someone’s being a happy complainer gets lost when we equate dissatisfaction with unhappiness. . .
From the outside, the image of dissatisfied and complaining New Yorkers might seem to exemplify Schopenhauer’s portrait of humans as prisoners “paying the penalty of existence” . . . But Schopenhauer’s portrait of us as broken beings sentenced to life together leads him to ethics instead of individualism. Instead of twisting free from our fellow inmates, Schopenhauer suggests that we stay put and serve our sentence collectively. . . That we are all condemned to the same Sisyphean fate ought to make us compassionate instead of competitive, work together instead of in isolation, and rely on one another instead of just ourselves.
We spent hours together complaining, she and I. Instead of my having to downplay the frustration and exhaustion of dating, like I have to do with everyone else, we were able to give shrill voice to the annoyances, commiserate, and comfort each other. Then we were both quite happy.