Lately I’ve taken to asking people if they’re happy. We’ll be having a pretty normal conversation and I’ll blurt out, “Are you happy?”

I’m not sure why this has become the question du jour.

Today I was having lunch with a friend and he seemed to me to be not happy and so I asked him the question. As it turns out, there was just a part of his life that he wasn’t happy with but the rest was fine. So the job was a headache and unfulfilling but what he did with the rest of his life was okay. Not fabulous, but reliably okay. He didn’t seem exactly taken aback by the question but did have a look that said, “Is this germane to anything?”

Why are you asking me if I’m happy?

A while ago, a therapist who worked with teenagers told me that the most important question you can ask a teen to see if they’re doing okay is “How are you sleeping?” The thinking behind this, I believe, was that, first of all, if a person isn’t sleeping well it influences how able they are to cope with the day, and second, what is keeping them from sleeping well? Is it anxiety or depression, nightmares or caffeine, or the drugs that psychiatrists prescribe so that tired people can get it together during the day that they often take too late in the day because they can’t get to sleep until dawn?

I like that question, “How are you sleeping?” But I also really like “Are you happy?”

Both are disarming. For someone to stop our conversation to ask me if I’m happy puts me in a strange, reflective place that I didn’t expect to be. Am I happy? I think to myself. I don’t know. Sometimes ‘happy’ seems like am extravagant word for what I usually am which is a fairly robust okay. Still, I appreciate someone asking although sometimes it makes me think they suspect I might be seriously unhappy, depressed, clinical and maybe they should call someone to get me help. I’m suspicious of mood checkers, a fact that should deter me from being one but it hasn’t so far.

So are you happy?

These days the bar for happiness is set pretty high. Now to be really happy, you have to be flying on a plane that used to be labeled joyful. Being okay, even a fairly robust okay, hints at the potential for descent into an unhappy place, a precarious place; okay, but barefoot on a thin wire strung between two distant poles. When did being okay become so insufficient and tenuous?

“How are you doing?”

“Okay.”

“Really? Is there anything I can do?”

So if I ask someone if they are happy and they respond by saying they’re okay, I need to remember that it’s okay to be okay. Being okay is not a symptom in search of a disease. It hints at an even, uneventful keel like my friend today explained as he moved his hand in a straight line, “not a lot of ups and downs.”

And that’s good, right? Yes?

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#38/100: 38th in a series of 100 in 100