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Are You Happy?

Authored By: 
Kate Bendrick, Math Teacher

“Are you happy?” she said.

I was in my early twenties, working on my masters degree, scraping together money where I could, and trying to figure out what to do next. I was stricken by the question, blindsided, like an interview question it had never occurred to me to prepare for.

Because no one had ever asked me that.

Am I happy? I reflected for a moment. Suddenly, in a cataclysmic moment of realization, thoughts flooded my brain. Among them various ideas about our culture’s relationship with happiness: studies showing that the happiest countries are not those with the most secure standard of living; studies showing that happiness, above all else, correlates with feeling that you are a part of a community; the cultural ideal of “pursuing happiness,” and how my home country latched on fervently to that ideal.

And yet, no one had ever asked me. Not even me, in my years of introspection.

The fact that I had not been asked to assess my life satisfaction up to this point was not born of a careless network of family and friends, who have always been there for me through good and bad. I can only theorize that the reason they didn’t open up such a line of inquiry was because no one seriously asks themselves this question on a regular basis. Even in considering my own response, I was immediately blocked by a feeling of ungratefulness: You have so much, and you want happiness, too? What right do you have to take even more?

But happiness is not a zero-sum game. Somehow, we’ve learned to approach happiness as if having more of it is somehow greedy. Anyone with a friend who smiles a lot can tell you this is not how happiness works. Happiness isn’t generally linked with climate change or the wage gap.

So why don’t family and friends ask? One idea is to spare the interrogated the embarrassment of saying no. Again, I can only suspect, but I have an inkling that embarrassment is not what is keeping friends and family from posing invasive questions: rather, it is distraction--distraction from the very pursuit this country is purportedly built on, a collective forgetting of the forest for the trees. 

I want my students to have the power and agency over their own lives to become happy adults. Did you apply to this college? Did you take enough AP classes? Did you find a stable job and buy a house and become financially secure? It’s not that these questions or concerns are in any way to be scoffed at. Rather, it is that "Are you happy?" gets brushed aside, forgotten amongst these important details. That troubles me.

Are your choices helping to empower you to find your own happiness?

I think this question should be a part of everyone’s regular self-assessments. High school can be a troubling time, and to help teenagers emerge from it capable of taking on their own battles, I give them the tools that I have to offer. Having been a twenty-something drowning in debt and work, I know that skills are empowering. I seek to enable all of my students to become adults who have the strength to work toward their own happiness. And I hope that some adults out there are reminded to do the same.