Getting to Happy, or The Myth of Happily Ever After


Happy Endings?

“Is this going to have a happy ending?”

This question rose from an otherwise quiet classroom from a student who was getting worried since the documentary we were watching seemed to be going awry.  The documentary, Home, follows the experience of a working-class single black mother of six children on her journey to buy a home to move out of the projects in Newark, New Jersey.

I was a little caught off guard by the question, both because it sprang forth in the middle of the film, out loud and waiting for a response, and also because of the expectation that the documentary have a feel-good ending.  I didn’t want to give the story away, and I also didn’t want to imply that there is only one version of what counts as “happy,” or that the end of the documentary was the end of the story.  Happiness is fleeting.  And endings are subjective.

“Well,” I said, “it depends on what a happy ending is.”

I knew that the real question was, is everything going to turn out all right for the family?  Is the mother going to get the house?  Are her children going to be able to move out of the violent environment they are living in?  Will the mother pull herself (and her children) out of poverty proving the merits of meritocracy?  But this was not a fictional feel-good film, it was a true story.  And the story, like so many others, serves as a reminder that good things don’t always happen to good people.  And sometimes, regardless of how hard someone works, how deserving they are, how good looking, how smart, how likeable, their happy ending doesn’t look the way we have been conditioned to imagine them.

American movies and fairy tales romanticize trauma and hurt by framing them with happy endings where the protagonists fall in love, the villain goes to jail, the poor person gets an inheritance, the sick person gets well, and everyone lives the Disney-eque happily ever after.   In the happy endings of privileged lives/eyes, no one dies, no one hurts, pain is deserved, and in the end children are protected, love is enough, and poverty only exists out there somewhere in the faraway distance or past.

But in the real world, many people don’t have the privilege of a canonical happy ending.  In the real world, people settle for some semblance of fairness in their lives while others, many (based on who they are, how and where they were born, the color of their skin, the accent on their tongues, the performance of their gender, their biological sex, who their parents are, or aren’t, how much money they have, who they make love to, whether or not they meet societal standards of beauty, etc.) don’t have peace, go to bed hungry, don’t have sound minds, go to substandard schools, don’t get better, live in substandard homes, don’t have homes to go to, or arms to run to, don’t know unconditional love, don’t have good health, will never be seen as “normal,” won’t see better days, won’t make it out of the bad situation they started in, won’t be swept off their feet, won’t survive, or go down in a blaze of glory.  Real life endings are not always happy.  Real life beginnings aren’t either.



In my own life I often ask myself, “is this (my life) going to have a happy ending?”

And then I think about the black and brown folk all over the world who find bliss in the simplest of things, and I wonder what happiness means.  I was a melancholy child and I am a depressive adult, so happiness is and has always been something to be attempted or worked towards, not a perpetual state of being.  Happiness is a possibility, but not a promise.

I have spent many hours, many days trying to get to happy, get happy, be happy.  I have also spent many hours punishing myself for not being (or feeling) happy, which oftentimes feels selfish and ungrateful.

In our capitalist culture we learn that happiness means owning material things, having material worth, being in a traditional relationship, and feeling like you are worth something. It seems like we are always working towards happiness as the reward for hard work, patience, and endurance (sometimes suffering).  We never think about how happiness is a commodity that is bought and sold to us if we are gullible enough to think it can be contained and owned and held for longer than the moments we achieve it.  Companies offer us happiness in a bottle if you can afford it.  If you don’t have the money then you have to settle for hand-me-down happiness, whatever is left over after the well runs dry.  Some folk go broke trying to get to happy.

If/when you are not happy people feel sorry for you and assume there is something wrong with you.  Strangers and intimates alike tend to (oftentimes unknowingly and unintentionally) make you feel guilty for not being happy all the damn time.

Truth is, there is no such thing as happily ever after.  There is happy.  But there is also sad, pissed off, ambivalent, angry, and disenchanted.  But we are master pretenders…seasoned actors who smile when we don’t mean it, dress up when we’re feeling down, and play the part of “happy-go-lucky” person when we really feel like shit, so that other people will feel comfortable.  Truth is, happiness is dictated by hegemonic promises that nobody can keep up with.  Not even the Joneses.

I take my happiness in degrees and hold it with both hands, but I don’t hold too tight.  I know it comes and goes like beautiful weather, good sex, and bad attitudes.  To me, happiness is knowing that the people I care about know I care about them.  Happiness is utilizing my gifts to make people smile.  Happiness is calling blackgirls beautiful.  Happiness is feeling beautiful.  Happiness is being able to donate my time, money, energy and endorsement to worthwhile causes.  Happiness is teaching my students to see and consider standpoints beyond their own.  Happiness is hearing my mother and grandmother’s voices on the phone, doing just fine.  Happiness is looking back over my life and recognizing how far I have come (in thinking, loving, and being).

But every day is not happy.  Every moment is not happy.  And that is not failure.  That’s life.  Some days will be punctuated by sadness, anger, resentment, frustration, confusion and disappointment.  Some days will be blissful.

It has taken me years to give myself permission to not be happy all the time.  To admit my humanity.  To embrace my vulnerability.  To appreciate all of my emotions.  It is a brave confession, but when I’m not feeling happy, I am at least feeling brave.  I am learning to not be invested in a life without tears, sadness, or disappointment, but I am down for a life fully lived happily ever after.

Happily Ever After?

So, does the documentary have a happy ending?  It depends on what a happy ending looks like.


11 thoughts on “Getting to Happy, or The Myth of Happily Ever After

  1. I’m of the Happiness is a Choice camp. However, the word(s) Happy/Happiness can be replaced with Peace. Striving to be at Peace regardless of your mental or emotional state is more realistic. Being at peace does not predicate itself on being in a state of bliss, happiness, sadness, etc. Being at peace simply depends on recognizing the spectrum of feeling we all have, allowing yourself the moment to feel, knowing it will pass, and moving on.

    Because Happiness is viewed as a destination, a place we can all get to, instead of being a choice, it proves illusive to many, like a mirage. No matter what happens, we can choose happiness or as stated above peace. It takes work to choose happy and making it a journey or something to be pursued, that if we are unhappy then it is the fault of something outside ourselves.

    Hollywood, fairy-tale, Happily-ever-afters often give people hope of future happiness in someone’s life that can be shared, while instilling hope for a better tomorrow for those times when happiness can only be achieved vicariously through the happiness of others. In the meantime strive for peace.

  2. Thought-provoking post. Thanks Robin! I am exasperated and fatigued with unhappy endings and I might have found myself asking the same question as your students. While I still am working on what it means to get to happy, I appreciate your unpacking of happy endings.

  3. I, too, have struggled with this “happiness” issue my whole life … what I strive for now is living through whatever I am feeling, being able to enjoy what needs to be enjoyed, seeing silver linings and having compassion for myself and others regardless of what we are feeling … joy, sadness, grief, exasperation, happiness, frustration, hurt, surprise, etc.

    Some days I am better at this than others … and those are the days that the compassion comes in the handiest.

    And sometimes those days are the ones when I need to know up front, like your student, if there is a *happy* ending … it’s ok if it is not, but I might just need to protect myself if it isn’t.

    Thank you for putting this out there … and validating the range of our experiences!

  4. So great. Thank you for your insight, as I was needing to unpack this internally, as you know! 🙂

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  6. In discussing why some people when visiting Paris enjoy it and others don’t a German tour guide told me this.

    He said Parisians aren’t happy all the time and they don’t pretend to be. If you go into a shop and the workers don’t smile and say hello, it isn’t because they don’t like you, they might just be having a bad day. In Paris, and most of France he said it is perfectly acceptable to openly display how you feel and no one shames you for it. Unlike America which has the highest rate of psychotropic drug use, and everyone is of course happy all the time.

    Great article and food for thought.

  7. I consider also the ways that happiness is presented as a uniform experience – ease, smiling, beauty – when in fact happiness comes in many forms. Some people find happiness at the end of a long struggle, fixing a looming problem, or correcting a wayward path. It may not look like “happiness” but for that person, they know their soul is smiling.

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