January 9, 2016

How To Be Happy

Last year, a smartphone application was released that could only be purchased and installed with a doctor’s prescription. The app, BlueStar, helps patients with type 2 diabetes manage their condition through a series of customized prompts and guides. It is, to my knowledge, the first ever app that requires a doctor’s prescription before download.

I’ve always been fascinated by prescriptions. They are, in essence, little slips of paper that hold the answer to your problems. Suffering from back pain? Take this little piece of paper and get painkillers that will make you feel better (yet drowsy) almost immediately. Can’t breathe properly? This little note will give you access to an array of machines and tools that will open up your airways and chase the asthma symptoms away.

On first blush, the medical prescription feels like nothing but a piece of paper featuring some often-illegible scribbles. In reality, the prescription is a marker of hope, a message that there is a cure to whatever ails us, and that there’s a quick fix for us whenever we need repair. That little sheet of paper, torn from a pad on the doctor’s desk, is like magic: we may not be okay right now, but with this prescription, we will be alright, soon enough.

I fear that too many of us go through life searching for these metaphorical prescriptions. Whatever our ailment, we seek a magic slip of paper, a marker of hope that with one quick, effortless step, our troubles will float away. Whether we want to be happy, or want to lose weight, or want to make new friends, or want a better job, the world is filled with quick fixes” that promise us change, that promise results without the work. The world is filled with prescriptions, but not all of them are effective.

There’s no harm in learning from these how-to guides; I am guilty of spending perhaps too much time browsing the self-help aisles of bookstores and listening to podcasts like Happier with Gretchen Rubin. The harm comes when we treat these forms of advice as saviors, when we believe that they are the cure rather than just part of the treatment.

Eleanor Davis’ How To Be Happy is not one such prescription. In fact, there is very little in the collection of illustrated vignettes that offers advice or even solace. Instead, each short story, told through playful yet evocative drawings both in traditional comic-panel form and less-conventional means, is about our search for these prescriptions, for our need to find a quick and easy way to be happy.

There are short graphic stories about finding happiness through living on a farm, or being gluten-free, or learning how to cry. There are little illustrated vignettes about crawling into bags with friends, telling stories to ourselves, and making sculptures of our best selves. Underlying each one is a subtle melancholy, a desire to find happiness but a realization that we won’t, at least not in this way.

We live in a world where we believe that everything can be fixed, where even sentiments like sadness can be wholly cured. How To Be Happy is like that little sheet from the doctor that reminds us that there is no prescription for happiness, and that there is perhaps a futility in believing that there is.

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