Malcolm Steadman will dial the suicide hotline in 83 days.
The sweet smell of citrus coming from the half peeled grapefruit was a stark contrast to Malcolm’s sour mood. In an uncharacteristic moment of resolve Malcolm Steadman had decided that he was going to start to eat healthy foods. This would last a full three days before Malcolm would consume two whole McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches in one morning. He would not switch back to grapefruit for another month. This current resolve (yet untouched by McDonald’s) however had manifested in other aspects of his life. As he slowly peeled the large fruit Malcolm passively took part in an online application process for a new job.
Malcolm hated his job. He needed a change of pace and after drunkenly ranting to his peers about his terrible job the night before had decided to do something about it. The application he had in front of him had gone beyond the point of simple work information and was now asking him to rate different statements on how much he agreed with them on a sliding scale. None of these were difficult and Malcolm casually answered “somewhat agree” to the majority of them as he continued to peel his giant fruit. Then he came to question “No. 9”. His grapefruit and his mood now had the quality “bitter” in common. This was the question:
“No. 9: I am happy with my life.
Please choose one:
Strongly agree. Somewhat agree. Neither agree or disagree. Disagree. Strongly disagree.”
Malcolm was not happy with his life. Malcolm was often very sad and hated many aspects of his day-to-day routines. This was NOT a fair question. Of course he was not happy, why else would he be looking for a better job?! Why did this matter to this company’s HR department? If he answered honestly would he not be interviewed for the job? This, Malcolm thought, is bullshit. If the application were made of paper, and he was honest, he would circle “Strongly disagree” heavily so that the pen left deep track marks into it. He would not even have that simple satisfaction as the application was online. He hated his life, and now he was robbed of that symbolic gesture of spite by a faceless HR web developer.
What did his happiness have to do with being qualified to work? He knew ahead of time that it was very likely that there was an algorithm behind the application that would decide if his application even had the chance to be seen by human eyes. It was very possible that it was this question that would decide that.
Malcolm was no longer peeling his fruit. He was unconsciously stabbing it with his fork.
Happiness, he thought, was being quantified as a value of worth. A state of being that relied on a number of brain chemicals and a certain disposition was now the obstacle Malcolm had to face so that he could try to obtain that exact state. Malcolm was long aware that his culture had placed “the pursuit of happiness” into the forefront of the zeitgeist, what he was not prepared for was that it was now a necessity for living in that culture. Malcolm, was not happy. Was Malcolm worthless?
Of course, Malcolm could simply lie and chose one of the “agree” statements, but what was the appropriate amount of happiness? If he chose “strongly agree” would they write him off as an eccentric? Further, Malcolm did not want to lie on the application. He took great pride in his qualifications and his references and never felt the need to lie for a job before. What if after reading his response they called one of his references who knew damn well that Malcolm had a terrible disposition? would they lie for him?
He realized now that it was not the question that bothered him, but that it was the overall expectation society had placed on him to be happy. There was no such thing as permanent happiness. Malcolm was happy sometimes. No one was truly always happy. Yet society pretended that this was the norm. Whole philosophies and religions were written for the attainment of happiness. From Aristotle’s vice and virtues and the pursuit of “eudaimonia”, to the bible’s “Kingdom of Heaven”, lasting happiness was hotly debated. Malcolm had spent much time reading about different paths and promises he could take to be happy from great thinkers, prophets, and even charlatans and quacks. Being happy with your life was the greatest problem humankind had ever faced, and here was a questionnaire for a menial job that could deny that possibility to him if he already had not obtained it!
Malcolm lied. He circled “somewhat agree”. Then he ate his giant fruit. He felt embarrassed later that day that something so small had set him off. His next existential crisis would be worse.