I deserve to be happy. I deserve to feel good about myself. – Will Wheaton in “7 Things I Did to Reboot My Life“
The article I pulled that quote from is some of the best and most personal writing I’ve seen, though admittedly I’m biased (Mr. Wheaton is about as representative of my demographic as you can get). Happily it falls just outside the Whiny Middle-Aged White Guy trope (I’m looking at you, Birdman) because he shows an awareness of privilege and pulls from his life the lessons that are more generally useful.
However, when I read that quote – I deserve to be happy – something didn’t quite feel right. “Deserve”? Why would he, or anyone, deserve to be happy? I mean, sure, I agree that it would be nice if he was happy. I also think he has the ability to be happy – if concentration camp victims can manage to pull happiness out of their experience (as Maslow and others have documented), then it’s almost certain that any of us can find it too.
But deserve? Happiness is not a right – it even says so in the constitution. The pursuit of happiness, sure, but not happiness itself. I couldn’t bring myself to accept that phrase – it sounded too Stuart Smalley – and so I decided that perhaps I was misunderstanding the word. Off to Google!
Turns out yes, I was, but I think everyone else was, too – that is, forgetting about the roots of the word. The instantaneous definition:
verb: do something or have or show qualities worthy of (reward or punishment)
Before you nod your head about how obvious that is, allow me to point out the roots of the word:
Middle English: from Old French deservir, from Latin deservire ‘serve well or zealously.’
I’m betting that, like me, you probably skipped over the first two words of the definition: do something. Anything that is deserved is the result of something you have done. I think too often we forget to include an important word when we say things like I deserve to be happy, and that word is “…because…” See, if what comes after the word “because” is describing something you are instead of something you did, then “deserve” is not the word you’re looking for.
The word you’re looking for instead is entitled.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that word. Some people are entitled to things – I have male genitalia, so I am entitled to the identity of “man” if I choose to embrace it. As a man, I had sex at least three times that resulted in the creation of four daughters, therefore I deserve the title of Father – it wasn’t automatic because of what I am, it’s because of actions I took. Here’s the real question, though: do I automatically deserve the title of “Dad”? I would argue that there is a level of affection and caring inherent in the word “Dad” that makes it necessary for me to do something to deserve it, and do it on a continuing basis.
So let’s do that test for happiness: I deserve to be happy because…I am a man. Um, sorry? Since when does a social construct of gender mean you have done the work to be happy? Frankly, I’m having trouble thinking of someone deserving anything for being a man aside from maybe “…to pee standing up.” There’s a whole host of problems in this world because both individuals and groups believe they are entitled to things – in other words, they don’t have to do anything.
Oh, lord, I’m starting to sound like a Republican newscast, aren’t I? Except that I’m not talking about one demographic; I’m talking about everyone, and I’m not talking about money or health care or a vote or a gun, I’m talking about basic things like love, friendship, peace of mind, happiness.
One of the nice elements of Mr. Wheaton’s essay was that he was talking about taking action. He realized he wasn’t happy, and then did something about it. So if he was doing that test, he could say: I deserve to be happier because I’ve taken the steps that are likely to increase my happiness. Notice I cheated a little bit there, because “happy” is not an end-state, it is a transient feeling. Nobody is going to be happy all the time, but I suspect they can increase the odds of them being happy a lot of the time.
What do you feel you deserve? Why? And more to the point, to quote one of my favorite movie lines of all time: What are you prepared to do?
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