Perhaps the most memorable happy ending of all the many books, movies and TV shows I have spent my time reading and watching is the final scene of Grease. For many of you the memory will pop up immediately. The new and improved, sexed up Sandy and her heartthrob Danny fly off in their souped-up mechanical chariot while the little people below wave them off on their journey to happily every after land. The “happily every after” a heavenward ascent here. Over the top? Yes. Far from what an average person believes awaits them at some point in the future? No.
The entertainment media we consume has been lined with silver to make us believe in and strive for a tailored joyous finale. Fairy tales once dark and foreboding, now warped to have a disneyesque outcome with the villain defeated and some prince and princess getting together. Definitely married with the next step babies.
The message repeats thus: Sit back and relax your soul mate-the perfect match-searches for you somewhere out in the world. If you don’t like your work, no worries. Be ambitious and keep searching, the ultimate fulfilling career can be found. Worried about aging and afraid of dying? Just use this cream, these oils, eat these foods, exercise enough and you can stay young. Live a little longer. Maybe even in your lifetime death will be defeated by the doctors who specialize in anti-aging, as if it is something like a disease to fight.
Follow all these criteria and one day the house with the greener than green yard, charming spouse and two children can be yours, your happily ever after. In secret these messages convince us to consume and consume, and most of the time we end up disappointed and even depressed. Because this, this is not a happy ending, we are only eating up the time we have in life. These messages miss the whole point of life, and what contentment should really be. Perhaps no one has felt this disconnect stronger than my peers and I.
My generation is surrounded by the Xs and the Zs; we were bequeathed the title of Generation Y. The decade of nothing; those who had no motivation and would never amount to anything. Despite that decree, my peers and I have worked hard, gone to school, graduated from universities, and managed to capture jobs in these times of economic difficulties. Even if our paycheck and living standards haven’t eclipsed those of our parents, we have survived. Sometimes returned home due to skyrocketing rents or unemployment, hopping from job to job or holding down more than one to make ends meet. We have survived.
But unhappy still, and no wonder. In our education, more than a decade ago now, teachers told us every day that if we worked very hard, we could do anything we wanted and succeed at everything we put our minds to. Uplifting adages became our mantras; our self esteems coddled by school pep rallies touting the awesomeness of the self, posters labeled with success and meetings with guidance counselors who treated us like glass. I have only one vivid memory of all this self-esteem sweet talk with a duo of pre-teen motivational speakers. My classmates and I all filed onto the gymnasium bleachers and were forced to sing songs along with spandex-clad men with impressively hairy chests. Were they so afraid we would become nothing? Grow into our generation’s name?
In full blown adulthood now, we find ourselves mostly unsatisfied. They told us we were nothing, but they also said if we worked really hard and were really ambitious, we could have whatever we wanted. A confusing directive. So, we skip from job to job and place to place and person to person looking for that perfect place, that fairy tale happy ending. Wealth, meaningful work, the right spouse and best friends surrounding us.
Not just my generation, but the whole population of the United States (and the world by way of globalization) are fed this ‘hard work and perseverance will get you exactly what you want’ idea. This is the goal; this is what you should aim for. The main character (us) struggles against seemingly unbeatable odds to win the job, the lover, the friend that they have always wanted, and they float away blissful into the sunset. Cue the orchestral sendoff. How many movies and shows have I watched with this type of end? The characters get their exact desires manifest.
Let me explain my aversion to this happy ending syndrome. It not only gives us unreal expectations, but messes with our overall happiness in life. I am not anti-sunny endings. On the contrary, I believe that a kind of happily ever after does exist. However, not the happily that we have been taught to expect. This does not mean getting the things that we expected or even wanted. I would claim that it rarely includes the goals of our five-year plans. The 22-year-old me who just graduated from college imagined she would be almost ten years married by now, a published writer and a university English professor living in Northern England. Almost ten years later, I am less than one year married, working in ESL and living in Istanbul. Who would’ve thunk it? Not me.
Work hard, dream big and have goals. If there is something you love go after it. But, accept that life is tough. That there are failures and unexpected changes in life. Often our work will seem pointless or mundane and even cause stress. People around us may make a misstep or even betray our relationships. That goals may always stay out of reach. This does not have to make us unhappy. The aims, the desired things, will morph into something new or appear out of nowhere and fulfill us. Knowing myself, experiencing, letting people go and greeting new friends who enter my life, and doing what I want to do, even if it does not meet society’s standards of success, this makes me happy. Accept the difficulties along with the good times.
Teachers should prep children for these kinds of endings. It may seem scarier, but it is the excitement, the proverbial spice of life.