Ah, happiness. It’s one of those existential mysteries alongside death, selfhood, and how we let the Kardashians get famous. It’s something we often feign for social media, or extended family members, or the high school friends we see once a year. And because of these insecurities over the size our happiness, a colossally clichéd TED Talk industry has made big bucks telling us how to take charge of that happiness.
A few months ago—having also bought into this industry—I was reading Paul Dolan’s Happiness by Design on a plane when the guy beside me asked what it was about. As the title suggests, it was a study on how and why we feel happiness. When I explained this, the man shot me a quizzical look. “I think that’s only up to you to decide, no?”
He was right. Not to mention I felt like a damn fool for reading the book in public in the first place. But after our subsequent conversation, I realized that if this incredibly normal-seeming dad was able to crack the mystery of happiness with one simple question, practically any person could help provide clarity for us all.
Alas, that’s where Chatroulette comes in. Even though the archaic video chatting platform peaked only *very* briefly in 2010, people are for some reason still using it. There probably aren’t too many Eat, Pray, Lovers on the site, but flying on my hunch that this happiness economy is full of shit, I figured I could just as easily turn to random naked strangers on the internet to help me truly understand the meaning of happiness.
So, I propped in front of Chatroulette for a day, hoping for the best.
At first, it was awkward. Skipping over many dicks (still with the dicks, never change Chatroulette!), I stopped whenever someone showed a glimmer of interest in actually talking with me. The conversations generally started with a barrage of questions on their end, or (and often in combination with) sexual requests.
How would I direct a Chatroulette conversation towards anything meaningful? I had an advantage because I’m probably one of the 10 women that have been on Chatroulette in the last year, but I needed the guys to stick around.
“So, I’m asking people about the meaning of happiness today,” I’d say.
Often before I forayed any deeper into conversation, they would skip, especially the total four women I saw. But many genuinely surprised me with their willingness to comply.
After about a half-day online, I’d learned more than I never thought I would about the happiness of strangers across the globe.
Here are my findings.
Happiness is often found in achieving your goals
Early on, I succeeded in having a full-on conversation with a naked man. He was a British university student and enthusiastic to chat, explaining that he simply liked to lounge in the nude out of comfort.
I asked if he was happy.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm probably an 8.5.”
“Why not a 10?” I asked.
“At the moment, I'm still studying, and when I'm finished I'm going to have finally achieved my goal. When I'm settled and independent and a bit more financially free, then I'll probably be closer to a 10.”
A teen on his gap year in the Seychelles shared a similar sentiment.
"Happiness is knowing what you want. My goal is to be back here on this island with a house looking at the sunset every day." How he would get there though, he had “no fucking idea.”
Money can make life easier, not happier
You’d think money would be the obvious answer, but it came up way less than I expected. One particularly interesting conversation I had was with this guy Michael in Jersey. If you’ve never heard of Jersey, it’s a small island in the English Channel that’s basically just a tax haven for rich white people. Apparently it represents $5 billion of private financial wealth, per square mile. So yeah, like, really rich white people.
Michael told me he makes $500,000 a year, so take from that what you want, and he uses Chatroulette out of boredom, and not being attracted to other white people. Shocked that anyone still includes Chatroulette as a regular pastime, I asked him if he was happy and he said, “not particularly.”
“I’d rather be doing something else,” he said. “I do what I wanted to do since I was 18, I make a lot of money and I go on really fat holidays, so my lifestyle is good, but am I really happy? I'd rather be a safari guide or tracker. I fucking love animals.”
And that was quite sad, really. Whether or not this man is truly as rich as he says, his life, from what he described, sounded like one big money-bound prison. Naturally, I told him he should just move and become a safari guide but that was unthinkable to him—he couldn’t leave his business in Jersey.
As much as I’d still love to be Jersey-rich, the fact that our lives, often burdened by lack of money, can be burdened more so with all the money in the world, makes me think that perhaps that age-old saying about money not buying you happiness maybe has some truth to it.
Happiness is situational
Not long after Michael, I came across two men smoking in a car in Jordan. Following a few jokes and small talk, I asked them what happiness is.
“First, you should be out of Jordan to feel happiness,” he said. “We are in hell here.” He told me to guess the age of his friend beside him. I guessed 33.
“He's 25,” both men laughed. “This is what happens. If you come to Jordan, you will get old very fast.”
“Why is that?”
He said that Jordan is expensive. He said they couldn’t consider moving because that’s even more expensive. And he had no confidence in obtaining visas anywhere.
“Did you hear the news about Trump forbidding the visa programs for new immigrants?” he asked. “About 700,000 workers will be sent back home because of Trump. Everyone.”
He then said that his friend beside him (who couldn’t speak much English) has a lot of family in the US, and one of his relatives had to marry his cousin in order to stay there.
“Life is very hard here,” he said, taking another drag and changing the subject.
We laughed about the absurd amount of naked men we’d all seen on Chatroulette and when I asked if a lot of people use the site in Jordan, he said, “Actually, no. They are all going to the new apps.” Then he proceeded to turn the camera around to show me their garden, but we disconnected.
How so many people were speaking so openly to me, I have no idea. But again and again, they entertained my questions.
Relationships are great but they can also make life suck (duh)
This one’s a given, no matter where you’re from. Most of the people I spoke with credited their girlfriends, friends, and families for their happiness.
But when I came across a guy in Mexico who was hesitant to approach the topic, he showed the opposite.
“Maybe it's not the best time for me. I have some problems,” he said after I asked him about happiness.
“With my family. It’s a difficult time for me right now.”
“Do you have friends you can talk to?”
“Yeah, but they’re busy all the time. Right now I’m in my father's house. I had problems with my girlfriend and...I don't know. It's difficult, I can't explain.”
I wanted to press for more, but refrained. The pain in his voice pointed to the now obvious fact that most people use Chatroulette as a distraction from the less pleasant real world.
Thousands of miles away, a man in a dark bedroom in France faced my question with the same hesitation.
Eventually he wrote on a piece of paper: I need happiness.
“You’re not happy?” I said, and he rolled his arm like a wave across the screen.
Then there were others who described happiness in the simplest ways; salsa, playing the piano, having sex, seeing the musical Grease. One man told me the entire story of his proposal to his fiance.
And it turns out the people on Chatroulette were capable of saying some legitimately real, non-sexual things.
“I think part of the journey we're all on is to make mistakes. You're more likely to have a happy life if you've gone through trials and tribulations,” Michael in Jersey said. I agreed wholeheartedly.
“I mean I've never really had troubles,” he continued. “But it's probably true.”
My time on Chatroulette taught me that if you try hard enough, you can find diamonds in the roughest of roughs. Just as I had hoped, a bunch of randoms online were able to provide me with a genuine insight on the realities of happiness—or more often, unhappiness.
Whether it’s a house by the ocean or a box of chocolates or having two sex friends at the same time (according to Ian from France), as long as you have something that makes you feel content with your life, maybe that’s all we need to be happy...for at least one moment in time.
For me, knowing that I won’t have to look at a nightmarish stream of men masturbating anymore makes me content, therefore I am definitely happy.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.