In Russia, the age at which the average person becomes happy is higher than the average life expectancy.
Review of The Happiness Curve by Jonathan Rauch, The Wall Street Journal
It’s Friday, which for me–Fedor Sergeyevich Mikhailov–means a day of taking it easy with Lev Vladimirovich Nikolaev, my co-worker here at the Ministry of Meddling in International Affairs, “North American Division.” I put our division name in quotes of dubiety, because nobody gives a rat’s crapke about Canada and Mexico. We’re told to spend all of our time fomenting strife between left and right in the good ole U.S.A.
“Do NOT try to leave early just because is Friday, Comrade.”
Lev looks surprisingly down-in-the-mouth for the start of the weekend and, rather than spend the day looking at his Gloomy Gyorgy face, I decide to lance the boil of his discontent and find out what’s bugging him.
“How they hangin’?” I ask as I sidle up behind him. He’s in the middle of a Facebook food fight accusing Bernie Sanders supporters of being secretly hypnotized by Donald Trump’s spray-on tan, but he lets up on his mouse just as he’s about to criticize a Shaker Heights, Ohio, health food store worker for “liking” a post.
“Not so good, Fedor Sergeyevich Mikhailov,” he says with a disconsolate tone. “I am weary.”
“It’s Friday” I point out. “You’ll feel better when you wake up Saturday morning.”
“Perhaps, Fedor Sergey . . .”
I cut him off, hoping by dropping the high level of formality with which conversation is conducted here in Russia that we can communicate better. “Lev–what do you say we take a break from the surnames and patronymics?” I ask. “It’s exhausting talking like we’re characters in a Dostoevsky novel after a long week of work.”
“Okay,” he says, but he doesn’t seem too enthused about the prospect of a “Casual Friday.”
“Any plans for the weekend?”
“Get drunk, argue with wife, make-up sex, back at it on Monday.”
I look at him to see if he’s going to smile at his black humor-crack, but he doesn’t. He stares off into the middle distance as if he’s serious. He’s really bitter.
“C’mon, pal, things aren’t that bad, are they?”
“Can’t talk now–am sowing seeds of doubt in minds of Ladies Democratic Society of Cuyahoga County, Ohio.”
“You’re right,” he says, shaking off his air of gloom for a second. “They’re MUCH worse.”
I can see he is approaching burned-out case status, so I sit down in the wheeled office chair at the computer station next to him and roll over to console him.
“You shouldn’t feel downcast,” I say. “Think of all that lies ahead of you if you just toe the Communist Party line.”
“I met my lipstick production quota!”
“Perhaps someday you’ll get a bigger apartment so you can raise a family.”
“Why bring a child into the world only to suffer, then die?”
“Your blood sugar’s low,” I say, then reach in my jacket pocket for a treat that I hope will perk him up. “Here–try some of these.”
“What are they?”
“Yogurt-covered cardamom seeds. They’re delicious!”
He tries one, then makes a “bleh” sounds and allows the uneaten delicacy to fall from his lips to one hand. “If we lived in America, we would have our choice from many brands of yogurt-covered raisins!” he says, then remembering that the Russian people are under constant surveillance, he adds a patriotic footnote to his gripe: “And that is why their people are bloated, overweight mollycoddles!”
“We should step outside, get some fresh air,” I say. I want him out beyond the prying ears of the Communist Party’s microphones, so he can unburden himself.
We check out with the receptionist, Svetlana Alexandrovna Bykov, who is filing her nails. She’s in a pissy mood too; she got a lousy performance review last quarter because she filed them under “n” for “nails” instead of “f” for “finger.”
“So why are you so down?” I ask him after we make it past the cordon of smokers puffing away outside the Ministry’s entrance and take a seat on a brutalist concrete park bench.
“It isn’t pretty, but at least it’s uncomfortable.”
“I just wonder sometimes–when is the payoff?”
“When do we emerge from the long, dark tunnel of misery through which we travel and emerge into the sunlight of happiness?” he says, shaking his head.
“I don’t think there is any payoff,” I say with what I hope comes across as nonchalant resignation.
“Whoever said there was?”
He swivels his head so he can look me straight in the eye. “Worker’s paradise? Dictatorship of the Proletariat? These words mean nothing?”
“I didn’t say that. It’s just that it’s going to take a long time in a static centralized economy.”
“How old are you?” I say, guessing he’s maybe in his mid-thirties.
“Geez, life has taken its toll on you.”
“Don’t rub it in.”
“I’ve got three words for you,” I say as I examine the crow’s feet around the corners of his eyes: “Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.”
“Thanks a bunch.”
“Anyway,” I say, “I’ve got good news and bad news for you. Which do you want first?”
“The good,” he says glumly. “I can’t take any more of the bad right now.”
“Okay. The average life expectancy in Russia today is 71 years, so you’ve got 43 years to go!”
“That’s the good news? What’s the bad?”
“The average age at which a Russian achieves happiness is 91, so to get to those two decades of comparative bliss, you’re gonna have to suffer a bit first.”
He turns to look at me, and the horizontal line of his lips takes a downward turn at the corners. He sniffs, and like the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam on the Yenisei River, the floodgates open.
“Bwah! So no happiness for me until I am dead many years?” he asks, bawling like a baby fed a spoonful of strained beets.
“Doesn’t look that way. That’s why we’re in the Top 20 countries in the world by suicide rate, behind self-slaughter powerhouses such as Guyana and Kazakhstan.”
“AP or Coaches Poll?”
“That system has been replaced, it’s all computerized now.”
He stares straight ahead again and shrugs his shoulders. “Well,” he says finally, “I guess I can take one for the team.”