03/17/2014 01:30 pm ET Updated May 14, 2014

Forgetting How to Be Happy

It came to me, while walking home in one of our most recent snowstorms that appear to have become sine qua non for New York. The epiphany. I was closer to Athens, Greece than I ever had been, despite being half a world away. Oh, the irony (pronounced the way Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory would render "Oh, the horror,"). I had moved to America to start afresh, putting aside the hurt of seeing my country decay and suffer, somehow settling in with a wild-eyed complacency into a long-drawn out death that the Greeks do not know how to remedy, and the EU frankly does not seem to want to. Yet, wherever I looked and whatever I watched or read, there was Greece, or to be more specific, my hometown, Athens.

Take the language: from "cryptic," to "kinetic," "eclipse," "miasma," "titanic," "epitome" and to millions more words, the state of affairs today is that middle class Americans employ more Greek words in their vocabulary than any other nation or language. In fact, given the state of education in Greece at the moment, Americans probably speak better quality Greek than their Greek counterparts, and have a broader vocabulary.

The food: The ubiquitous pathos of adulation for the benefits of Greek yogurt, fyllo, extra virgin olive oil, olives and stuffed vine-leaves, has weaned me off them forever. 

The narrative: from the Hunger Games to Jack Snyder's 300 and its sequel, opening theaters today, 300: Rise of an Empire, from operas and theatrical productions at the Met and on Broadway, Greek myths and history serve as an eternal fountain of inspiration for writers, journalists, historians, movie and TV producers (they, in particular, seem overly fond of the Oedipus tragedies.) 

Last but maybe not least, the unavoidable mirroring: that as Athens was a unique historic case, in its time a city-state with no peer in the rest of the world, so is America in our times. It is especially poignant, to me at least, that this "new" empire retains and propagates in its cultural DNA and collective subconscious, the spirit of the old empire. Yet it seems to an extent to appropriate this for itself, ignoring the (admittedly bad) evolution of the old empire that is today's Greece. Although that is really Greece's fault. Modern Greece's, basically, but also, to an extent, ancient Athens'. It opened the way to casting itself and its future children into oblivion with the Peloponnesian War, creating a paradigm of mishegoss and self-destructiveness that we Greeks have striven to emulate since. This destruction came not long after the heroic battles that all the city-states of Greece, united, fought against the Persians, one of whom was the naval battle of Salamis that Jack Snyder's 300: Rise of an Empire, opening today, recreates. This battle is considered one of the most significant battles in human history, in that a Persian victory would have annulled the development of Ancient Greece, Athens in particular, and by extension western civilization. We would not be where and who we are if it wasn't for those guys.

So what in the Olympian gods' name happened to send Athens from the zenith to the nadir in tragically little time? Frankly, what happened was that after that war, the Athenians peaked. From the latter half of the 6th century to the early 4th century B.C.E. Their exemplary "polis," the first democratic city-state ever created (within a loose federation with the other Greek cities; an early rendition of the U.S.) had invented and conceived of everything there was to invent and conceive of, had said all there was to say in diverse ways (from literature -- Greek tragedy and comedy, Homer, the myths, fables etc. -- to political writing -- Demosthenes, Kriton, Lysias and other great orators -- philosophy -- need one mention Socrates, Plato, Aristoteles? -- and historical writing -- Thucydides, Xenofontas spring to mind) and had even implemented and since lived under that "least bad" of constitutions: democracy. 

Despite the fact they were "homini universales" who divided their time between pursuits of the spirit as well as the body, and left ample time for pleasure as well as politics and mere "thoughtful perambulations," they also excelled in battle and sports. So, because more is better -- to borrow a line from many an ad currently out there, as well as from the world of the market -- and they could, they decided to become an empire state. They soon did, taking over most of the Mediterranean and colonizing it. Athens remained a paradigm of democracy, even though anyone who disagreed was given the cold shoulder and, reduced to a nonentity in the eyes of the community, ignored entirely thereby. The way Athens perceived of "the rest of the world," its subjects, as well as its allies (the other Greek states, like Sparta, with whom, standing united they had beat the Persians) changed intrinsically too. Politics became a high stakes, essentially closed game, and every citizen of Athens became focused on keeping the Empire intact and elevating their status within it. They forgot how to be happy. They just wanted more. Empire inside and outside "games" replaced philosophizing and orating -- again, these became professional tools for an essentially closed circle.

Then came the fall: the degrading, gut-wrenching, soul-crushing Peloponnesian war -- initially between Athens and Sparta, then the rest of the country got sucked in -- that left all of Greece in such shambles that once Alexander the Great from Macedonia, Northern Greece, that the Athenians snubbed as "low-class," easily conquered it, he didn't bother rebuilding it. Conquering the entirety of the known world and re-fashioning it in his own world-view was a far more glorious and glamorous pursuit. But that is another story.

Watching the Oscars the other day, I was struck by a major U.S. auto company ad. The message was clear: It's not about happiness, it's about success and power. It's about who you become compared to the rest. How far you rise, how much you make, how the others look at you. And it's not just product placement. We are being bombarded with the same message from everywhere: more is better, big is better, better is more successful, more powerful, more exclusive, more enviable. You see it everywhere: the stock market, the practices of large investment banks, the Comcast-Time Warner merger, Netflix's "surrender" to telecom after the FCC handed telecom a worrisome extent of power over the "freest" remaining dimension of our lives: the Internet. You see it in D.C. politics, in the sitcoms cable TV networks produce (understandable why they turned down House of Cards, a series hard to adhere to the generic "content" dominating the airwaves), in the currently trending apps and "most liked, tweeted, clicked" stories. In the recent Oscars, in the cost of life in New York and L.A., in their rigid class system -- a well-concealed, under a thick veneer of hypocrisy, liberalism and self-delusion, status pyramid whose echelons everyone and anyone aspires to start scaling, at any cost, to themselves and others. It's about who you are, "location," whether "you've arrived," and are "in."

Happiness doesn't come into it -- and if it does, only as a synonym for success.
At the same time, private life is cleaved cleanly to adhere to the norms, streamlined neatly, and contained. You can be gay, straight, LGBT, whatever you like, sporting whatever kind of outfit, liberal or less so, but you have to aspire to the same things: finding your soul-mate, marrying him/her/them, having a dog and/or children, enjoying the work you can get, constantly trying to do better and be better so you can get better work to enjoy, be healthy and "pneumatic" as Huxley would say, be engaged with your community, work hard on your relationships, have plans for your "first act," "second act," "third act," and have within you the objective and emotional power that being American bestows on you. It's true; most of the world's people would be American if they could -- that's why immigration has to be so tough I guess. 

In this atmosphere, even private happiness is construed as a harmonious "work-life" balance: Loners are shunned and feared, even death -- of a spouse or a child--is something you have to energetically "get over." Because the next thing is always next on the to-do list. And the list ends after you die. There seems, at least to me, an outlier, a fair amount of emotion-making going on here: the touting of a particular version of happiness (i.e. personal, professional, social success) that we should and do aspire to and strive for, individually and collectively, hand-in-glove with a particular way in which to think about and wear failure at this life-long struggle ("it is what it is," etc.) 

That's how people become tough, innovative, astonishing and intrepid. That's how they remain united and dedicated to the common goals, even though they may believe they are abysmally divided -- like the Tea Party from the Liberals. That's how empires rise.

Of course I'm not suggesting happiness is living in poverty, working at a job you dislike, becoming a social recluse, allowing yourself to be a bad or mediocre version of yourself, a giver-upper, and believing money will fall from the sky and peer esteem does not count. I'm merely advocating self-knowledge ("gnothi s'auton" or "know thyself," as the Greeks call it), not merely the kind yoga and meditation classes provide. The -- always partial -- freedom to become the version of yourself that you most like -- and then change it when you too and your dreams and goals change. The freedom to create -- and demolish, and recreate another -- a life in which this person you have become, can be happy. To be in flux (like Heracleitus said) like the rest of the universe that we belong to. To be as free, emotionally too, as we can. I guess that's probably not how empires rise, yet once they are risen, maybe that's how they remain on top longer. Maybe that's what eluded the Athenians, way back then.