Happiness in Austin: Are you happy?

Are you happy?

There were these two nuns, and they gave me an idea.

Last April, I saw the 1968 documentary “Inquiring Nuns” at AFS Cinema in North Austin. The film follows two sisters in full habit walking around Vietnam War-era Chicago, asking people, “Are you happy?” The nuns, Sisters Marie Arné and Mary Campion, get complex answers to a simple question. Some people relate the question to faith, perhaps reacting to the sisters’ garb. Others express anger about the war. But a majority say yes, they are happy.

I wondered if people 50 years later in Austin would say the same.

Over the course of 10 months, my colleague Ana Ramirez and I interviewed people around the city and asked, “Are you happy?” Most people did say yes — but not everyone. We learned what makes Austinites unhappy, what would make them happier, whether they think true happiness exists.

Here’s a sample of what people told us. This project could never represent the thoughts and feelings of every person in the city. These participants’ answers are a snapshot, though. For all our differences, we’re all thinking about the big questions.

Sarah Hobbs

Are you happy? Yes.

Why would say you’re happy? I moved here two weeks ago, and I’m obsessed with Austin. Every morning I wake up and I’m so lucky to be here.

Are you happier now that you’re in Austin than before? Surprisingly, because even though I don’t know anyone here … I just feel like this city has so much energy and potential. Every single person I’ve met has been so kind and nice.

What would make you unhappy? Losing connections or feeling lonely.

We talked to Hobbs, 26, on Aug. 16 at Barton Springs Pool.

Charles Thomas II

Are you happy? No.

What makes you unhappy? Well, just things in life that ain’t working out for me right now, currently.

What would make you happier? Be successful. Get a girlfriend or something like that. Don’t be so lonely, you know. (laughs)

Does your dog make you happy? Yeah, he does. You know, what I was saying, companionshipwise.

How do people find true happiness? My dad always told me not to go looking for it. When it finds you, you’ll know.

We talked to Thomas, 35, on April 29 in downtown Austin. He had with him his dog, Little Daddy.

Hunter Barclay

Are you happy? Yes.

What makes you happy? Hanging out with my friends, being involved in my community, spending time outside. That’s it, that’s the exhaustive list.

Is there anything that would make you happier? Probably like $200,000, or like a dog.

Is there anything that would make you unhappy? If someone asked to take $200,000 or a dog from me.

We talked to Barclay, 27, on April 29 in downtown Austin.

Marvin Thomason

Are you happy? Sure.

Why do you say you’re happy? I’ve been married to the same lovely lady for over 50 years. I’m just happy, I’m a happy guy. I love my country. I love my family.

How does your wife make you happy? She’s beautiful, she’s funny, she’s enjoyable to be with and talk with, she’s a good cook.

Do you think most people would say they’re happy? I would hope so. I have my doubts, but I would hope so.

What would those doubts be? The state that our country is in these days, politically. The divide among people. That saddens me.

What does true happiness look like to you? Going home. Being with my wife, being with my friends. I’m pretty simple, OK? I love my country, and I enjoyed serving it. I’m happy I was able to do that. I would be happy if nobody else ever had to.

We talked to Thomason, 72, on July 3 at VFW 8787 in Northeast Austin. Thomason, a Vietnam War veteran, served in the Marines.

David Chapa

Are you happy? I am happy.

What would make you unhappy? What would make me unhappy is if something would happen to my parents or both of my brothers. I feel fortunate. Owning a home, a vehicle, a car, and looking around town, there’s a lot of people who are homeless. If I didn’t have a home, I’d be pretty unhappy.

What about your family makes you happy? They’re always happy to see me, invite me over. My parents are always feeding me and giving me something to take home to eat. My younger brother, he’s always happy to see me. As a matter of fact, me and him went to my parents’ house on the Fourth (of July) and mowed my parents’ grass and spent a little time with my parents. It was good. It was a good day.

We talked to Chapa, 55, on July 7 at San Jose Catholic Church. He’s a carpenter for Austin Community College.

Michael Smith

Are you happy? I’m very happy. I’m alive, I woke up this morning to a beautiful sky. … It don’t get no better than that. Somebody didn’t wake up this morning. I’m happy.

What do you think is the cause of the most unhappiness? Drugs, guns, not knowing the Lord. … We’re in the last days, y’all. Y’all better get ready. He’s coming back for us.

What would make you happier? I wish my mom would come back. She’s dead. That was my heart. … I’d be happy if Mama comes back.

What do you think most people’s goal is in life? To become something famous. I wanted to be a football player. … But things happened.

We talked to Smith, 54, on May 30 near Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

Alexandra King

Are you happy? I am happy.

Do you think true happiness exists? Yes, I do. I feel like I’m truly happy. … I feel like happiness comes from being content in whatever situation you’re in. Say like last night, we went to go see the bats, and they didn’t come out, but I got a lot of good pictures of the Austin skyline. If you look to the bright side of things, then you’re always going to be happy. I have a sunflower tattoo on my arm because they’re always facing the sun. They’re always looking to the bright side.

We talked to King, 19, on April 29. She’s from Houston and was visiting the Capitol with her mother and grandmother.

Brian Clark

Are you happy? No, I’m not, I’m definitely not.

What do you think drives happiness for other people? The definition that we place on happiness is fascinating to me, because I think it is a very hedonistic thing. I think people always want to be laughing, they don’t want to be lacking any sort of real comfort. To them, that’s happy, but to me, it’s never defined how I’ve seen myself as being happy.

Could something change about your life that would make you not feel melancholy? I think it’s just my disposition. I stay very positive, I have a pretty good outlook on things. I understand I have a tendency toward melancholia. Consequently, I have to examine my own perceptions of reality if I ever want to arrive at being happy. There’s always something to be happy about.

We talked to Clark, 30, on May 30 at the Rio Rita bar in East Austin. Listen to him talk about how he thinks people experience happiness in different ways:

Anthony Budd

Are you happy? Yeah, definitely, 100%.

What makes you happy? That’s an existential question. Getting things that I want.

What kind of things do you want that would make you happy? A car would be a good thing. That’s the next objective, get a car. I’ve got a house.

Do you think true happiness exists? No, I don’t believe it exists. Because happiness is like an objective. This kind of idea of utopian happiness — that’s what we’re striving toward, but we’re never going to get there. It’s sort of like economic principles, right? There’s never an efficient market, but it tends toward efficiency. Same with happiness. We’re never going to be universally happy, but we’ll tend toward that.

Do you think most people would say they’re happy? It’s not my position to assume. I would guess so. I’m pretty happy, so I guess everyone else should be pretty happy. Objectively, never been a better time to be alive. So you haven’t got a leg to stand on, I think, if you’re massively unhappy. It depends on the situation, right? On the whole, pretty (expletive) good. High-speed internet access, everyone’s got AC, pretty much everyone’s got a car.

We talked to Budd, 24, outside the Capitol on April 29. He is from London and recently moved to Austin.

Vanessa Trevino

Are you happy? I’m happy, but my situation I’m not happy in. But every day of life, I am happy. But not my situation.

What do you think creates happiness? Happiness is being around positive people in a positive environment.

What would make you unhappy? When people lie to me. Like they say they want to do something and they don’t, that’s what makes me mad.

What about dishonesty makes you unhappy? People I used to stay with, if I asked them if I could see my son, then they tell me they’ll bring him and then they don’t. That’s the only thing that disappoints me, when I can’t see my son.

What about your son makes you happy? He’s just lovable, just bubbly. His spirit.

We talked to Trevino, 33, outside the ARCH on May 30. At the time we spoke, her son, Robert, was 3 years old.

Leon Brooks

Are you happy? I’m extremely happy at this time to be here (at church). One of the reasons that being here has been so wonderful for me is my wife passed away Oct. 8, 2016, of pancreatic cancer. If it wasn’t for this church, this pastor, these associate ministers and fellow deacons, I don’t know how I would have made it through.

What is it about your relationship with God that affects your happiness day to day? God gives me hope. God has promised me salvation. God has promised me that if I am an effective witness for him, that one day I will see him again, which in turn will make me see my dear Alinda again, because I know that’s where she is. So my relationship with God is everything.

Do you think true happiness exists? I think that true happiness exists in our faith and our belief in our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Jesus and his promises give you hope and give you joy, give you salvation. His promises keep you happy. … The Lord didn’t put us here to be sad or struggling. I can’t be a witness for Christ if I’m sad and mad and crying about my life. I have to live my life like Jesus lived his life. And therefore, I can be a witness for others. If I’m depressed and downhearted and sad all the time, who would want to become a Christian?

We talked to Brooks, 73, after Sunday service on July 7 at Greater Union Baptist Church, where he’s a deacon.

Abbey Kephart

Are you happy? Yes.

What makes you happy? I like being around people that make me feel good. I’m a nurse, so I like making people feel better in whatever way I can.

What about nursing has brought you happiness? I take care of people from all walks of life, so trying to find common ground is hard, but it’s very fulfilling. There’s always something that you can connect with people over.

Does other people’s happiness in the hospital, like your patients, affect you? Yeah, for sure. You just have to remember that they’re not there because they want to be there. They’re there in a very vulnerable situation and position in their life or in their family member’s life. Your outlook on things, and your positivity, can make or break someone’s whole life, potentially. You’re really impacting them in a vulnerable and fragile spot.

We talked to Kephart, 22, outside Austin’s Central Library branch on Jan. 9. She’s from South Dakota but has been in Austin since May.


Are you happy? Yes, I’m very happy.

Why would you say you’re happy? I just like living in Austin. It works with the kind of person I am, so my inside and my outside are in harmony.

Some people say they’re unhappy. Why do you think they might say that? Anxiety, I think a lot of pressure from society. I think social media is a big thing as well. There can be a lot of negative news out there.

Do you think true happiness exists? I do, and I think it’s within. I don’t think happiness is something you can constantly strive for, like, “Great! I got it, now I’m happy!” It’s just every day living in a certain way and accepting things as they are. I meditate, too. I think that helps me be in the present and enjoy the present, not focus on the future and the past, so really kind of being in the moment.

We talked to Sana, 33, on Aug. 16 at Barton Springs Pool.

Lakeem Wilson

Are you happy? I am happy, yeah.

What makes you happy? I’m happy because I’m alive. There’s a lot of things to be happy about. Just to take in that we’re blessed to be breathing and living and thriving. I’m happy to be an artist.

What do you think makes people unhappy? I would say self-esteem within people. The environment. A lot of times, people’s environment, if they’re not in a safe environment … they can’t express their full happiness. Death, or lack of finances, resources can change a person’s energy. War, politics, the government, the IRS — there’s so many things in the world that can be sources of unhappiness. But at the end of the day, it’s mind over matter. I think you have to live in the present. You can’t allow outside things to affect your inner happiness.

What about being an artist makes you happy? I think being a creator brings happiness, the same way God created the earth. Creativity opens up a potential within you that’s infinite, almost. Anytime I’m feeling a depression or I’m in a place of unhappiness, I know that I can fall back on my creativity or my art. I just go into my mind and think of things I want to envision and create it. That’s the source of meditation, and that brings me peace, and when I’m at peace, I’m ultimately happy. Art is my happiness, really.

We talked to Wilson, 28, on May 30 at the Rio Rita bar in East Austin.

Doris Bickley

Are you happy? I’m pretty happy.

What makes you happy? Kindness, love, compassion, friends, family, being with people who are kind and appreciative. And I love books, and I happen to work in a library.

What would make you unhappy? Meanness. Injustice. General human pettiness is not a thing that makes me happy, not that I haven’t been a participant many times, I’m sure.

What would make you happier than you are? Trying to count your blessings, being grateful, even for things you might otherwise overlook or take for granted, like I’m standing, I have feet, I’ve got hands. Those are things to be grateful for.

Do you think good wins out? Ultimately. I believe there is divine justice somehow, and that’s the only thing that keeps me going, even if it may not happen in my lifetime. … Even if they have to get really messed up, I do believe there is divine justice somehow. I’m not real religious, but I think good does win out.

We talked to Bickley, 67, on Jan. 9 outside Austin’s Central Library. She’s from Corpus Christi originally but has been in Austin since 1976. Listen to her talk about counting her blessings:

Vincient Johnson

Are you happy? Well, I’m happy in spirit. But not having a job, being homeless, you know. I’m still happy, though.

What would make you happier? To have me a place I can dwell. To have a wife I can come home to. You know, a job. A little money saved up. Friends that I could trust that trust me, you know, good friends. And maybe a beer.

We talked to Johnson, 53, on May 30 near the ARCH in downtown Austin. Listen to him talk about how he thinks money can cause unhappiness:

Miguel “Ziggy Gonzo” Pantoja

Are you happy? I am. Getting there, getting better everyday. It’s a process.

Why would you say you’re happy? I get to be in this town. I get to come to Barton Springs. I get to be around wonderful people. I play music in this town. It’s what I’ve always wanted to be, and I’ve been here for almost 20 years now. I’m from San Antonio originally, and San Antonio just wasn’t it for me.

Do you think true happiness exists? Yes, I think until you find what it is that makes you happy, whether it’s a craft, like mine is playing music. I’d given it up for years, and I worked for the state of Texas for a number of years. I was just unhappy every day. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I quit, I went back to playing music and doing more creative stuff. I know for some people, you worry what other people think about you, whether or not you’re making enough money. As long as you’re happy and you’re doing what’s right and you’re not harming anyone else, then that’s pretty much the only way to true happiness.

We talked to Pantoja, 40, on Aug. 16 at Barton Springs Pool. Also known as Ziggy Gonzo, he plays in the band Lowdown & Out and is a personality on the KAOS radio station.

Samuel Bristow

Are you happy? Yeah, food makes me happy, and a lot of things do. I don’t always feel happy, like anxiety and whatnot. But that’s not from the world itself, really, that’s just existentialism and whatnot. That’s nothing I can really control. But apart from that, yeah, I’d say I’m relatively happy most of the time.

What would make you happier? I like Chinese food, I mean like the traditional stuff. That’s what would make me happy right now. Maybe more time to spend with my friends. … There’s definitely things that could also not make me happy right now, that could put me in the opposite direction. But yeah, food and friends, I guess. Final answer.

Do you think most people your age are happy? No, not at all. I don’t know very many people that are happy. But the people that I do know that are happy, are happy just because; they don’t have to have a reason, they just are.

Why are you unhappy sometimes? Just life in general. School. A lot of overwhelming thoughts. (Laughs.) I shouldn’t have said that! You know what I mean.

We talked to Bristow, 13, on Jan. 5 at Barton Springs Pool. He was there with his friend Julian Pivert, also 13.

Pat Chappell

Are you happy? Very happy.

Why are you happy? I’m happy because I am so blessed. I’m blessed because I have pain in this body, but at least I am moving. When you asked me to walk over here for this, I thought, “No, I can’t make it.” But I can, and I did, and I’m thankful. I’m happy because every day I wake up, I know who I am, and I know where I am, and I know whose I am.

Is there anything you think would make you unhappy? It would make me unhappy knowing my grandboys are not well and not happy. … My grandson is going to (get) surgery on his leg again, and he’s not too pleased with it. Because he had it before, and he was in the hospital for six months. He thinks he might have to be there again for six months. That takes me down a little bit, but I get encouraged to try to encourage him. He’s 13.

What about your relationship with God makes you happy? God lets me know that he forgives me for everything that I do wrong. I can start again. He doesn’t take a long time, and I’m happy about that. I can do wrong, and I know I’ve done wrong, and I can ask God to forgive me, and I feel he has forgiven me. I can go on, and that’s a good feeling! That’s a fantastic feeling, really.

What does true happiness mean to you? True happiness to me is when you’re at peace with yourself. … When you’re not struggling and arguing and trying to get something together with yourself. When you can relax and just take it as it is, that’s happiness. Life is never gonna be perfect. You’re never going to have everything there is. But if you have everything you need, and you’re satisfied with it, that’s happiness. That’s happiness to me. (Laughs)

We talked to Chappell, 74, after Sunday service on July 7 at Greater Union Baptist Church. Listen to her talk about true happiness:


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