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Mad Men and the Happiness Carousel

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A few months ago, my girlfriend broke up with me. I was not particularly happy. I had to make a lot of changes in my life, including finding a new show to watch.

I decided to re-watch Mad Men. I figured it would be productive for me to experience male characters that had no problem attracting women as they age. However, I quickly realized that instead of simply romping through Madison Ave, the show’s thematic currents were giving me a chance to reflect on the nature of happiness itself.

Mad Men emerges in the 1950s, a period of unmitigated western prosperity, especially for the show’s focal characters. But nobody is truly happy. They may experience blissful or serene moments, but those subside.

Sometimes, the characters drown their unhappiness in destructive ways, like alcohol or illicit affairs. But mostly, the characters just live in a state of wanting, perpetually seeking something just around the corner that will make them as happy as everyone else seems to be.

This anxiety also makes the characters excellent advertisers. The agency (and the show) succeeds because they understand that for the most part, no one is really happy, and people want their media to bring them happiness.

The show is not coy about this relationship. From the lead, Don Draper, in the first episode:

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? It’s the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams, with reassurance, that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.”

Advertising’s role in society has changed since the 50s, but our shared craving for happiness has not. In fact, as media has permeated even deeper into our lives, it’s easy to see people as more anxious than ever about their mental state.

I am no exception to this anxiety, especially after the breakup. I found myself wanting for happiness more deeply than ever.


Materially, I try not to want for much. I consider myself to have led a privileged existence and am conscious of not over-consuming. But has that made me truly happy, or free of wanting? No.

The idea that you can make yourself happier by wanting less stuff is so common it’s become a truism. But when this idea is brought up, it’s mostly discussed in consumerist terms: shop less, want less. In Mad Men, they spend very little time dissecting this Consumer Culture. It is treated as a real but tangential and boring phenomenon. I agree.

Instead, they explore the type of longing that people have for deeper happiness. We don’t always know how to define it, but it’s obviously not a new car, nor anything else that can be bought.

The show defines this distinction beautifully in the iconic “Carousel” scene. Notice how Don contrasts the consumerist ‘new’ with the deeper wanting that he defines here as ‘nostalgia’:

“[My old boss] told me that the most important idea in advertising, the most important concept, is new. It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a type of calamine lotion.
But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product – nostalgia.

In Greek, nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound”. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.

It goes backwards, forwards… It takes us to a place where we ache to go again”

Nostalgia isn’t powerful because it makes you feel good. It’s powerful because it’s a painful reminder of life’s singular moments. It shows you how good life can be while being less-than in the present. It’s a tiny dope hit for an addiction to happiness we all have.

Breakups are hard because your life fills with nostalgia. Things that used to represent future happiness – songs or jokes you’ll share, life goalposts you’ll to build towards; now only represent the past. Some people drown this out by hating their ex. I was in the unfortunate position of still loving my ex, making the pain of nostalgia even greater.

So if nostalgia is the signpost back to true happiness, do I simply need to follow its direction?

Don’s nostalgia is for his first wife Betty, who he spent the entirety of that season cheating on before they eventually divorce. People often feel nostalgia for their youth, which they can’t return to. I felt nostalgia for my relationship with my ex – who, as of now, I am showing no signs of getting back together with. If we are nostalgic, those moments by definition are not re-creatable.

In that case, is it just a matter of finding new paths to the types of moments that we’re nostalgic for? New people, new experiences that allow us to file new entries in our happiness carousel?

Recently, this has been my mindset. My personal narrative has gone something like this: I’ve got some good things going in my life, so if I can just find a good girl again, I’ll finally be happy.

Don thought so, too. After Don and his first wife divorce, he eventually remarries with the younger, radiant Megan. He genuinely loves her and expresses that in scenes like this one:

It doesn’t end well. Once the honeymoon period (season) is over, Don reverts to the same anxieties and destructive patterns that always plagued him, eventually becoming too much for Megan to bear. They divorce.

This is another truism: relationships have honeymoon periods, and then they get hard.

Where Mad Men differs from truism, and again I agree, is they feel relationships don’t become hard simply because that’s their nature. Relationships become hard because happiness is fleeting. The honeymoon phase is a type of temporary utopia – no matter how good a honeymoon phase, or vacation, or promotion, we always return to our baseline of wanting. It’s not the nature of relationships: it’s the nature of happiness.

As Rachel Menken reminds Don, utopia has two definitions:

“The Greeks had two meanings for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’, meaning the place that cannot be.”

My relationship played this dynamic out. We had a honeymoon period, then it got hard, and then it got too hard. But it didn’t have to do with any personal flaws in either of us, or mistreatment, or mismatch in desires. We simply returned to our baselines, where we were both too caught up in our own anxieties and wantings to feed the relationship what it needed.

Happiness by nature is fleeting. This is a bleak theme for a show. It doesn’t bode well for my “find a new girl, get happy” plan.

How can I ever find lasting happiness if happiness, by definition, doesn’t last?

Obviously, the answer lies partially in not wanting so much. If it’s impossible to achieve everlasting happiness, maybe we can at least reduce want to find peace. But how is that possible, in practical terms?

In its later seasons, Mad Men explores an answer in two parts. We can see their perspective through the times when its characters do seem to find peace.

The first part, according to Mad Men, is seeing things as they are, removed from nostalgia.

For example, the agency gets swallowed up by a much larger agency. The president, Roger, and the head of creative, Peggy, hide away in their old office drinking instead of moving to the new one.

As Roger laments their agency’s former greatness, Peggy reminds him that it wasn’t always perfect, even as she acknowledges her own nostalgia:

“Peggy: It just looks good now, but it was miserable when you were in it, trust me.
Roger: Is that really how you’re going to remember this place?
Peggy: (exhales) No.”

By seeing her previous role for what it was, both good and bad, she’s able to create new possibilities for herself.

In the same season, Don’s tormented ex-wife Betty learns she has terminal lung cancer. Her husband urges her to do chemotherapy, adding weeks to her life but devastating her well-being and her family. Instead, she sees the end of her life for what it is.

She collects herself, continues her master’s degree, and writes a beautiful letter to her daughter. For once, she is at peace.

Sally, I always worried about you, because you march to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure. I love you. -Mom.

According to Mad Men, once you see things as they are, the second step to embrace your circumstances and identities, exactly as they are. This makes you free to make decisions that aren’t closed in by your anxieties or desires.

Mad Men’s most triumphant moments are when characters are able to fully embrace their own imperfect nature.

In the scene immediately following Peggy and Rogers’s conversation, Peggy finally goes to her new office. After spending 10 years trying to make men feel at ease around her competence, she is able to see any office for what it is: walls. So strides into her new office with a sexually graphic Japanese oil painting that signifies that she’s done being eager to please:

Looking again at Betty’s letter scene, this time the full length, we see it’s not just a message to her daughter. It’s also meticulous instructions on maintaining her beauty after death. Although criticized for her vanity, Betty was someone who genuinely did care about beauty for beauty’s sake, and her last letter reflects her self-acceptance of that part of her.

“You must immediately tell the doctor and family hospital that I am to be interred intact. […]

I’ve also enclosed a portrait from the 1968 Republican winter gala. The blue chiffon I wore is my very favourite. I hung it in a gold garment bag in the hall closet beside the mink.

Please bring the lipstick from the handbag, and remind them how I like to wear my hair. Will you show them the picture?

Last, and most poignantly, Don Draper. He spends the entire show running from himself in one way or another, and eventually finds himself at a yoga retreat, forced to come to grips with his identity.

Some people saw the final scene as ambiguous, but I found it very clear. Don looked inwards and found that one thing about his identity is clear: he’s an ad man. So after his nirvana moment, he goes back to work and writes a really fucking good ad for Coke. Nothing more, nothing less.

Stop seeking, see things for what they are, embrace your circumstances and identity.

Seen through this lens, Mad Men’s philosophy actually leans fairly Eastern, especially given its setting in Western Americana.

As for me, I’m no happier than when I started watching Mad Men. But I am able to dry myself of the soak of my relationship’s nostalgia, and am learning to accept my circumstances and identity as they are. I don’t know exactly how I will define those yet. But I know that this journey of self-discovery will bring me much more peace than pinning my happiness on finding a girl. And in the meantime, maybe I’ll write a really fucking good ad.

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