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Happy for You: A Novel

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A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE

NAMED A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2022 BY GLAMOUR, ELECTRIC LIT, AND THE MILLIONS


“Engrossing and clever . . . Stanford captures the allure, absurdity and menace of corporate spaces with wit and levity . . . Anyone who has resisted fitting neatly into an algorithm will find a companion in Evelyn, and in this book.” The New York Times Book Review

The optimal novel for the strange times we find ourselves in.” —Rachel Khong, author of Goodbye, Vitamin

A whip-smart, funny, affecting novel about a young woman who takes a job at a tech company looking to break into the “happiness market”—even as her own happiness feels more unknowable than ever


Four years into writing her still-unfinished philosophy dissertation, and anticipating a marriage proposal from her long-term boyfriend, Evelyn Kominsky Kumamoto is wrestling with big questions about life: How can she do meaningful work in the world? Is she ready for marriage—and motherhood? But no one else around her seems to share her ambivalence. Her relentlessly optimistic, Midwestern boyfriend has no hesitation about making a lifelong commitment; her best friend, Sharky, seems to have wholeheartedly embraced his second-choice career as a trend forecaster; and her usually reserved father has thrown himself headlong into a new relationship—his first since her mother’s passing when Evelyn was fourteen.

Swallowing her doubts, Evelyn makes a leap, leaving academia for a job as a researcher at the third-most popular internet company, where her team is tasked with developing an app that will help users quantify and augment their happiness. Confronting Silicon Valley’s norm-reinforcing algorithms and predominantly white culture, she struggles to find belonging: as a biracial person, as an Asian American, and as someone who doesn’t know how to perform social media’s vision of what womanhood should look like. As her misgivings mount, an unexpected development upends her assumptions about her future, and Evelyn embarks on a journey toward an authentic happiness all her own.

Wry, touching, and sharply attuned to the ambivalence, atomization, and illusion of control that characterize modern life, Happy for You is a story of a young woman at a crossroads that movingly explores how, even in this mediated world, our emotions, contradictions, and vulnerabilities have a transformative power we could never predict.

ISBN-13: 9780593298282

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 04-18-2023

Pages: 256

Product Dimensions: 5.27(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.70(d)

Claire Stanford’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Electric Lit, Literary Hub, and other publications. She received her MFA from the University of Minnesota and her PhD in English at the University of California, Los Angeles. Born and raised in Berkeley, she currently lives in Reno, where she is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Read an Excerpt

One

When I went to my interview at the third-most-popular internet company, I tried to make myself look like a real person. I bought a suit and put it on my body. My interviewer was a woman around my age who appeared to also be half Asian. I couldn't determine what kind of half Asian she was, nor did I mention the fact that we were both half Asian. Neither did she, though for her to mention it during a job interview would probably have been illegal.

The project, she said, was happiness.

Happiness? I said.

Happiness, she said. They wanted to understand it. To measure it. To help their users grow it, like a muscle that could be toned. They were looking to add out-of-the-box thinkers. She asked me what I thought I could contribute.

I told her about my wide-ranging philosophical grounding, my study of the mind-body problem, of the theory of emotions. These were the phrases I used, phrases I had practiced in the mirror the day before. She nodded, making a note.

"I see you haven't finished your PhD?" she said.

"Not quite," I said. She nodded and made another note.

"Why do you want to work here? Why leave academia?" This was the question I had practiced the most.

"I want the work I do to matter. I want to do something tangible, to be part of something that affects people's daily lives, that improves them."

She asked me more questions, I gave her more answers. I came back for more interviews, met more people, sat in more conference rooms, talked more about my research.

A few days later, I got the call that I was hired.

Two

The third-most-popular internet company was not the company that most people I knew used when they used the internet, but it must have been used by enough people in the world every day that it could somehow stay in business, and also maintain the hope that it would one day overtake or at least equal the company that I and billions of other people saw when we called up our home screens. I wondered why the company even existed. Apart from the obvious evils of monopolies, and particularly information monopolies, what need was there for a number two internet company, let alone a number three?

This was not something I could ask at my interviews.

Up until this point in my life, I had done everything possible to avoid a desk job. I was thirty-one years old, and I had spent the past eight years in a PhD program in philosophy, the last four years of which had been spent struggling with my dissertation on the mind-body problem. It was a centuries-old question, the subject of countless dissertations-did the mind exist separate from the body?-but my specific angle was asking how it had been complicated by recent technologies. Social media, virtual reality, artificial intelligence. How important was our physical body to our mental processes: thoughts, feelings, consciousness?

My argument, in short, was that the body was not very important. My dissertation argued that our online selves were an extension of our consciousness, that they were so deeply enmeshed with our cognitive processes, they had become part of our minds. I wasn't sure I entirely believed my own argument, but when I had suggested it, my advisor had been excited. It was hard to get my advisor excited about anything; she had already turned down several of my earlier ideas. I didn't mind that I didn't totally believe my own argument. Did Berkeley really believe that material substances didn't exist? That tables and chairs were only ideas in the mind of the beholder, that they did not exist if they were not perceived? I highly doubted it.

A month before my interview at the third-most-popular internet company, I got an email about a job recruitment fair. These recruitments usually were aimed at engineering students, sociology students, students who were studying something that had any practical application. Not philosophy students. Normally I would have swiped the email right into the trash, but lately, I had been considering a change.

I had begun to rethink things that spring, after I presented at philosophy's biggest conference. I had been submitting abstracts for years without receiving an invitation. Finally, I thought, I had made it. I spent endless hours on my paper, on my slides, on my delivery. I flew on a red-eye to Florida and took a crowded shuttle to the conference hotel. I dutifully went to panel after panel, taking notes, trying to network, drinking seemingly infinite cups of complimentary coffee from an urn in the lobby. The night before my presentation, I couldn't sleep, my body buzzing with caffeine and adrenaline. In the morning, I drank more coffee and practiced my talk one more time. There were six people in the audience. Was this, I wondered, what I really wanted? It had been four years, and I still hadn't managed to finish my dissertation. Maybe there was something else out there for me.

At the recruitment fair, the vast room was warm with the heat of ambitious bodies, with nerves and handshakes and undergraduates in suits and ties, in tasteful heels, each holding a sheaf of carefully formatted résumés. I had graduated from college during the recession, but I had been sheltered from its worst effects by the amniotic safety of graduate school. These students were different. They were hungry. They knew what they wanted to do in life and they were ready to do it. The booths were mobbed-labs, consulting firms, start-ups. I saw a booth for the first-most-popular internet company, and the second-most-popular, both surrounded. But the third-most-popular had a momentary lull.

I told the recruiter about my research.

"We've been looking for people like you," she said.

In September, instead of going back to school, I took an indefinite leave of absence. Normally, the hiring manager for the third-most-popular internet company had said, they wouldn't give a job to someone who hadn't completed their PhD, but my work was so relevant to the project, they were sure I would make a good addition to the team. Still, they hired me on a six-month trial contract-I would have to prove myself worthy of a permanent position.

The contract did not stipulate how, exactly, I would do this.

Even during this trial period, the amount of money they would be paying me multiplied my graduate student stipend by several factors. I had lived on the stipend for so long that the number they said was almost incomprehensible to me. My boyfriend, Jamie, was excited for me. My best friend, Sharky, sent me a firecracker emoji when I texted him the news. My advisor was the only person who didn't approve. She said she couldn't stop me, but that she was disappointed. My work, she said, was poised to make a significant contribution to the field.

On my first day, I woke up hours early. I sat in the living room with a cup of coffee and thought about whether this was what I really wanted to do. It wasn't too late to take it all back, but also, really, it was. I had told everyone I knew that I was leaving academia, that I was starting this job. I was proud that the third-most-popular internet company wanted me; I was excited to feel useful.

When Jamie woke up an hour later, he found me still sitting, already fully dressed, on the sofa. He came and sat next to me, his body warm and loose, the left side of his face still creased from the pillow.

"Nervous?" he said.

I nodded.

"It's going to be fine," he said. "You'll be great."

I nodded again and felt something inside my chest relax. Jamie always thought everything was going to work out, and he had a way of making me feel like that, too.

"You're so smart and so thoughtful and you're going to bring something to them that they've never seen before," he said. "You're taking a risk, trying something new, and that isn't easy. I'm proud of you."

"I'm proud of you, too," I said.

"You're proud of me? For what?"

"For being you, I guess."

"You guess?"

"Not I guess," I said. "I know."

"That's better," he said, and then he grabbed me in a bear hug and pulled me into his body.

Three

The third-most-popular internet company occupied a building downtown that was all metal and glass. In the lobby, an enormous sculpture hung from the ceiling; it was brightly colored and abstract, meant, I thought, to confer liveliness and excitement onto its otherwise sterile environment.

I pressed the employee ID I had gotten at orientation to the scanner at the security turnstile and waited the requisite split second for the light to flash green. At the orientation, I had filled out paperwork for my health insurance, which, though I was a contractor, was still surprisingly excellent. I had taken a tour of the building, gotten my photo taken and my security badge printed, picked up my company-issued laptop, and met a few members of the team I would be working with, none of whose names I remembered except for the head of the project, Alethea Luce, who would be my boss. She was in her mid-forties and enormously tall-easily over six feet-with curly red hair that went down to her shoulder blades. She wore a pair of thick-rimmed glasses that made her look extremely fashion-forward, though it was not clear to me whether they were a conscious style choice. She had a PhD in neurochemistry, and I was basically in awe of her; she had sat in on several rounds of my interviews, asking questions that were difficult and provocative, nodding intently as I gave my answers. I had read up on her research when I was interviewing for the job; her dissertation argued that emotions were physical processes triggered by external stimuli. Her work advanced the claim that each emotion was housed in a specific location in the brain, and that once that location was found, the emotion could be targeted much more effectively-by medication, by electrotherapy, by an array of other interventions. This was a controversial stance; studies had shown that a group of people would say they were all experiencing the same emotion-anger, for example-but MRIs of their brains would show entirely different regions lighting up. The truth was that emotions were still an utter unknown, in philosophy, in psychology, in neurochemistry.

I took the elevator to the seventh floor and stepped out into the open office space. I looked at the rows of clean white tables, the ergonomic mesh chairs, the sleek computers, many already whirring with the day's work. Our desks were not assigned, and looking out at the open seats felt not unlike trying to choose a spot in the cafeteria as the new girl at school. Somehow, they hadn't covered this detail in the orientation.

Just then, a woman came up to me, a broad smile on her face.

"Evelyn, right?"

I nodded.

"I'm Sabine," she said, sticking out her hand. I clasped it with my own. The woman looked like she was a couple of years younger than me; her face was dewy and bright, and a small diamond stud sparkled on the left side of her nose. She was very petite, inches shorter than me, but I could tell already that she had a big presence. She appeared to be South Asian.

"I knew a new person was coming today, and you looked just lost enough," she said. "We're in the same research group. Come on, I'll show you where we sit."

I followed her to a far corner of the office, where a white man a few years older than me was sitting. He had curly black hair and wore glasses with clear frames. He looked slightly disheveled, but in a way that I suspected might be more crafted than accidental.

"This is Josh," Sabine said. "He's also part of the emotions research team. It's the three of us now."

"Welcome, welcome," Josh said. He turned from his screen to shake my hand and then immediately went back to the document he was working on.

"He's in the middle of something," Sabine said. "Anyway, it's open office, but we basically sit here. You can take this desk, it's next to mine." She motioned to an empty workspace across from Josh. I put my bag on the desk she had pointed to, and we sat down in neighboring chairs.

"Philosophy, right?" she said. I must have looked at her quizzically. "You're a philosophy PhD, right?"

"How did you know that?" I asked.

"Oh, we know everything about you. Right, Josh?"

From the other side of the computers, Josh made an assenting sound.

"I heard you haven't finished," she said. "That's pretty rare. They must have really wanted you."

"I guess so," I said. "I don't know."

I asked her about her background.

"Sociology," she said. "I mostly do quantitative user experience research, but some qualitative. Basically it means how people are using the product, what they want from the product, what they need from the product." She went on, telling me about software stacks and development servers, standardized markdowns and open-source programs. I didn't understand much of it, but I figured I would soon. Josh, she said, had a PhD in psychology. He mostly worked on meta-analysis of users' emotional fluctuations.

"We've never had a philosopher before," she said. "What's your specialty?"

I told her I worked on the mind-body problem. Before I could explain it, she nodded knowingly. "Ah," she said. "I thought you were going to be an ethics person. That's what we both thought, right, Josh?"

The same assenting sound came from behind the monitor.

"An ethics person is what they really need around here," she went on. "But those decisions are above my pay grade." She must have sensed my discomfort, because she hurried to add that she was sure I'd have a lot to contribute to the team.

"Oh, I almost forgo," she said, opening a drawer at her workstation. "HR dropped these off for you." She handed me a long rectangular cardboard box that was surprisingly heavy. Inside was a sheaf of business cards. Everything else at the third-most-popular internet company was digital, of course. But the cards were a throwback, printed with raised letters on heavy cardstock.

I ran my hand along their top ridges, watching them flip forward and backward. I pulled a single card out of the box and traced the letters of my name with my finger.

It read:

evelyn kominsky kumamoto, researcher