An Interview with Kim Korson

Melancholics of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your painted-on smiley face.


Essayist Kim Korson's new book, I Don't Have a Happy Place: Cheerful Stories of Despondency and Gloom, is a roadmap of sorts. Looking for the quickest route to clear and present sadness? She's got you covered. Here's an eyes-wide-open self-assessment: "I am exhausting and draining and something to be managed, like diabetes."

For Korson, the glass isn't half empty. There is no glass. Gallows humor abounds as she shares her story of relatively low-grade but constant woe. We swapped emails in March.

Talk about the life of the dysthymics. It sounds like it's the kind of depression that's really depressing to have, i.e., not "heavy" enough for the Pharma industry to take much notice, but not "light" enough to ignore. You laugh or you cry?

I do both, equally.

Dysthymia is a fancy word for mild depression. I joke in the book that my diagnosis is insulting and watery, how I feel terrible I don’t have full-fledged depression. Obviously I am being flip about wanting more than a mild case of mental health, but there are certain ailments that seem fake to others — seasonal affective disorder, chronic fatigue — but they are very real to the sufferers.

Unfortunately, they are also easy to mock. It is challenging to live with nagging sadness, especially when people suggest you “snap out of it.” Dysthymia lurks in your system, gently poking all day long, reminding you it’s there. It is mild, though. It reminds me of that silly sporty-movie expression, “Go big or go home.” I guess if you are dysthymic, you go home. Which is fine with me. I don’t care for sports much and I like home.

Has it been a relief to admit that you can't always be happy?

I’m quite vocal about being a malcontent, so admitting it has not been new news for me. What has been a huge relief is hearing others say they could admit it about themselves, how they felt let off the happy hook.

A question I struggle with often is: Does everyone have to be happy? And do we need to be happy all the time, as these self-help books often suggest? It seems that everyone’s goal, for themselves and their loved ones, is to be happy. Well, what if you aren’t? Are you a complete failure?

Granted, I am an extreme case. I have actual trouble feeling happy, or feeling happy for longer than a flash and I don’t think I will ever walk around feeling content. I am just not wired that way. The books with smiley faces on their covers, promising to unlock secret happy places within, end up making me feel worse about myself.

I set out to write this book in order to uncover if, indeed, happiness was a choice. I understand, intellectually, that if you have a good attitude, most of your experiences will seem more positive. But what if your wiring just doesn’t let you live like that? What if optimism makes you itchy?

I’ve tried fighting my settings, and it doesn’t seem to work. That said, I happen to laugh a lot for a miserable person. I have a lovely family, some decent friends, and I get out of bed in the morning and do something I love. Sure, I find a way to feel bad about all those things, but I manage. At the end of the day, I am just not a happy person and I feel that has to be okay.

You talk about us being in an "everyone's a winner" culture. As a proud 1981 high school graduate ranked exactly in the middle of my 620-person class, I admire you taking that on. I was number 310 and I got handed a slip of paper that made sure I knew that. How do you think this new "trophies for everyone" approach will affect, or is already affecting, millennials?

This “everyone’s a winner” culture really makes me want to rip out my eyelashes. I have news for you, everyone is NOT a winner! What are we teaching our kids with this? They watch sports, elections, audition for shows, play board games — there is often a clear winner and loser.

And who are we kidding? The coaches might not keep score at my son’s hockey game, but the kids do. How do we teach them to win and lose with grace if they are all winning all the time? We are often reminded that activities are about fun, which is great (if you like fun). I’m not suggesting we breed competitive freaks, have parents in the stands fighting over points, have little hearts broken when they don’t get the lead in a show, but some reality would be nice. This whole topic gets me up in arms.

Everyone should experience both sides. We should be on the winning team and the losing team, just as we experience gain and loss, happiness and misery. How else are we all going to grow or understand how to function in society or in our very own skin? If everyone is a winner, what happens when you don’t get that job you want or something doesn’t go your way — what skills will you have?

It is a fact — sometimes you will win, sometimes you will lose. Be prepared for both. I actually think there is much to gain from losing. It’s how we understand how to dust ourselves off and move on. Learn to win and to lose elegantly. Everyone’s a winner...give me a break. I’ve met a lot of people. Trust me, they’re not all winners.

The world is full of irritating people who say things like "Cheer up!" with that smile on their faces. Do you have heroes who don't play that game?

Don’t you just want to push those people over? If I’m being honest, the concept of heroes is slightly optimistic for the likes of me, but I will say I really admire Larry David. He is a curmudgeon after my own heart. You will rarely hear me say I was at a party, but about 10 or so years ago, I accompanied my husband to a Hollywood event. I remember standing on the sidelines in an ill-fitting dress, counting the minutes until I could be back in the hotel.

I was minding my own business when I noticed, in the center of it all, Larry David sitting with a plate on his knee. Everyone was in full force schmoozing mode, laughing and small-talking, and there he sat, literally in the middle of it all, perfectly content, eating. It killed me. He genuinely didn’t care what was going on around him, he was hungry, he was going to sit alone and eat.

Larry David is hilarious and whip smart, but what really intrigues me is that even riddled with issues, his attitude suggests: This is who I am, I’m fine with it, and I don’t really care if you aren’t. To me, he’s successful at being a person even while being slightly mental. I enjoy that

Finally, I hope this interview hasn't depressed you. How are you feeling today?   

Meh. I’m okay. 

Michael Causey is a past president of Washington Independent Writers.

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