— where the citizens compete for happiness
I don’t tell you stories. I tell you cities. It’s the cities themselves that take the shapes of stories—the epics, the anecdotes, the morality tales. The empire is a bookshelf where all the great stories are retold, updated to wear the costume of the modern capital.
Let me tell you Kenesaw Mountain, which has so much to teach us about happiness and suffering. The parable begins not in a city hall, not in a town square or a battlefield or a declaration of sovereignty, but in a laboratory, miles away. It was a time of great suffering in the empire—not only for its human citizens, which is always the case, but for its other animals, whose entire factory-bound existence, from birth to death, was conceived in an effort to meet the protein-tastes of the humans.
There was a long tradition of making unsatisfying substitute proteins out of plants, whose bloodless aminos and umamis were not then to the taste of the citizens. After decades of incremental advances in fake hot dogs, fake chicken nuggets, fake ground beef (though with curiously little progress toward any good mimicry of bacon), this industry had accomplished little more than securing its own esoteric shelf in the freezer aisles of the boujier supermarkets of the country. But then certain advances in gene manipulation and protein synthesis were achieved, most of them in university laboratories underwritten by and named after the world’s various fast-food chains, and finally, consumers were offered meat products made of real animal tissue, which was grown in the lab, never connected to any central nervous system that could interpret anything as suffering.
A widely adored hamburger dynasty was able to shorten the cost curve such that they were first to market with a suffering-free, ‘real’ beef hamburger patty, which was genetically manipulated to twice the size, half the calories, with fifty percent more animal flavor, all for pennies on the dollar. Profits fell like rain.
It was soon discovered that a certain chemical sequence in the protein structure of the burger dynasty’s new beef interacted with the human brain to produce a mild euphoria. This particular euphoria had the characteristic of accumulating, getting less mild the more you ate—building and charging with each bite as if there were some ecstatic climax out ahead of you, which you wanted to approach but were also afraid of. And your fear was correct. There was a dark side to the chemical: the euphoria had a way of choosing itself—every bite you took made it much more difficult to not then take a next bite, even as you got fuller. At n = four (4) burgers the chemical took a right turn. The raw electroneural pleasure of the burgers intensified, but it stopped being fun, and became almost impossible to stop eating. At n = eight (8) burgers—which was a virtual certainty, after/assuming the fourth burger—the chemical properties took another right turn, and became overwhelmingly, suicidally depressive.
No one working for the hamburger dynasty expected any of its customers to pass the n = 4-burger threshold. This would’ve meant consuming over 1000% more protein than a human body can even process in a day. There was no papertrail suggesting any internal study or awareness of the effects before the product’s rollout.
There was a certain popular teenage Influencer, who, sensing a turn in the tide of animal cruelty, had quit her previous fast-food sponsorship. Angling for the hamburger dynasty’s patronage, she livestreamed a one-girl bacchanal from one of the dynasty’s franchises in which she ate burger after burger, getting more manic and euphoric all the time, giddily pronouncing on how good it felt to be (so affordably) cruelty-free. This was before she finished the n = 4th burger. After that, she stopped speaking, and just kept eating, returning to the counter between each burger as if summoned. Her energy became more manic, but more focused. That nervous smile, vacant gleam in the eyes, which seemed to look everywhere, but see nothing. Her hunger took on a runaway-train kind of momentum. She ate now like she thought she might go a very long time before being able to eat again. Finally she finished the n = 8th burger and hit some sort of internal wall. She did not go up for a ninth. The manic movement in her eyes slowed, gained all the moonglowy focus of the prophet. She stood up without turning off the livestream and walked out of frame, into traffic.
Still there was evidently no thought on the hamburger dynasty’s part that the burgers might have been somehow neurochemically responsible for the girl’s death, which for a time was not even obviously a suicide.
Were it not for the girl’s fame and Influence, the really pernicious effects of consuming the burgers in such quantity may not have spread so much, may never have become known at all. Following her death, there was the standard digital outpouring of support and abuse. People crowdsourced funds for her funeral, for her parents’ early retirement, for her siblings’ college funds and grief counseling and tourism therapy. The burger dynansty itself sponsored a small internet campaign thanking the girl for spending her final moments spreading the gospel of cruelty-free eating, and expressing gratitude for being able to bring her some kind of obvious if mysterious joy before the end.
There followed, among her fans, a tsunami of tributes. Slightly misreading the intent of her final livestream, many fans announced their conversion not to cruelty-free eating in general, but to the hamburger dynasty in particular. Many of them livestreamed their first meal following this conversion, which they dedicated to the girl. Most of these ended after a burger or two, with the mourning livestreamers brought—via the burgers—to a temporary state of peace, even a little giddy with their newfound acceptance of mortality, a suddenly clear-eyed appreciation for life’s constant turning on and of the great wheel that is the world. But a few of these people did make it to that crucial fourth burger, which pulled them like a tugboat to the n = 8th burger, following which there was the same transformation from jittery mania to an apparent emptying of affect, an evacuation of self. These teens were then seen to reach for whatever (self-)weaponizable objects were nearest at hand, or to seek jumpable rooftops, or to just sit there, with the final bite of the eighth burger only half-swallowed.
This was extraordinarily bad PR. Consumers found it difficult to watch the beautiful children die. Many reported difficulty in thinking about—and in not thinking about—the parents. The burger dynasty temporarily halted sales of the burgers as they launched a sweeping internal investigation. They mapped the burgers’ effects on the brain. They did a good job of taking responsibility for the deaths that occurred up to that point. They had a state-of-the-art apology team. They settled generously and out of court with all the parents. But they also publicly dissembled a bit when it came to taking actual responsibility for whatever was in the burgers. The company insisted it must have been the product of errant or malicious code written into the genomic sequence. Possibly an incompetent intern, possibly a hacker, possibly a disgruntled former employee, possibly the agent of a hostile foreign government or a rival fast-food franchise or some (pro- or anti-)environmental justice terrorist cell.
But behind closed doors, the burger dynasty’s executives still thought of the whole situation mostly as a marketing problem. They thought if they could somehow discourage people from overindulging to such an extreme, and could minimize the loss of human life, they’d still be doing a good thing for the total amount of suffering in the world, which would ultimately get reflected in some sort of bottom line. Even the occasional over-indulgence of these burgers (n = 2 or even 3) was much healthier in the long run than eating greater or even lesser amounts of real-real-beef burgers at other restaurants.
The burger dynasty attempted an awareness campaign to educate the public in the three-burger limit, but they failed to consider the people’s tendency to hear any sort of guideline first as a prohibition against their individual liberty, then as a challenge—an immediate octuple-dog dare—then as a script for exactly what is to be done. The campaign blew up spectacularly and the burger dynasty went back to the drawing board. They were racing against time. Only congressional gridlock kept the burgers from being outlawed entirely. There were boycotts, though the burgers mostly still kept selling. Profits soared, but share prices fell—until the common stock became an obvious value buy, at which point share prices recovered.
The burger dynasty argued that they did everything possible. Execs pulled strings with former colleagues and college roommates who now worked for various digital-media outfits, who went around all Ts & Cs to algorithmically blacklist videos of people eating themselves to death. The burger dynasty also publicized the launch of free weekly group-therapy sessions at all its franchise locations. These were supposed to specialize in depression and disordered eating (whether it be burger-related or not), but they ended up as a sort of weekly free clinic for any variety of health complaint, mental-behavioral and otherwise. This became a valuable public service especially in those million small and rural towns underserved by the mental health sector. The burger dynasty earned some crucial PR points, and saw a possible way out: not in the elimination of the bad, but in its overshadowing (and eventual swallowing) by the good.
The truly inspired stroke came in the suggestion of an intern at the PR firm the burger dynasty had kept on retainer. The PR firm’s boss happened to be out of town skiing during one particular conference call, which has been immortalized in many accounts elsewhere. In an extraordinary act of careersmanship, the intern used the occasion of his boss’s absence to suggest the burger dynasty hold an enormous contest to identify the happiest living person, and to give him or her or them a public platform on the company’s dime, plus free burgers for life.
This is what finally brings us to the city of Kenesaw Mountain, home of William Oahuna, inaugural winner of the World’s Happiest Person contest. After the announcement, the city transformed overnight. Swarms of the unhappy, the depressed, the enrutted, the hopeless, the suicidal, the suffering-in-all-ways flocked to Kenesaw Mountain like pilgrims to a dying saint. Though Mr. Oahuna was not dying. He was in reasonably good health, for his age, with only one daily medication, for mild hypertension.
There was nothing in his body or biography that explained his prodigious happiness. Nor was there anything especially great about the small city he lived in. He did not attend church. The closest thing to a community he had before his victory in the happiness contest was a twice-weekly bridge circuit that brought him into the living rooms of people who were good acquaintances of his, though not exactly soulmates.
Mr. Oahuna was a widower, who before coming to Kenesaw Mountain had spent the first twelve years of his life in an island paradise. He didn’t grow up with much money, but he says the constant sunshine gave him a sense of the fundamental benevolence of the world, which Kenesaw Mountain’s brutal winters had not managed to undo. He ran a small hardware store in town, though most of his business consisted in the copying of housekeys. He speculated, after his victory, that his genius for happiness may have had something to do with the key copying, which he found to be a deeply contemplative act, one that gave him a sense of satisfaction and correctness. His eating habits were unremarkable, as was his exercise routine and media diet and libido. But he was always happy. Even when he had a cold he was happy.
The contest was such a hit—and so successful in putting the negative burger press to bed—that the burger dynasty repeated it the following year, publicizing it even more, with more sophisticated metrics of evaluation, more competition, and more (& puffier) media coverage, and Mr. Oahuna won again.
People were surprised. Some were very upset with him, and found ways of telling him so. Others were upset with the burger dynasty for allowing it to happen. Instead of cowering this time, the burger dynasty defended itself—they said that if the goal of identifying geniuses of happiness was ultimately to celebrate and help advance the mass-sum of species- and planet-wide happiness, then it would only advance that project to know that the happiest person in the world could remain the happiest person in the world across a full calendar year, or become that person again afterward, with all the year’s changes big and small, and with whatever consequences may have befallen him from the last year’s victory.
The burger dynasty said it reveals how little we actually understand happiness that he was not disqualified: at the time the decision was less about the belief that he should be able to win again and more about the disbelief that he could. They really didn’t think it was possible, they said. Most people bought this. Some conspiracy theorists suggested the Happiness Contest had been rigged, with a variety of explanations as to who must have participated in the rigging and why. Many more people moved to Kenesaw Mountain: both Mr. Oahuna’s manically-balanced competitors and his depressive & still mostly disbelieving followers. Most of these people of course eventually needed keys copied, and Mr. Oahuna was evidently quite happy to be their man, as was demonstrated with his third consecutive victory the following year.
After this he came under police protection. For the next fiscal year—before the burger dynasty was forced to take over the funding of all municipal operations—this siphoned almost all the town’s budget (few of the newcomers paying income taxes) and caused a big drop-off in public services, though Mr. Oahuna’s happiness was demonstrated not to have suffered very much with his next (v = 4) victory. He celebrated by buying a new slightly more automated key machine and hiring his first ever employee—a minimum wage position to which thousands of people applied just to get close to him, hoping to study or to steal his secrets, or at least to absorb them unconsciously (which some would call stealing).
There were many who came to study him. Not just depressives, but scientists, academics, artists, politicians, theorists, theologians, spiritual apprentices, spiritual adepts. They studied him in every possible dimension, trying to understand: his blood, his genome, his brain map, his handsomeness, his vocabulary, his deepest religious and philosophical beliefs, his superstitions, his rituals and obsessions, his tics, his tastes, his wardrobe, his age, his habits, his relationship history, his bank statements, his spending, his credit, his debt, his phone use, his fame, his memory. He was, for a time, so written about as not just a case study but an exemplar that people worried the portrait of his happiness would soon become the portrait of the best happiness, the only happiness, the happiness all others should emulate, the happiness all others were inferior for not perfectly mimicking.
This went on, year after year, into Mr. Oahuna’s advanced age. More people flocked to Kenesaw Mountain, as if its water supply had some magic formula, which some people did believe. It was a boomtown, built—as boomtowns so often are—on the happiness of a single man. Some objected to the idea that one person should enjoy such privilege and dominion in the realm of happiness. Others celebrated it. They said if you can’t join him, beat him. Many tried. Practitioners of all the different avenues of bliss, from the pharmachemical to the meditative, from the ascetic to the libertine, the yogic and the sybaritic, the stoic and the Dionysian, the dominant and the submissive, the moral and the nihilistic, the religious and the consumerist, the romantic and the orthodox, the flamboyant and the basic, the hermetic and the communal, the monastic and the in-love. The burger dynasty was still not in the business of moralizing—no strategies were forbidden save the directly violent, unless of course you could secure the permission of someone who would receive the violence as part of their own pursuit of happiness.
A full generation passed and through all its changes in temper, consciousness, politics, Mr. Oahuna kept winning. The public alternated between boredom and reignitions of interest. The competitors kept getting more sophisticated. More and more of them had been born into a world where the happiness competition already existed. Some of their parents had competed and, having failed to be very remarkable, would compete vicariously through their children. Some of these parents had (or had gotten very good at living without) money, and could afford to devote their and their children’s entire lives to the new sport of Competitive Happiness. The children were home-schooled and gave every possible moment to top-tier coaching—psychiatrists, priests, meditators, shamans, Pavlovians with state-of-the-art biofeedback instruments. Some kids were fed powerful psychoactive drugs like candy. Others were brought up totally hardcore and drug free. The emphasis on constant happiness as the only worthwhile state of being—in combination with the dim interior life often observed in world-class athletes—led to a new breed of competitor which seemed even like a new breed of human, with whole new affective states that were almost unrecognizable to other people, but which some suggested were actually such profound expressions of happiness that the rest of us couldn’t even recognize them as such. Mr. Oahuna beat them all. Certain groups were pleased and invested a great deal of faith in him—conservatives, luddites, his extended family, going back to cousins he’d never met and who’d never left the island they were born on, unless you counted their morning surf routine.
Then one year he lost. The winner was a small girl who was actually born in Kenesaw Mountain, to parents who were true locals, and who never themselves entered the Happiness Contest. It was the girl’s idea to compete, which she’d somehow come up with after being diagnosed with a rare form of juvenile brain cancer. Before the end of the competition, the girl’s care situation changed from palliative to hospice. She lay there dying in the outrageously expensive hospital bed in the family’s small living room. She was medium-lucid. She asked her mother if she would live long enough to make it through the competition. Her mother said no. The girl started to cry, weakly, but was seen to make a kind of peace within herself. But her mom couldn’t take it, so she told the girl that actually the competition had already ended—that she had won. The girl gave a weak but radiant smile, then slipped into her final coma. But then she did actually win the contest. And then she did actually die. Many said her mother was a hero. The mother’s innermost fear—under all the layers of grief and gratitude—was that the girl’s happiness was not actual. Not because it was made of a tumor, but because it was made of the mother’s lie, and because it was over, because she had died, and so where did all that happiness go? It’s not like the mom had inherited it. She’d just watched it die right out of existence.
Mr. Oahuna came in second. His extended family—who had all given up their dayjobs to manage his care and life and estate and hardware store—objected to the result. They brought the matter to litigation. They hired a private investigator who’d gotten his hands on some private medical documents suggesting the girl’s happiness was not despite but because of the tumor. Mr. Oahuna did not attend the trial. The burger dynasty was called in to testify. They pointed to precedent, reaffirming their long-held position that they were not in the business of judging which paths to happiness were more legitimate than any other, just what were more effective. The case was tossed. In a show of good faith, the burger dynasty extended the right to free burgers for life to Mr. Oahuna’s extended family, which they accepted, but still they were publicly disgraced, and Mr. Oahuna’s reputation was tarnished, though he’d had almost nothing to do with the case. The family took some awkward consolation in the knowledge that Mr. Oahuna would regain his title the following year, with the girl now gone. But he didn’t. He didn’t even get honorable mention. It’s not that he was suddenly unwell. Nor that he was mourning the girl—he’d already encountered death in great amount and variety in his time, and by that point no single loss affected him more than any other. And anyway he wasn’t really aware of the girl.
And it wasn’t that he was mourning his own previous loss, or his loss of public esteem. When asked what was bringing him down, he said he just kept getting the feeling that the people around him were pissed off about something, and fighting with somebody.
That year he died. His hardware store was liquidated. The funeral was open to the public, but few outside the family attended. The act of mourning was thought to interfere, in some way, with the project of maximizing personal happiness, and after Mr. Oahuna’s decisive downfall, everyone felt they finally had a real chance to compete. Ratings for the next Happiness Contest were the lowest they’d ever been, and it was moved off of primetime. The city of Kenesaw Mountain persists, the unlikely home of the world’s fiercest happiness athletes, but the sport is a fringe part of the broader culture at best, and few outside Kenesaw Mountain take interest in it anymore.
I spent one night in Kenesaw Mountain. As far as the city itself, I don’t have much to report. It was dark when I arrived, so I can’t really tell you what it looked like: just the standard constellation of drive-thrus and traffic lights, motel signs advertising vacancy or none. You couldn’t get any food delivered after 9pm, and I wondered what that had to do with happiness. I didn’t stop to see any of the sights in the morning, except for the way out. I knew she wouldn’t be there, so I was just passing through.
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Steven Koteff lives in Philadelphia and writes many kinds of fiction. Follow @newamericancities on Instagram for more stories like this one.