What Does Happiness Smell Like Don’t Say Madeleines

“But I find myself worrying away at that stuff about pop music again,

whether I like it because I’m unhappy, or whether I’m unhappy because I like it.”

—High Fidelity, Nick Hornby, 1995

Internet legend has it that Sephora employees will give any customer up to three free samples. The one time I witnessed a Sephora employee giving a customer free samples, said customer took offense.

“Try this for your skin,” said the employee.

“I DO NOT HAVE PROBLEM SKIN,” snapped the customer.

This exchange went back and forth, escalating in a manner so horrific that I hovered nearby, pretending to test out products. The customer, a self-proclaimed aesthetician, finally stormed out of the store, and I had to clean a rainbow of waterproof crap off myself before I could, too.

So it was with fear and trepidation in my heart that I made a plan, a week or so later, to return to Sephora and ask for a sample of Clinique Happy. I wanted to smell the perfume that had terrorized my youth, to smell the teen spirit of which Nirvana never sang. My expectation was to be humiliated by what would appear to be my unsophisticated taste, as if I were about to write my graduate English thesis on The Baby-Sitters Club instead of Ulysses. (“Yes,” said Molly Bloom.) I have an innocent face; the salespeople would take me seriously. Questions I was afraid to be asked included, “WHY?!?” and “For your niece?” and—the real kicker—“Are you shopping for your daughter?”

The plan—inked into my paper planner because I like making lists and crossing things off—glared at me on the date in question: Go to Sephora! Ever a procrastinator, I first went to yoga to pull myself together. But what if this was the day my yoga instructor would decide that we should be friends? How could I tell a brand-new friend, a person I admired, that I was about to go ask for a free sample of a lousy perfume? I cannot be friends with someone and not tell them about the dumb things I make myself do. After Namaste, I avoided chitchat by making a beeline for the locker room, where two shrieking girls had chosen lockers right next to mine. There’s nothing like trying to shimmy on underpants next to two people whose very existence pisses you off. But who was I to judge? I was about to go get me some Happy.

Reasons why I hate Clinique Happy: It reminds me of puke pink. It smells like the talk you get with your first box of tampons, if you’re lucky enough to get either. It comes with giggles. Pre-packaged. It is as saccharine as a Nicholas Sparks title (I refuse to read his books). It does all the things bad seasonal allergies do: causes dry mouth, demolishes your sex drive. Which, ultimately, is why parents push it on their daughters.

The thing is, if you wanted to smell like a girl in the 1990s, you knew what you had to do: smell like the chemical version of so-called happiness itself.

Other ‘90s teen scents included Tommy Girl, which I have yet to smell, and GAP perfumes, which were heavy on the syrup, even the (as I recall) ethereal Moonflower. Then there were those ten million scents manufactured by Bath and Body Works, whose motto might as well have been: How to smell like hand sanitizer, a slightly classier kind than dispensed in port-o-pots.

I attended this neuroscience talk the other day that suggested we associate our values with our identity. Just fill in the phrase: I am not the kind of person who ______. Perhaps you are not the kind of person who pays $20 for a panel of neuroscientists to explain the obvious. Anyway, we signify our values, these neuroscientists said, through subtle and often unconscious means, such as the clothes you wear to a job interview to signify that you’re a responsible adult or the copy of America that you read on the subway to convince women you’re an intelligent man worthy of Instagram. It seems to me that perfume is a form of signification, in that what was bothering me about Clinique Happy—enough to try and go get a free sample of it—was that I could not understand how I, the Olivia that I imagine myself to have somewhat consistently been, ever wore Clinique Happy. And liked it. Because I had. I did.

Had my nose been disconnected from my brain by my asthma inhaler? Had my real self been hijacked by aliens? Had I been in a mild, medically unclassifiable coma for a couple years? These are all likely scenarios for 14-year-old me, but I think something else was going on. I think my values were starting to change.

When I rejected Happy, it’s because I wanted to grow up. Louisa May Alcott had been pushed aside by Edith Wharton. Then as now, I subscribed to a definition of adulthood that marks maturity through suffering. Not an acute physical pain, or anything qualifying as a mental illness, but more a vague, omnipresent misery. Misery was a force I expected to confront daily, like body hair and social awkwardness. Bless your heart if those are one in the same.

I do not mean that my vision of adulthood was a morbid one. How can you have an appreciation for pleasure unless you’ve felt pain? A full life includes both. Bill Murray is my favorite dramatic actor, but I think his best dramatic acting has been in comedies. The sad clown always steals the show because his depth of experience is more real than anything else.

And that is why I hate Happy: because it has no sense of humor. There is absolutely no misery underlying the “happiness,” and that is why it smells cheap. The predominant note in Happy is citrus, but it’s such a knock-off that most people on the internet describe its smell as “orange.” Orange as in the color, not the fruit. I’ve got a sample of a perfume that only smells like neroli—bittersweet orange oil—which is all the more vivid because, beneath the sweetness, there’s a hint of the petroleum-based plastic toys I loved as a child. Specifically: troll doll. Should the authorities ever find me dead with a tiny plastic bag next to my nose, it will be the bag in which this perfume sample is sealed.

Anyway, I finally got myself to a Sephora. I had to do several loops through the perfume section because I could not believe my eyes: they no longer display any Clinique perfumes, let alone Happy.

Which made me, it turns out, a little bit sad.

It felt great.

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