What’s Wrong with Being Unhappy?

I read an article a couple of weeks ago that won’t stop buzzing around in my brain like an irritating house fly. I feel the urge to pick at it like a ripe scab; take it apart, exam its premise and file it under nonsense. Every time I feel this way, I know there’s a part of my unexamined-self begging me to take a closer look, because me and my unexamined-self, we have this thing. Like a secret affair I have a desire to expose it; make it known to myself and then the world because when that happens, I know I’m one step closer to being free from it. This unexamined-self is also known as my Ego.

The article was published on the New York Times Opinionator Blog and is titled, “America the Anxious.” It’s about happiness and the American obsession with finding it, having it and keeping it. Anxiety is something I suffer from regularly and finding happiness is something I struggle with constantly so it piqued my interest immediately.

I am forever analyzing my mood, my hormones, my general state of being. It’s exhausting, really, but staying mentally aware of what I’m thinking and feeling is the only way I have found to not to live unconsciously. And to live unconsciously means to let my Ego and its merry gang of thugs (i.e. laziness, insomnia, anger, over-indulging on anything) be in control of my life. If there’s one thing I hate more than anxiety, it’s letting my unconscious Ego in the driver’s seat. It also makes for shitty writing.

The article makes some valid assertions about the American obsession with finding happiness. The author, Ruth Whippman, is a British native living in the United States; California, to be exact which might just be the mecca of hedonistic culture with Seattle (my current city) running a close third just behind Portland, Oregon. Whippman says,

“The British are generally uncomfortable around the subject [happiness], and as a rule, don’t subscribe to the happy-ever-after. It’s not that we don’t want to be happy, it just seems somehow embarrassing to discuss it, and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask them if they like you.”

She goes on to describe the difference between British Mommy Blogs and American ones. We Americans are all like, “Hey, you’re doing a great job, we’re in this together sister, join the drum circle, kum-ba-yah!” The British Mommy Blogs are packed with more “despair and feces” with some variation of, “this is rubbish.”

My maternal grandmother was British. My grandparents met while my grandfather was stationed in England during WWII. They married and when it was time for him to come home to a small Midwestern town in the United States; she came too, leaving her entire family and her known world behind at the impossibly young age of 19. She started a new life in a foreign land, with a man 12 years her senior whom she barely knew. She didn’t know a single soul in her new town, either. Needless to say, they didn’t have email or Skype or even the capability of frequent phone calls. I can’t help but imagine she was desperately lonely sometimes; because that’s exactly what I would have felt.

If she was, there is no tangential evidence to prove it. She didn’t talk about those things. One time I asked her if she ever got drunk and she said, “Once, on a train. I didn’t like it.” That was the end of the story. She didn’t elaborate on personal matters or stories and certainly not with her brazen, self-absorbed, Americanized grand-daughter. She died when I was 23. For most of my life she just sat in the corner, stoically making comments on the weather and the color of things. I didn’t get her at all.

I didn’t get her because I have always been obsessed with my internal world, especially as an American, middle-class teenager, and apparently, I still am. It’s because we Americans have it so good. Most of us have warm homes, good food, loving families and enough money to fulfill our most essential needs. We have given up worrying about those things and have moved on to a preoccupation with mental and emotional fulfillment in every part of our lives. If you’re not happy all the time, then you’re not living life correctly. Whippman observes:

“Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.”

Today, current wisdom says that we need to “be in the moment.” We need to surround ourselves with daily affirmations and practice positive thinking. “Just Do It!” Take a quick glance at Facebook and you know what I mean. I’m not knocking “being present” or positivity. Those strategies, along with gratitude, have been the most effective methods to curb my perpetual, low-grade anxiety. But sometimes, they just don’t work. No matter how zen I try to make myself, I don’t feel miraculously, instantaneously whole again. It takes time, and a lot of beating myself up and then picking myself up.

This article hints at how narcissistic the tendency of chasing perpetual happiness can be. My personal belief in taking responsibility for your own happiness and creating the life you desire is exactly why I wanted to dismiss the whole thing. Me? Narcissistic? Incapable of constant happiness? Sha-right. Watch me. (And by watch me, I mean  watch me fail miserably, on this blog, in the public domain.)

But I can’t deny it. Sometimes, I am. It’s frequently about me and my current internal state of affairs and that state isn’t always pretty. I have a self-titled blog for goodness sake wherein two of my main topics are anxiety and fear. And still I’m all, Hey! Look at me! I’m writing about emotional stuff! I’m so self-actualized. Yay. Me. Me. Me.

This article also bothers me on some unconscious level because it counters my own practiced mental state of constant emotional vigilance. It looks at me sideways like my grandmother might have done intimating that I just need to chill-the-f*ck-out. Stop being so self-absorbed. You’re not a failure if you feel like shit today, Shannon. Stop wasting your time worrying about the state of your happiness and just learn to deal with what life is giving you… even if it’s rubbish.

It makes me think that maybe I’m putting too much emphasis on my vision board and “living my best life” or “finding the silver-lining.” Maybe I just need to ratchet down the pressure and take a page from my grandmother’s play book. Sometimes the weather or the color of my new sweater is better commentary than being carried away by the direction my emotional wind is blowing.

It’s life. You make choices. They won’t always be good ones but you’ll learn to deal. Sometimes it’s rubbish. Sometimes it’s not.

And when it’s not… when the spirits are high, the hormones are level and the happiness is flowing like a quaint summer-time stream, there’s no need to fetishize that either. No need to encapsulate the good moment; hoard it, write sonnets about its every texture, taste and color and then post it to Facebook. Maybe it’s just a simple as saying, I had a good day. I liked it. End of story.

Maybe that’s the kind of freedom I’m really looking for?

14 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Being Unhappy?

  1. Shannon, this topic has been on my mind recently, too…ever since a friend sent me an article about a book called “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy”(http://www.dailygood.org/more.php?n=5149). The article really rang true for me and I think, in general, “are you happy?” is not the right question. We were designed to always want more and better – more love, better relationships, more meaningful and purposeful work…these are some of the components of “happiness” and I think it’s important to acknowledge that unhappiness and melancholy are natural, necessary phases we have to go through in order to continue to grow.

    So to answer your question…I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being unhappy. :-)

  2. I only discovered your blog recently, and am constantly amazed at how much I relate to you, despite being an Italian living in South Africa!

    I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Dr John Demartini. I attended a seminar of his a few years ago, which totally helped me deal with the question you’re struggling with. The greatest “gem” I picked up from him is that “the Universe loves balance”. EVERY experience has both positives and negatives attached to it. The minute you’re able to see both sides, you’ll be able to remain tranquil and mindful no matter what Life throws at you!

    “Circumstances may be likened to stones. You can use them to build on or you can let them weigh you down. – Dr. John Demartini http://www.DrDemartini.com

    Another quote rattling around in my brain is “nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (sorry, can’t remember who said it). This is illustrated by the story of the farmer whose son falls and breaks his leg. His friends all say “what bad luck” but the farmer stays calm and replies “we’ll see”. The next day army conscriptors come by and all the able-bodied young men are taken to serve in the army. Now the very same people that were pitying the farmer the day before started saying “you’re so lucky, you get to keep your son with you”!

    I understand being “mindful / present” as being more focused on the current time (the only moment you can influence), instead of being distracted by the past (that you can’t do anything about) or worrying about the future (something which might or might not occur). ALL our emotions are equally valid. Sometimes all we need is a “safe place to vent”! :)

    • The idea of balance in life is something I’m drawn to. So is the idea of dichotomies. I believe we are all an equal mix of character traits. Whatever we appear to be on the surface, there is another side you don’t see that balances out that obvious trait.

      I’m studying fiction right now and one of the ways to write a “round character” is to give them contradictions. The shy guy who takes wild risks in love. The money-hungry, ruthless business man who donates thousands of dollars to inner city children anonymously. These things make for interesting characters because I think this is how we all are. A mixture of traits that balance themselves out in the end.

  3. It’s like you broke into my head and wrote down what you found there! Spooky but just the mirror I needed to look into. Perspective, necessary and highly effective at changing my mood. Thank you. :-)

  4. I have to admit, parts of what you’ve said here made me laugh, and part made me squirm in self-recognition! The fact that you blog about anxiety and fear, I do in my own personal online journal as well. The fact that you say you can get all caught up in self-absorption — umm, yup, guilty as charged, right here with ya’, sister!

    Honestly, if I have a goal, it’s more for contentment than happy. Happy is an excited, temporary state, to me, contentment is about a baseline that happy and sad can flow above and below from.

    That’s the *goal* anyway!

    But yes, sometimes the stoic outlook, not such a bad thing. Not sure it’s in my temperament, but I’ll consider it now, thanks to you! :) You know, from my anxious, neurotic, excitable, self-absorbed perch, that is!

    • Yes! I often forget that the goal is contentment, not happiness. That is my ultimate goal, to have a calm, contented state of mind no matter what turmoil is befalling my life. As you can see, I have yet to achieve it. Yoga is helping though. Thanks Linda!

  5. Pingback: Practice Does Not Make Perfect | Shannon Lell

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