The Unhappiness Project: Why I’m OK With Being Unhappy

A few months ago I read Gretchen Rubin’s book Happier at Home which is sort of a sequel to her uber popular book The Happiness Project (which I haven’t read). I wrote a mini-review of this book here, but the short version is that for me personally, I found her list of resolutions and things to do make life “happier” a little exhausting. More than that though, I found myself thinking a lot about the concept of happiness and whether or not pursuing happiness is valuable, worthwhile, or even right.

Many people, particularly in Western society, live with some idea that happiness is a right that human beings are entitled to. We act as though our default setting as human beings is happiness and that if we aren’t feeling happy, we need to figure out what’s wrong and adjust it so that we can get back to the state of happiness we are meant to be in. We view unhappiness and unhappy people as something to be avoided at all costs. So we distract ourselves with busyness, numb ourselves with medication or other substances, try to buy ourselves material happiness through consumerism, or drive ourselves to earn more, achieve more, be more social, take more vacations, cross more things off of our to-do list, often because we think these things will bring us the happiness we want and feel we deserve.

I was raised on pat little phrases like, “God is more concerned with your holiness than with your happiness,” so it’s always been somewhat ingrained in me that happiness is not a basic human right, nor is it something I’m entitled to. And while I struggle against the view I described above (because this is the world we live in and it’s easy for me to adopt some of those messages without even realizing it) my bigger struggle with happiness comes from something else I’ve been told my whole life. That happiness is dependent on your circumstances, but joy isn’t. That I can (and must) choose joy.

My struggle with unhappiness is compounded by the guilt I feel for not being happy. I’ve often felt that allowing myself to stay unhappy without actively fixing it or “choosing joy” in spite of it was both selfish and sinful. Not because I’m entitled to happiness, but because being unhappy in spite of the many good things in my life is wrong, ungrateful, and selfish. And so I try to fix myself. I try to create, or choose happiness in a season where it isn’t coming naturally. And I find myself discouraged by the weight of disappointment when I can’t seem to do it.

I don’t want people to think of me as an unhappy person. I don’t want my husband, who loves me and is constantly concerned with my happiness, to be burdened with a wife who can’t be pleased or who is chronically unhappy. But I am understanding more and more what it means that I am a Highly Sensitive Person. The traits of passion and compassion and emotional excitability that make up some of the best parts of my personality are the same traits that cause me to be deeply affected by sadness, and sometimes prone to anxiety and depression.

I recently saw the new animated movie, Inside Out (which is terrific, by the way). The movie takes place inside of a little girl named Riley’s head where her major emotions are personified as the characters Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Sadness gets a really bad rap because she’s such a downer and the others want Riley to be happy all the time. *Spoiler Alert* But in the end they realize that Sadness is an essential part of who Riley is and that Sadness actually creates opportunities for feelings of joy, comfort, and peace.

The message of this movie was exactly what I’d been wrestling to articulate about my own self-discoveries. I’ve been learning to accept that unhappiness is not the worst thing. In fact, sometimes unhappiness is the right thing.

Two weeks ago a girl I went to high school with lost her husband in a car accident leaving her a 26-year-old widow with 5 small children. One week ago there was a shooting in a theater in my hometown, the same theater I’ve been to dozens of times throughout my life, and two young women lost their lives through a random act of violence. A few days ago my best friend’s father died of cancer just two months before her wedding.

These days I find happiness more difficult to grasp. In the past when I’ve gone through periods of sadness I’ve asked these questions: How many times am I allowed to cry about this? How sad is it OK for me to feel on behalf of other people’s tragedies? How many days or hours am I allowed to get over my sadness before I owe it to God and to the people in my life to be happy again?

I don’t want to ask these questions anymore. The answer is, and should always be, “As many as I need. As sad as I feel. As long as it takes.” And that’s OK. Being unhappy is not the same thing as succumbing to utter hopelessness. It doesn’t mean that you don’t believe there is any good in the world. It (usually) doesn’t mean that you’ve decided to never be happy again. It simply means that you are human. That you live in a broken world. And that right now you are reacting to that brokenness with unhappiness. And that’s a good thing. (Also, it means you probably aren’t a sociopath).

More and more lately, when I recognize that I am unhappy, I try to identify why. Is it because of a choice I’ve made or am making? Is it something that could be easily fixed? (i.e. I’m unhappy because my clothes are too tight, and I can choose to exercise more and eat healthier). Is it because of something I am choosing to hold onto and obsess over that I need to let go of? (i.e. holding a grudge, getting worked up about small things). Is it a chemical/physical thing that I should seek counseling or medical attention for? Or am I unhappy because there’s something wrong in my life or in the world that I can’t fix or change? Then maybe the right response is to let myself feel unhappy. To lean into to the discomfort of that feeling even as I remember the beauty and the hope in my life. I can take my cue from the Psalms of David, from Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, from Jeremiah the weeping prophet, who didn’t avoid or cover-up their unhappiness, but expressed it.

I am sad right now. AND I have a wonderful husband and I am two weeks away from moving back to America and seeing my friends and family, and I have more than enough food to eat and clothes to wear and I am thankful for these things.

I am not happy. And that’s OK.

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22 comments

  1. I’ve been reading many articles lately about this very thing. I think people are generally beginning to grasp the idea that being unhappy is in fact ok. We cannot be happy all the time in this world. To pretend you are and to avoid these ‘negative’ emotions is probably worse in the long run!

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    1. I feel like I’ve seen a few floating around in the past few months too. I am definitely one of those people who will bottle things up and then have an explosion of emotions at some point that are about so much more than whatever the present circumstance is. And then I feel crazy because I’m experiencing emotions that are a response to previous events and it’s all very confusing, haha. I think it’s important to give ourselves permission to be sad AND permission to be happy. 🙂

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      1. i do that very same thing…bottle things up…explode…then feel crazy. But during the bottling process, I really feel like I’m actually letting things go…gets me every time.

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  2. The questions you ask yourself when you’re unhappy were very helpful ones. I shall keep them in mind. Thanks for the perspective in this post – for putting into words what I have been trying to express myself in recent times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you found them helpful! I think it’s so important to try to figure out the why of things instead of treating all bad feelings like things we need to get rid of. Sometimes they serve a valuable purpose if we just take the time to sit with the discomfort and realize it instead of immediately pushing them away.

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  3. Hi Lily – you’re quite right, it’s all a bit Candide to feel happy all the time. And it’s another of those impossible goals – you can never be too thin, too rich or too happy etc.

    Gretchen Rubin’s book hasn’t taken root so strongly here in the UK, though our government is thinking of starting a Gross National Happiness measurement (which is scary, especially when you think of how it has played out in Bhutan http://on.ft.com/1xehBaC)

    I like the Action for Happiness charity’s focus on doing things for others http://www.actionforhappiness.org/10-keys-to-happier-living but the word ‘happiness’ is getting a bit tainted by so much observation. I’d say that happiness, like a smile, freezes when you notice that you’re doing it.

    I’d guess that your own last couple of weeks in Korea will be tinged with sadness. That’s part of the process of leaving anywhere you’ve lived – even prison!

    Be prepared for coming home to America being another surprising adventure – I think it’s called Reverse Culture Shock and lots of ‘returners’ experience it as a process of readjustment – there’s a blog post here where a traveller speaks about it, in case you’ve never come across it: http://bit.ly/1KACMdi

    All best wishes for your travels and your homecoming

    Elaine

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  4. I struggled with unhappiness for the same reasons. It took me some time to get to this to conclusion and then to live with it because I also tend to be very sensitive. I have learned to allow sadness take its time but often be attentive because there is always something to learn/realize, something that makes me appreciate those moments of sadness. =)

    Thanks for this great post!

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  5. You always have the best observations. I can really relate to the feelings of guilt you describe over your unhappiness (in fact I’m struggling with it now.) So I love how at the end of this post you point out all the things that logic would dictate should make you happy, but say nope…it’s just not working. I’m not happy. I often wonder if I am failing myself because I can’t glass half full it…cause the glass is always half full, but it’s also always half empty. I stress over half empty, probably way too much…I think some of us are designed that way. It’s usually the deep thinkers.

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    1. It’s nice to know that you can relate! I think it’s also important to realize that most people can’t be one thing all of time. Like, even when I’m going through a time of feeling sad, I’m not sad ALL THE TIME. And a lot of times just letting myself feel sad when I feel sad (without just whining and complaining) actually makes my happy moments and days even better. It is definitely a personality thing though. My hubby is a very even-keeled person. He doesn’t get sad or angry easily, so you could say he’s a pretty happy guy (and he is.) But his happy compared to my happy are very different. His happy is the same kind of steady, even-tempered, calm happy. Whereas when I’m happy I’m going to sing and dance and let everyone know, haha. So that’s part of it too I think. I’m a more emotionally expressive person and I need to be able to feel express sadness AND happiness to feel healthy.

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  6. I appreciate this post. I also find myself bothered by the relentless pursuit of happiness. I liked reading about finding joy (and about Inside Out, which I loved) as another approach. There can be joy hidden even in times of sorrow, as when one remembers their closeness to a loved one who has passed away.

    I tend to find myself seeking contentment rather than happiness. I can be content with my life, even when there are struggles.

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    1. I really like that perspective on seeking contentment over happiness. Because, like you said, you can still be content with your life while allowing yourself to feel unhappy sometimes. I think that’s a great thing to strive for.

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  7. This is such an awesome articulation of the futility of Happiness. God taught me the difference between Joy and Happiness and I truly enjoyed how you differentiated the 2. We all can aspire to joy but yes happiness is more difficult than ever because the scene of the world is changing and we all can and will suffer the effects and jog allows you that sadness with crimbling. Trying to jump heights to find that euphoric feeling will only make you crash further into a state of unhappiness . but it balances us and I appreciate this before I started my day! Keep blogging!

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    1. thank you. I really like what you said about how trying to jump of heights in search of that euphoric feeling makes you crash harder. I think that’s such a good metaphor for what chasing happiness is right. I like to think of joy more like contentment. And you can experience sadness and still be content at the same time. Thanks for your encouragement!

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