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.