How would you define Happiness? I Googled that the other day (other search engines are available) and the definition that came back was…the state of being happy. Not particularly helpful I would say! Yet there is an industry springing up that promises us that we can be happy if we do certain things (buying a book seems to be a good start in the process of becoming happy; a quick amazon search on ‘how to be happy’ provided 76 pages of results – note to self, join that gravy train). Yet what it means to be happy isn’t necessarily clearly defined and perhaps it sits purely in the subjective, with everyone having their own unique vision/perception of happiness. But I do object to being told how to be happy, and indeed that I should be happy. Why? Why should I be happy? When I look around at the world and the misery that I see and the anger and disappointment I feel toward myself and the ’first world’ problems that ‘engulf’ me – I’d like a new car, kitchen, driveway, lawn… I know that the books and the countless magazine articles tell me that the absence of striving for things will make me happier (and I get that I really do…but I still need to drive to where I’m going for work, I still need to cook with things that function and I still need to deal the sagging driveway and the moss laden lawn) we all need things. Perhaps not as many things as we think we need but we still need them nonetheless.
I also know the there are things in the world that I can do little or nothing about (other than, what feels like shouting into the wind) We often talk about this within Strong Not Tough an adult stress and resilience course we deliver, I need to Accept the world as it is not how I would like it to be (yes, I can move toward little changes and work collectively with others – accepting doesn’t mean acquiescing or rolling over and giving up, it means seeing things in the ‘now’ as they are and trying to remove judgement from events (dead easy!); I need to Avoid certain things – a good friend of mine has stopped watching the news and she reports her mood is much better! I need to Adjust or Alter either my behaviour or the parameters of a situation to make my interactions more effective and less stressful, I need to be emotionally literate and emotionally and socially intelligent – exactly the kind of thing Daniel Goleman talks about. Surely, that is the thing we should be pursuing, not happiness? Indeed, Martin Seligman in his latest book Flourish talks about moving away from the notion of (Authentic) Happiness because of the problematic understanding of what ‘happiness’ is.
I do wonder, if in the pursuit of happiness (as it’s not clear what we are looking for or want) are we denying, even pathologizing other emotions? In the work that I do we often talk about the feelings that people have and that these emotions are OK, if something awful happens it’s OK and indeed right that we feel sad or down – if we lose a job, a relationship or a treasured possession it is absolutely fine to be sad. If we’re heading to a job interview or a new job or a brand new experience it’s OK to feel that uncomfortable sense of anticipation or even anxiety. I’ve read a couple of really interesting books on this idea recently, and you may want to check them out, ‘All We Have to Fear’ by Allan Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield and another book by Allan Horwitz, ‘The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder’
Just because we have those negative feelings doesn’t necessarily mean we’re depressed or ‘suffering’ from depression or that we have a Generalised Anxiety Disorder; these are something else, although I’m starting to believe that for some people these things can get mixed-up and illnesses or disorders are being created that could be explained as a ‘normal’ response to events? Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not denying that these conditions exist, they do, I’ve experienced them, but I’ve also experienced my responses to the events that are around me and recognised that I have the power to change the things in my life that I’m able to change, if I choose to. I don’t need to medicalise or pathologise my emotions.
Am I happy? Not all the time. Do I want to be happy all the time? No. But am I content? Pretty much. The rich tapestry of emotions that I experience make me who I am, they allow me to live and experience the world around me in all it’s messed up ways. I’m glad I get angry, I’m pleased to feel sadness and hurt as these feeling make the laughter and joy that I also have all the sweeter.
Thanks for reading.