When you think about it, the therapy industry should have always been concerned with happiness.
Being a medical specialty or subspeciality therapy has directed most of its attentions at negative emotions. Its goal has been to eliminate pain. Until recently it has neglected positive emotions, the ones that constitute what we call happiness.
Unfortunately, therapy’s focus on negative emotion did not really palliate pain. It did not produce very much positive emotion.
Naturally, it chose to make a virtue of failure. It proclaimed that negative emotion was more real, more profound and more authentic than positive emotion.
The best people, the ones who were in touch with their feelings and who felt more deeply, were actually more miserable.
If the human condition was tragic, being happy meant that you were in denial.
Besides, if you walked around with a smile on your face, you were lording it over those who were less happy than you. Your smile showed that you were insensitive to the pain of others. If you thought you were happy, those who are not will try to wipe that smile off our face. You were being offensive and mean-spirited.
With all the misery around you, how dare you be happy?
Besides, happiness is the province of the ignorant. If you want to show that you understand reality you must walk around flashing a permanent scowl.
Misery didn’t make you feel very good, but it did make you feel like you belonged among a better, more enlightened class of people.
Of course, there is a grain of truth in the idea. When all around you are miserable, showing off a cheery disposition, grinning as though your life depended on it, is rude and inconsiderate.
Your personal happiness will surely be attenuated by the misery of those near and dear to you, but that does not mean that you need to share their unhappiness. You need merely be more discreet about advertising your own.
On the other side, your happiness, even when it is not expressed overtly, might very well serve as a beacon for others.
When everyone is miserable, you should not advertise your happiness. But you shouldn’t suppress it either.
I offer these reflections to explain why negativity has had such a long half-life, why it has so much staying power, and why people keep writing essays disparaging happiness.
This morning Augusten Burroughs joins the ranks of the anti-happiness crusaders.
Cleverly, he entitles his Wall Street Journal essay, “How to Live Unhappily Ever After.”
Burroughs is a writer, not a psychologist or a counselor or even a philosopher. He wrote a famed book called Running with Scissors, and numerous other works. Full disclosure: I have not read his famed book.
His lack of professional training does not disqualify him from reporting about his own miseries, but it should warn us to be skeptical about his views of happiness.
Just because Burroughs writes well does not mean that we need to lend special credence to his call for unhappiness.
Of course, he is being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but not all that tongue in cheek. Actually, he’s more cheeky than ironic.
In his words:
"I just want to be happy."
I can't think of another phrase capable of causing more misery and permanent unhappiness. With the possible exception of, "Honey, I'm in love with your youngest sister."
Yet at first glance, it seems so guileless. Children just want to be happy. So do puppies. Happy seems like a healthy, normal desire. Like wanting to breathe fresh air or shop only at Whole Foods.
But "I just want to be happy" is a hole cut out of the floor and covered with a rug. Because once you say it, the implication is that you're not. The "I just want to be happy" bear trap is that until you define precisely, just exactly what "happy" is, you will never feel it. Whatever being happy means to you, it needs to be specific and also possible. When you have a blueprint for what happiness is, lay it over your life and see what you need to change so the images are more aligned.
Since Burroughs is, by his own admission, unhappy, one wonders why he would be qualified to explain what happiness is. He may want to undermine your happiness, but that is not an entirely admirable goal.
Strictly speaking, his ideas are muddled.
People do not gain happiness because they desire it. If they exclaim an interest in being happy they probably mean that they are tired of suffering the kind of misery that Burroughs is going to extol. Actually, there is no such thing as a desire for happiness.
You might desire to breathe fresh air or to shop at Whole Foods, but these involve relationships to specific objects or experiences. They should not be analogized with a phantom desire for happiness.
Happiness accompanies the successful completion of a task, but you do not try to succeed at a task because you are lusting after happiness.
Burroughs also claims that if you do not know exactly and precisely what happiness is you will never achieve it. The idea is absurd to the point of being pointless.
Life is not a classroom. You are not obliged to define your terms, precisely or imprecisely. You are not being tested on whether you have found a good enough definition of happiness. Your personal happiness has nothing to do with whether you have understood Aristotle’s definition of happiness.
You will feel happy when you gain a promotion. You will feel happy when your team wins a ball game. You will be really happy when your daughter gets married.
To experience these normal human emotions you do not need to have defined exactly what happiness means for you.
Burroughs seems to have missed the point, so I am obliged to underscore that no one who is studying happiness today is counseling constant happiness. No one is advising anyone to smile all the time and to ignore negative emotions. Cognitive psychology has aimed at balance, not one-sidedness.
You cannot be happy if you cannot feel sad at a loss or anxious when you are in danger or angry when you have been offended.
To say otherwise is to caricature your opponents in order to make a few cheap debating points.
Burroughs may not be very happy but he is happy to take a few cheap shots.
He advises people to get in touch with their negative emotions, presumably because then they will feel more like he feels. If everyone feels as miserable as he claims to be, Burroughs will apparently feel better.
In his words:
Anger and negativity have their uses, too. Instead of trying to alleviate some of the uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions you feel by "trying to be positive," try being negative instead. Seriously, try it sometime. This will help you get in touch with how you actually feel: "I feel hopeless and fat and stupid. And like a failure for feeling this way. And trying to be positive and upbeat makes me feel angry and feeling angry makes me feel like I am broken."
If that's how you feel—however you feel—then you have a base line, you have established a real solid floor of reference. Sometimes just giving yourself permission to feel any emotion without judgment or censorship can lessen the intensity of those negative emotions. Almost like you're letting them out into the backyard to run around and get rid of some of that energy.
It isn’t all a loss. Burroughs moves on to write movingly about his personal grief at the death of a close friend. He comments astutely that some losses are so profound that you never really recover from them.
Yet, grief is in a class of its own. It does diminish and attenuate with time, even if it does not disappear.
It might feel like a paradox but no one can feel happiness if he has not also felt grief and pain.