Life As a Happiness Project


There’s a book on the bestseller lists called The Happiness Project.  I haven’t read it, and I don’t intend to.  The title alone makes me squirm a little.  Really?  Happiness as a project?  I have long been skeptical of formulas for happiness, and though I haven’t read this book (and therefore, admittedly, may be misjudging its intent, though I kind of doubt it since there seem to be personal Happiness Projects cropping up all over the blogiverse), I suspect that that’s what it is underneath it all: another formula for finding true happiness.  And therefore it’s a bestseller, because who isn’t looking for the key to happiness?

A friend of mine recently shared this article on Facebook: How the Light Gets In.  It really struck a chord with me.  Why is “happiness” and positivity so important in our culture?  More to the point, why are people so repelled by dark, or negative emotions?

What is happiness, anyway?  How is it defined and quantified?  I suppose happiness can be summed up as fulfillment and contentedness, if not outright bliss.  Bliss, I think everyone can agree, tends to be very fleeting.  Fulfillment and contentedness can have more staying power, but life is such a melting pot of experiences and circumstances that it seems nearly impossible to find and maintain fulfillment and contentedness in all areas of one’s life.  You may feel content in your marriage, for instance, but not so much at work.  You may feel fulfilled with your relationships with your family, but maybe not with other people in your life.

And the ugly truth is, awful things happen in life.  People you thought you could count on let you down, jobs get lost, money runs out, loved ones die, kids make bad choices, marriages fall apart, plans fall apart, dreams fall apart.

But apparently what we’ve come to expect of ourselves and each other is that what you do in the wake of all life’s crap is keep a smile on your face and think positive.  See the bright side.  That is what we’ve deemed strength and resilience.  Anything less is seen as weakness, failure.  People are lauded and admired for seemingly turning the shit into sunshine in life.  It’s reassuring; it makes us believe that nothing can be so bad as to completely undo us.  When someone asks, “How are you doing?” even in the midst of hard times, what they really want to hear is “I’m okay, I’m good.”  Why is this?  Probably partly because we’re all so busy with our own lives and problems that we really don’t have time to get wrapped up in someone else’s problems.  But I think at the core of our distaste for negative emotions is fear.  We don’t know what to do with someone else’s negative emotions, let alone our own.  There is a fear of losing control of ourselves, our lives, if we give ourselves over to dark feelings.  So we strive for these false symbols of happiness and resilience.

I am reminded of being lectured by a group of people I thought were my friends a couple years back about choosing happiness.  I’m still bitter about it.  This was directly following the end of Michael’s year-long cancer treatment, which put our whole family through the wringer.  And the end of his treatment, obviously, wasn’t the end of the ripple effects of his cancer.  Needless to say, I was not in the best place emotionally then, and being someone who has always worn my heart on my sleeve, my emotions were out there for everyone to see, and this certain small group I was a part of actually lectured me about choosing happiness.

In the interest of self-preservation, I disentangled myself from the group.  I still from time to time, though, revisit in my mind the conversations that took place, and I still feel hurt, and very misunderstood.  I also understand, however, that this is very typical and symptomatic of our culture’s general, collective distaste for dark, negative emotions.  We’re all after a quick fix for what ails us, we all want to feel good, and to be around people who seem to feel good and who, in turn, make us feel good.  Feeling good, even if it’s only on the surface, makes us feel safe.

As for me, I have a deep respect and appreciation for the dark emotions.  When I was making up my mind to have an unmedicated home birth after having had four medicated hospital births, I did a lot of reading about natural childbirth.  In all my reading, there was a common thread about respecting the hard work one’s body does to give birth, about surrendering to the pain and riding the waves of it, knowing that they come and go and that in the end, the pain and sweat and utter labor will result in a beautiful gift.  Although not everyone might appreciate the comparison, I think allowing ourselves to fully feel all of our emotions, including the dark ones, can be equally transformative.  This is how we learn about ourselves, about what we’re really made of, about gratitude and hope and joy.  It is empowering.  Happiness is not about suppressing or doing away with the bad emotions, it’s about allowing a place for them.

Though I have certainly not had the worst life ever lived, I have experienced a lot of really bad shit, and I firmly believe that my life is richer for all of my experiences, good and bad.  Joy and gratitude cannot be fully experienced without understanding and appreciating grief, sorrow, fear, despair, and anger.  We are all the sums of our entire lives; every event and emotion we experience shapes us.  Though I would gladly never see another hard time visit me or my family again, I know there will be more hard times ahead, and the only real key to any measure of happiness is to experience it all, fully and mindfully, with respect and reverence.

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14 Comments on “Life As a Happiness Project”

  1. Mumofone
    May 13, 2011 at 5:51 am #

    Not that you would know it…but I was thinking today…how generally unhappy I was feeling lately….with lots of stressful situations happening, with my life, with current lifestyle choices etc. But were I to post it on FB I would get lots of well meaning advice with exactly the themes and purpose you have so brilliantly and insightfully outlined above – well meaning but sometimes so misplaced. Thanks for your post – it was well timed for me today. Hoping your life circumstances improve soon too 🙂

  2. Cinoda
    May 13, 2011 at 7:08 am #

    I do agree with your post. For me, I just have to be careful not to submerge myself in the negative emotions and situations. Yes, feel them, express them, then accept them. If I don’t it’s like a house of cards that keeps falling and falling until the cards are covering not only myself but everyone and everything around me.

  3. Wendy
    May 13, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    You are 100% correct. Dwelling on the negative things in life does no one anygood… Experience, Learn from it and step away is what I do. My kids will experience “dark moments” in their life but dwelling on them is not what they need to be doing. The suicidal rate of this country is so high because people “dwell on the dark moments too long”.

  4. Brandie
    May 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    Since Goldie was born, I’ve really seen that you don’t get the highs in life without the lows. When I took Goldie to the ER last week, I cried the whole way there. I knew she would be ok, but I hate that she can’t be as healthy as her siblings. I can’t count how many times I’ve been blown off when I try to talk about this to family and friends.

    I disagree about the suicide rates. Mental illness is a lot more complex than dwelling on the negative.

    • Wendy
      May 13, 2011 at 6:17 pm #

      You don’t have to have a mental illness to commit suicide.

      • Lisa
        May 13, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

        Wendy, I have to disagree with you. I think the vast majority of people who commit suicide suffer from some form of mental illness. I’m not talking the stereotypical “crazy,” I’m talking about clinical depression, which is a form of mental illness. And depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder – all of those fall under the umbrella of mental illness and go far beyond “dwelling on the negative things in life.”

        I think you kind of missed the point I was trying to get across. It’s not about not dwelling on the negative, it’s about honoring and respecting the fact that life DOES dish out negative circumstances and part of being a healthy, well-balanced person is to allow room in one’s life for the dark, negative emotions that go along with the bad, unsettling stuff in life. Honor those feelings, acknowledge them, and yes, spend some time dwelling on them and understanding them. That’s the only way to make peace with them and allow room for happiness, in my book.

  5. Sarah
    May 13, 2011 at 7:28 pm #

    Great post! I read an article recently which said we are all trying too hard to be happy. (It’s here: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21028085.700-how-to-be-happy-dont-try-too-hard.html but I think you need a subscription to read it.) Thinking we have to be happy all the time is perhaps making us even less happy than we would be otherwise. 🙂 Happiness comes and goes and somehow we don’t tend to realise that that’s normal.

  6. starrlife
    May 13, 2011 at 7:53 pm #

    Leonard Cohen is one of my favorite musicians and his line “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” from the song Anthem is always moving. I actually am one of the least perky people in the world (as evidenced by my taste in music 🙂 but I do enjoy the Happiness Project blog. For me keeping the balance is the way – whatever way works for each individual should be what they do. It’s sad when friends/family etc get into conflicts when it’s really all about just respecting each individuals perspective. And yes, mental illness is more complex than dark thoughts – many people become depressed because they can’t tolerate the shadows/dark side and spend a large part of their life in fantasy. And of course there is that pesky little thing we can’t control called our brain chemistry.
    I agree about the “I’m fine” culture. But there us something very primitive and instinctive to avoid getting drawn into other people’s problems too much and sometimes it’s a survival strategy. Humans are funny animals and have a lot of very animal ways still – and animals avoid other sick animals often.

  7. Wendy
    May 13, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    Unfortunatley, I have to disagree with you on the matter of suicide. My husband is a Phsycologist and works with primarly teens. I told him to read your post regarding suicide.. he does agree with you to an extent.. But the majority of the teenage/young adults do not have mental disorders.. they are overwhelmed by the expectation that life has and turn to drugs (which is not a mental disorder).. but is a disease. also, he is dealing with a lot of children who are being bullied at school and who have or tried hurting themselves and the overwhelming majority who are not sure of their sexuality which is causing a flood of emotions. Yes, there are the people who have mental disorders, but there are alot of people who do not and just get overwhlemed and fall deep (whether it be the loss of a parent or the break up of a realtionship)… there is such a thing as “Death Spiral of Emotions”.. one who is not able to control or stop there emotions from plummeting and making quick decisions. Most of the suicide attempts that he encounters are kids who are tired of not fitting in or not sure who they are or where they belong.. That by far is not a mental illness.

    • Lisa
      May 13, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

      Well, I don’t know, Wendy. That sounds like depression to me. But what do I know?

      • Wendy
        May 13, 2011 at 11:20 pm #

        “Clinical Depression” medication is prescribed and inhibits one from functioning on a daily basis. These kids are not “Clinical”.. they are depressed (which is something we all have felt or feel).. what I was saying is “Clinical Depression” is a mental disorder but being depressed is not and you don’t have to be “labeled clinically depressed” to try and commit suicide. An event or situation could cause someone to hurt another or themselves and may not have suffered any type of disorder, they just SNAPPED because of the situation at hand.

      • Lisa
        May 13, 2011 at 11:45 pm #

        I suspect that anyone reading this who is or has been on antidepressants would argue with your
        statement about drugs for depression inhibiting one from functioning on a
        daily basis.

        Anyway, I don’t claim to be an expert, Wendy. I’m sure there are
        cases of suicide and attempted suicide that result from no previous depression or
        mental illness, where the person just “snaps.”. I still think that
        that is probably pretty rare, though, and that the vast majority of
        suicides and attempted suicides are by people with a history if
        some form of mental unwellness, even officially undiagnosed.

        Anyway, not sure how the discussion became about suicide or even mental illness.

  8. Wendy
    May 13, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

    What makes me even more sad, is just how cruel children can be and we all know that. These children range from all types of households, The Jock, The Cheerleader, The Braniac, etc. When you are not accepted as you are these kids (the future of our world) get thrown off path. It is horrible that a child or young adult, would try to take their own life because of not feeling accepted. (Still on the top of suicide of course).

  9. Cinoda
    May 14, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    Just to add again my two cents. I have a wonderful life…a great husband, two great boys and no earthly worries of any kind. I have had breast cancer and still have an auto immune disease, but all and all….life is good.

    I fell into this deep hole. I couldn’t eat or sleep, couldn’t watch TV since I couldn’t follow the story lines. I couldn’t even read a book, because I couldn’t comprehend what I was reading. I thought I was losing my mind. My doctor kept telling me I was “depressed” due to my cancer, blah, blah. I finally found a doctor who listened to me. I was clearly clinical depressed, probably brought on by the effects of chemo and the premature menopause. Brain chemicals were way out of balance.

    Finally found the right medications to keep my brain functioning right. This is far different than being “sad” or “depressed” over life’s trials. I understand what Wendy is saying, so many young adults suffer a blow in their life and wham, suicide. Lisa is sharing the idea that sometimes life sucks and it’s ok to say it sucks and feel it also. Nothing I hate more when you just need to vent and someone is offering all these scenerios to “cheer you up.” No, I just want to wallow a bit…

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