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.