How To Be Unhappy (and why we should be)

by David Gilbert

November 17, 2016

Christmas is coming - seems a good time to say bollox to happiness. Not in a Scrooge humbug way - gentleness and kindness is still king (or queen). But in a 'you're a fraud' sense. Like Santa Claus perhaps.

Striving to be happy has made me unhappy. It was always 'out there' if only I could get to it. Always lying in amongst seemingly happy (aka fun-filled, laughing, stimulated and stimulating) people. Just over the hill as I went round the bend.

My favourite Gary Larson cartoon (where has that genius gone?) was a sheep watching the news with beer and cigarette. The newsreading sheep was saying 'now news just in, the grass really is greener on the other side'.

And the more I tried, the more unhappy I got. Envy and jealousy dogged my life. And, in part, led to my nervous breakdown at 25.

Choice? What choice?

When I realised (too late) that it was my own thinking and how I created meaning that was at the root of my feelings (sensations plus thought in my book = emotion), this should have been a liberation. It was another cage.

The shiny shiny positive brigade talk about 'choosing to be happy'. This is clearly bonkers and a gesture of fear and denial regarding the inevitability of sadness, misery, and the coldness of a planet species bent on self-destruction.

And 'cheer up' in all its subtle manifestations (e.g. "Avoid negativity and negative people") is only a call for the already fortunate to avoid those who have less luck. Emotional apartheid.

While the emerging brain 'plasticist' brigade are making amazing discoveries, generating (perhaps exaggerated) ideas that may 'prove' that we can rewire our brains, this is at the micro level thus far.

Anyway, finding that our brains can change is not so much the key to waltzing about the planet on a permanent high but about being more 'balanced' (i.e. Not reacting in such patterned and habitual ways to stimulus).

Imagining I was 'responsible' for 'choosing' my own (miserable) feelings, only made me more unhappy. Because I didn't have the 'means whereby' to choose to feel differently I was still a slave to physiology and neurology. And deepening the grooves of faulty thinking and wiring in the process.

I once got into affirmations. When I told my psychotherapist that I was chanting 'I will change, I will change... ' she pointed out gently that this was likely only to lead to me changing my underwear more regularly than was strictly necessary. Please note that this was the only time I laughed out loud in three years of therapy. Also note: therapy does not make you happy.

And out there 

Meanwhile the smooth external cultural influences truck on. We can criticise Hollywood romance or glib adverts that say the latest perfume will shift your life to fulfilment. But it's all around us, and our brains are vulnerable to nervous system agitation and seduction.

And if you've supported Leeds Utd, you'll know what it means to have a chronic susceptibility to external influence. Then add some, for the constant assault and battery of our attention grasping world.

I don't think it's just because I'm a Leeds fan that I suggest we should strive to be unhappy.

It's not about being deliberately miserabilist - there's enough of that in the news and that's just an equal and opposite reaction. Life is amazing as well as unjust. And we must celebrate the good.

Contentment - or more deeply, acceptance - is the real happy I think. Sounds like a grey old fashioned shade of happy. But it's good enough. And good enough is good enough for me. It's not a fatalism either. It's just a bit of emotional detachment. I say 'just', but it means work to get there.

And as many know, a different sort of warm wave can wash over you when you can just let yourself be for a while. Out of a light grey comes a little blue. It's taken 54 years to get close. May you find it earlier.

Arise ye unhappy folk

We should counter the culture of happiness - challenge people proclaiming we have a right to be happy. Where on earth did that fallacy come from?

Some bright political spark will point to it all being part of capitalism or neo-liberalism or some sort of ism that (partly) lets us off the hook of some deep delving into ourselves.

If we can see it as OK to be unhappy some times, even a lot of the time - To be sad, fed up, grumpy, frustrated, itchy with the meaningless of it all, empty inside every now and again, negative... hurrah!

...then we would pave the way personally (I am not there yet) to accept ourselves a little more and could watch the river of life flow a little more easily both within and without us.

Ironically, it may be the way to saving many like me from getting ill in the first place - talk about primary prevention! And eventually lead to the redundancy of drugs, psychiatrists and holding bays (I mean psychiatric hospitals). I said eventually. I'm not stupid.

Hang on

By the way - I am not trying to reframe suffering so that it is OK to be in extreme anguish or suffer mental health problems - it's not and to be so should come with a 'I am not guilty' t-shirt on psychiatric admission (didn't get that t-shirt)

Nor is it ok to depict various shades of unhappiness only as a spectrum. There's something qualitatively different between fed up and ill in my experience anyway. Been there. It's shite. But that's another story.

Overall, I bet life would be a bit better if we could say bollox to happiness. I wish someone had said it to me convincingly before I went hell for leather for happy happy and ended up in helly helly.

I bet there's a book out there already and I'm only repeating what they've written (sorry - no deliberate plagiarism here) but if not, maybe I will write a self help book and make millions. That'll make me happy. Maybe.

Repeat it to yourself - I am happy to be unhappy. It may not take the pain away, but it might give you a little distance from it every now and again. And maybe, just maybe, will ease things a tad.

Be gentle with yourself. Strive to be kind. That's where it's at.

(C) David Gilbert 2016

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5 comments on “How To Be Unhappy (and why we should be)”

  1. So the road to happiness is to reduce expectations of achieving it? Or have I misunderstood? I hope so, or is hope out of the mix as well? Or is it all just relative? I'm content with that.

  2. 'I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing'.

    TS Eliot

  3. There's no good reason to expect evolution to programme us to be happy all time. Being too content can blind us to threats. Evolution would be expected to favour predecessors who were alive to threat. So anxiety, suspicion etc would have a place.

    And evolution could be expected to favour predecessors who, finding themselves in a poor predicament, got sad and developed the motivation to seek change.

    1. It's a blog, not an academic thesis 🙂
      I have no expertise in evolutionary theory. All I am trying to talk about is what works for me. 'Contentment' may be the ring word. Certainly, we need to be as open as we can bear to be (without exhausting ourselves by anguish) to sadness, etc.

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