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Essay

The Myth of Happiness

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Have you ever heard that happiness is much like a drug? This can be seen as a positive (euphoria) or a negative (addiction to) and like with most things, there are differing ways to consider the concept of happiness, which I will examine here, ultimately concluding, the value lies in reframing the concept of happiness, rather than abandoning it or over-emphasizing it.

The myth of happiness is simple. Our society pressures us to be happy all the time. Anything less is failure. Obviously if someone we love dies, we are ‘allowed’ a period of mourning and then we’re supposed to move on. We pay lip service to mental health and familial dysfunction and abuse and rape and other factors that can cause/worsen depression, but we mostly minimize them. The approach is — get on with it, be strong, anything less is weak.

This only builds up inside of us, a feeling of shame, and failure, even before we’re out of our teen years. Like a felt fulfilling prophecy, we lunge toward extremes as a way of coping when we cannot cope, and often this is why vulnerable at-risk teens get into risky behavior that leaves indelible scars. Again, many do not receive counseling or help, but are stigmatized as ‘bad kids’ and most of what has caused this behavior is ignored.

The dysfunction if it goes on, can wreck futures. Kids can grow up to be filled with shame and self-loathing, the health consequences are obvious, but the mental health consequences usually considered a ‘choice’ instead of being seen as the result of years of shaming and judging. What do we do with these then adults who cannot function in our society? We blame them for not being happy!

For the first five years of my life, I grew up with two parents. One happy. One deeply unhappy. My father had a brain injury from a road accident as a child that gave him a degree of brain damage that caused many life-long troubles. My mother grew up with trauma in her life but decided to be a positive person who would not let anything stop her and truly she lived up to that. As an only child I watched them closely and was deeply influenced by them. Perhaps because they were so busy with work I over compensated and had more vested interest in them than is normal.

I tried to take my cue from my mother. To be excellent at everything I did, to be unfailingly happy and sociable and forward thinking. I was afraid of inheriting depression. I thought childishly I was doing relatively well but looking back I can see how being an only child without siblings or extended family and at the age of six, living with a single parent (my father) I spent too much time alone and had too much time to go inside myself. Whilst I was outwardly happy, I think those years of isolation were internalized and not healthy. Also seeing my father’s depression whilst I was the perennial ‘fixer’ was hard.

In my teen years I developed depression, which is typically when it hits, if it’s going to. I began to have catastrophizing thinking and felt lost. This is when therapy would have been helpful, but nobody knew I was experiencing this, not even myself. You can hide things you are deeply ashamed of for years and people don’t know.  Instead, I chose non prescribed means of coping, which weren’t of course, the best choices, but were instinctively a way to cope with what I wasn’t yet sharing with anyone. Only my closest friends knew I struggled, and many of them struggled too, in secret.

I was fortunate that the level of depression I had allowed me to continue functioning. This gave me the financial stability and confidence to keep trying to find ways to improve my life. In some ways, being less mentally ill than say, someone with Schizophrenia or Bipolar, I was able to function with depression and continue to keep it secret.  Eventually though everything catches up with you and intermittently I struggled severely with it. I had no one to turn to, because I had kept it secret, but I explored therapy and found it did help me. More than medication, which only works on around 35 percent of people and doesn’t consider the causes of depression just how to change your brain chemicals. Along the way I saw a few of my friends commit suicide and end up as drug addicts or worse, because of undiagnosed or untreated mental illness. I became after that, an advocate for mental illness.

My mother believed not being happy was a weakness of character, a choice. My father opted out of life to a large extent and shut down and retreated. The levels of dysfunction in my small family were staggering and yet, after years of practicing as a psychotherapist I cannot say my story is unusual in any way, but really quite typical. Not only that, but we must also separate the idea that those who are not happy are always mentally ill. Sometimes they’re just unable to easily be happy. Equally, of my two parents, my father was the most compassionate and loving, because happiness does not guarantee someone will be kind and loving just as not being happy doesn’t mean someone is uncaring. Often those who suffer the most are the kindest. From this, I learned the value of compassion and to this day believe those who are kind, benefit this world more than the most popular happy person can. 

I’m no success story, I have been held back by whatever it is that doesn’t work in my brain. I try to cope by helping others, as that gives my life a meaning I would not otherwise find. But happiness? Frequent happiness has been very elusive. I cannot say I have been happy very much in my life. At times I feel a massive ingrate because comparatively speaking I am fortunate. I may have had a bad childhood, and have no family to turn to, but I live in a Western country, I have a home, I can earn a wage, I can eat and clothe myself, I feel that I have a lot to be thankful for.

This may shock some, who subsist in relatively regular happy states, but studies show it’s not as uncommon as we think. Maybe admitting it just too hard. After all, who wants to admit they are not happy or that they do not live in a happy state? Most of us want to be happy and most of us do not want the vulnerability of admitting we are not. But maybe, just maybe, we put too much pressure on those of us who are not able to be easily happy, instead of shaming us for our inability to appreciate life and be as happy as is prescribed, we should revisit the notion of happiness.

For some happiness is simple. They find happiness in their gardens, their children’s faces, looking after their ageing parents, eating their favorite meals. But for others, happiness just isn’t a daily or even weekly occurrence. Is this a linguistic misinterpretation, a cultural one? Or just differences in people? I think the answer is multi-facetted, we’re all different, so our reason(s) vary.

Take Jane* a former client of mine. She is unhappy most of the time. Her parents died of dementia a decade ago. She lost her brother in her teens. Her grandparents are dead. She feels her life is empty of people, she tries to make friends but with her experiences, making deep friendships in adulthood is no easy task. Jane doesn’t have children because her husband divorced her and went off with another woman. Jane has a great job, she earns a lot of money, she works long hours, she has a great house and three dogs. But Jane is by her own account, rarely happy. She often questions ‘what’s the point?’ and chides herself for putting all her meaning into work and status, when she has no friends or family and feels very lonely and unfulfilled.

Take Luis* another former client, who lost his young wife to breast cancer, and cannot bear to re-marry. He felt she was ‘the one’ and doesn’t want to tarnish that faith in ‘one love’ by being with anyone else. He is only in his early 40s. He has a large family but does not feel he can relate to them. He describes them as ‘family focused and positive’ whilst he feels depressed most of the time. He was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and has been on medication and in counseling for five years. He says he doesn’t feel he will be happy again.

These two examples illustrate why some people do not experience regular happiness. The shame felt by such persons, is obvious in all clients I work with who struggle with unfulfillment. They feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, ungrateful. Most of all they feel they are the only people in the world who feel this way. Being in group therapy can be useful for this, as it shows individuals that they are not alone, that their suffering is not unique, which can take the focus off them and help them see many people experience this.

But our society here in America doesn’t really help with that. Our society shames and belittles those who don’t feel happy ‘enough’ and there is definitely a happiness cult, which might be a great idea, where it not for the statistics that show America is one of the least happy countries on earth. So, we have the dichotomy of a happiness cult, and drive to be happy, set against the outcomes, which speak for themselves, American’s are over worked, under paid, underappreciated (at work) in debt, without savings, without access to (affordable) reliable health care, and generally less happy than they are ‘told’ to be.

Despite this, or because of this, American’s perpetuate the myth that happiness will ‘cure everything’ and anything less than happiness is failure. It’s clear why things aren’t working but not so clear what can be done about it. Coming from Europe originally, I didn’t feel as much pressure in Europe to be ‘happy all the time’. In fact, you could say, the Europeans, on the whole, have a more realistic idea of life. They strive for happiness but do not expect it all the time. They don’t reject people who are unable to be happy as readily. In fact, if you watch European TV, it’s almost ‘a thing’ (the grumpy detective, the dysfunctional police officer, the maudlin mother, the mad scientist genres etc.).

This is changing, as social media homogenises the world, Europe has within a very short time, embraced so many of the American ideals that it’s hardly recognisable from when I lived there. Now England has ‘Prom’ which was exclusively an American ideal, and you see far more women getting plastic surgery than ever before. There are of course, good things about cross pollination, but it can be argued that changing a culture loses more than it gains. When we emulate someone who is different to us, and invariably don’t succeed because we are different, instead of accepting that difference, we can feel inferior or worthless, without understanding difference is normal and we’re not all going to respond the same way to the same thing. Hence the Prom Queen and the Emo.

In this case the cult of happiness has swept the world. For some, it works, being positive, focusing only on the good, ignoring any negativity etc. For others, it’s a way of being stifled, obviated, alienated. After all, mental illness isn’t going to go away. Neither are the other reasons for not feeling happy. For some, tragedy and abuse can inspire and cultivate a positive attitude despite everything, and they are considered ‘the winners’ whilst for others, those same things cause a loss of happiness that doesn’t come back easily. Are they really less than those who find ways seemingly easier? Or just different?

For those like myself who find happiness relatively illusive, therapists may have explanations, but not answers. Those with very difficult childhoods, often with abuse, can struggle to find happiness as adults. They often try harder than you can believe, but onlookers wouldn’t know it, and only comment on their apparent failure to be (happy). Psychiatrists believe an extreme lack of happiness, (known as Anhedonia, from the Greek, ‘Without Pleasure’) is actually quite complicated. It can be the result of a deficiency of brain chemicals or misfiring in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which can sometimes be corrected, but often not) it can be inherited (a trait, a learned behavior or just DNA) or it can be learned through epigenetic experiences. It’s not always persistent depressive disorder (or Dysthymia) but can often be a trait within an individual that doesn’t meet a mental health diagnosis. After all, why pathologize everything?  In addition, Psychiatrists think some people are just unable to find joy in life, even if they try twice as hard as ‘normal’ people, or as some suggest, stop trying and try to embrace it. Even the labeling of ‘abnormal’ versus ‘normal’ has a shaming effect.

We don’t have exact figures on how many people don’t experience joy or happiness, and of course, like with anyone who has a chronic illness, there will be days of apparent normalcy or feelings of happiness, whether real or faked, giving the impression to others, that there are no such things as a lack of happiness. The degree to which you feel a lack of happiness is one measure of whether you fit a mental health criterion or not. This can be useful in knowing whether treatment is necessary. The average person does experience happiness and doesn’t have to endure a total absence of happiness, but they may still feel a pressure to be happy more than is realistic. After all, happiness is a modern term, it’s something you could almost say was privileged, if you consider how life was in the past, where happiness was less common, tragedy more common and survival and endurance, the norm.

Perhaps, herein we find the real answer. Let us sometimes strive less for total happiness and more for peace of mind, or contentment or being ‘okay’ and not feel that we have to be on cloud nine to be all right. Being all right is quieter than happiness, it’s less dramatic, and maybe by striving to be happy 24/7 the pressure we put on ourselves, causes us to feel it less, and feel more that we miss our target. By changing our target to being all right, we have a better chance of being content, which may not sound very sexy, but it’s a heck of an improvement on feeling you failed to be happy.

This is what I have learnt in my time on this planet thus far. I realise that I am capable of happiness but not usually if I seek it. I seek instead, contentment, peace, and to be all right. Being all right is actually very understated! As you get older and you have health concerns, and losses in your life, you realise that being all right is sometimes really hard because of all the pressures and unexpected things that can occur, and when you are all right it’s such a sense of relief!

For me, I have grown to accept my limitations, that’s not very American of me I know, because it sounds defeatist. However, it’s been anything but that. I am more realistic, less aspirant, which wasn’t working for me, and less focused on proving myself as being true to myself. Maybe I won’t win a prize for this relatively non-competitive approach to life, but I may find peace of mind and for me that’s invaluable. This is why I think happiness is more a myth than a daily occurrence and for some of us, the attainment of ‘all right’ status, is what gives us the energy to keep going, even when the going gets tough. And for what it’s worth I do feel happy, sometimes, and when I do it’s all the more a miracle, because it’s not the norm and this to me, seems a good balance.  

In other words, happiness can be found, when we stop prescribing what it is, and allow ourselves to feel it in less obvious, socially constructed ways, by putting pressure on ourselves to be a certain way that’s inauthentic to us. Your happiness may not be like your neighbors or even seem like happiness, but maybe in its illusiveness, there is a whole new idea of what happiness actually means and how to locate it within our lived experience. Let’s shrug the label and the social pressure to conform to a narrow ideal and embrace authenticity and diversity of experience, whilst retaining what really matters most, compassion for others and ourselves.

(*names and pertinent details changed to protect anonymity and abide by the confidential client/patient agreement).

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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2 replies on “The Myth of Happiness”

It just struck me that permanent, constant “happiness” could be boring, or require constant stimulation (something many sorts of vendors will gladly supply). I think of the question; How can one know light without also knowing darkness, and vice versa? We thrive best, I think on variation of feeling, of mood (not too extreme). And with that, my brain serves up (As you know often happens.) a song, “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell.

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