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The Happiness Obsession: How We’ve Built A Culture That’s Terrified Of Being Sad

The Happiness Obsession: How We’ve Built A Culture That’s Terrified Of Being Sad

Somehow, we’ve decided it’s no longer all right to cry. 

When I was little, I was obsessed with Free To Be You And Me.

If you were born in the 70s, you probably know what I’m talking about. For the rest of you, Free To Be You And Me was a record and book for kids, made by a bunch of hippies who were into things like gender equality and embracing your individuality. Stories and songs included classics like William’s Doll and Parents Are People – and my favorite, It’s All Right To Cry. (I was a moody little kid, what can I say?) I listened to it over and over while studying the pictures in the book, which showed men, women, boys, and girls sobbing.

But by the time I was a teenager, it seemed the It’s All Right To Cry aesthetic had been usurped by Bobby McFerrin’s ubiquitous hit Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Rather than telling kids there was nothing wrong with being sad, as my parents did (“life is hard” was my mother’s go-to saying), adults were falling all over themselves to make kids – and themselves – happy all the time. One child getting a blue ribbon for winning first place on field day was no more. Instead, everyone got a ribbon for participating, lest some child feel left out or disappointed.

Somehow, we’ve decided that it’s no longer all right to cry. But is this healthy? And if we never cry, does that make us happy? I turned to science to help find the answer…

What does ‘happy’ even mean?

Part of the problem with the pressure to be happy is that most of us have no idea what actually makes us happy. We know what being happy feels like, of course  – but our understanding of  where that happiness comes from is pretty poor. In his viral Ted Talk, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, asked the audience to think about whether they’d prefer to win the lottery or lose the use of their legs. He asked them to predict which scenario would make them happier. Seems like an easy choice, right? But, says Gilbert, there’s actually data on the happiness of lottery winners and paraplegics – and it shows that one year after winning the lottery or losing the use of their legs, both groups of people were equally happy.

Gilbert says humans have something called ‘impact bias,’ which basically means we’re terrible at knowing what will make us happy. “From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have.” He cites a study that showed that with few exceptions, people return to their base level of happiness relatively quickly after experiencing a major life trauma. “If it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness,” says Gilbert.

It’s alright to cry

There’s a certain Dr Seuss quote that people love to trot out when they’re trying to console someone with a broken heart. “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened!” To that I say, fuck off. (Sorry, Dr Seuss.) It’s perfectly okay to cry when you experience a loss. In fact, it’s healthy. A study cited by Everyday Health found that the vast majority of more than 3,000 interviewees reported that a good cry improved their mood. And in a study of 196 Dutch women, nearly 90 per cent said crying makes them feel better.

Crying has a cathartic effect; that is, it helps you release your feelings. All your built-up sadness and tension flows out along with your tears. Crying is like opening the valve that keeps everything bottled up inside you – you can’t help but feel better after, even if the relief is only temporary. The night my father died, I cried as hard as I ever had in my life. And while I’d cry many more times about my dad in the coming months and years, that night I was able to actually eat dinner and go to sleep, thanks to having cried myself to the point of utter exhaustion first.

Make yourself happy

Back to Dan Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist who studies the science of happiness. He says we have the wrong idea about happiness: we think it can be found, when really we make our own happiness. He says humans have a “psychological immune system” made up of cognitive processes that allow us to change our view of the world. These processes, he says, are largely unconscious. Still, if we can access what Gilbert calls the “remarkable machinery” that we all have inside us, we can be happy.

Gilbert quotes Sir Thomas Brown, who wrote in 1642, “I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.” Sir Thomas, says Gilbert, had figured out how to find happiness within himself, regardless of his external circumstances. If you’ve ever felt joy in the midst of a terrible time or harrowing event, then you’ve done this, too. Because sometimes, it’s best to just embrace the shit storm of life.

Life is full of ups and downs. But if you never let yourself wallow in the downs, how much joy can you really take in the ups? So go ahead – cry. It might make you feel better.

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Comment: Do you feel pressure to be happy all the time?


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