“Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological wellbeing.”
One of my earliest memories is of being a little kid at nursery school, sitting in a circle and being led in a song by my smiling teacher.
“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!” she’d sing, encouraging us to join in.
“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! If you’re happy and you know it, and you really want to show it, if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands!”
In my memory, we sang that pretty much every. single. morning. It’s not that it was a terrible song; it’s really pretty cute. But the thing is, I wasn’t happy that often as a kid. Sometimes I didn’t want to be at school at all. Sometimes my friends were being mean. And sometimes I felt scared and confused because I had to bounce back and forth between my divorced parents’ houses, and they hated each other, and I wondered what was wrong with our family because we weren’t happy all the time, as the song seemed to suggest we ought to be. The pressure to be happy starts early.
Nowadays I’m much happier than when I was growing up; much more likely to burst into song spontaneously, clap my hands, or smile at random people on the street. But everyone has those days – or sometimes, those years – when everything goes wrong. For many people, 2016 was that year. There were so many celebrity deaths, from David Bowie and Prince, to George Michael and Carrie Fisher. And of course, the United States elected a racist, sexist, abusive idiot to the highest office in the land. That hurt; I definitely cried telling my daughters about it.
At the end of the year, countless people on my social media feeds declared variations on ‘Fuck you, 2016’. The thing is – and I started noticing this a few years ago – people do that pretty much every year. Sometime around November, people start saying things like, “This year can’t end soon enough,” and “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out, *insert year here*” as they look forward to the new year.
It’s as if we’re personally affronted when things don’t go well. We expect that life should make us happy always, and if it doesn’t, well, then – fuck you, universe.
The impossibly perky Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, has made an entire career out of telling people how to be happy. According to her own origin story, she was riding a bus on a rainy New York City afternoon when she had the great epiphany that what she wanted from her life was to be happy. Naturally, she decided to embark on a year-long project of finding out exactly how to be happy, which she turned into a book, and a blog, and a business.
Also naturally, I read her book. It’s no secret I’m slightly obsessed with tearing through cult self-help reads in pursuit of that elusive higher consciousness. And, who doesn’t want to be happier? Rubin recommends practical strategies like going to bed earlier, cleaning out your closets (shades of Marie Kondo’s ‘get rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy’ movement, which came into fashion a few years later), and smelling a lot of perfume until you find your fave cheerful scent. Fun, right? Being happy is easy!
Not mentioned in her book: Rubin is a Yale grad who had a successful career as a lawyer before styling herself as a happiness guru. She clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor before marrying her hedge-fund manager husband, who happens to also be the son of a former United States Secretary of the Treasury. They live in a triplex on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that is, according to The New York Times, ‘museum-immaculate’.
While I don’t begrudge her any of that, I wonder if she’d have such an easy time telling people how to be happy if she herself didn’t have a close-knit family, boundless wealth, healthy children, a secure marriage, and a successful career.
Most of us in the real world have plenty of good reasons not to be happy all the time: unemployment, mental illness, divorce, sexual harassment, being condemned for our decisions to either have children and risk losing our identity to motherhood, or to remain childfree and never hear the end of it. Many of these things are a constant for the women I know.
So when are we allowed to be unhappy about it?
Last weekend I was feeling headachy and crampy – just generally run down, slightly grouchy and a little overwhelmed. I looked at my to-do list and felt like a heavy weight was descending. But my inner voice kept urging me on. I had things to do! I didn’t want to lie down in the middle of the day, like some kind of loser. And then I had an epiphany of my own.
What if I just let myself be tired? What if I said, “It’s Sunday afternoon, and I don’t feel well, so I’m going to lie down under a blanket and read a book and do nothing?” The usual me, who prefers to be happy and perky and get things done, was a little appalled at the idea. But another part of me was hugely relieved. It’s been a difficult year for me too in many ways; I’ve had more than my share of failures and letdowns over the past 12 months. Maybe I was tired of constantly looking on the bright side and putting on a happy face. And maybe that was – dare I say it – okay…?
As it turns out, there’s a positive side to embracing our negative emotions.
A 2012 study by Florida State University psychotherapist Eric L. Garland showed that recovering alcoholics who suppress their most challenging thoughts were more likely to want to start drinking again. Study participants who didn’t try to push down their bad vibes though, had an easier time resisting alcohol-related cues. And a 2011 study by the University of New South Wales headed by psychologist Richard A. Bryant found that people who suppressed unwanted thoughts were more likely to dream about what was troubling them – known as ‘dream rebound’.
“It is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether, because to live is to experience setbacks and conflicts,” says Boston University psychologist Shannon Sauer-Zavala. She conducted a study that used mindfulness training to help people overcome anxiety disorders. In the study, people were taught to accept their negative feelings, rather than trying to quash them.
Psychologist Jonathan M. Adler put it this way, in an interview with Scientific American: “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological wellbeing.”
In other words, sometimes you just need to embrace the crapstorm of life, and let yourself be unhappy. And if you’re looking for me, I’ll be lying on the sofa, huddled under a blanket, feeling satisfyingly shitty.
Images via etsy.com and giphy.com.
Comment: Do think society puts too much pressure on us to be happy all the time?