Why your happiness will soon be gone (and will soon return)

In 2005, the Irish novelist and journalist Nuala O’Faolain wrote a short essay called “Chasing the Evanescent Glow” which appeared in TIME magazine.  It is a magnificent piece of writing, one of the best explorations I have ever read on the nature of happiness.  You can read the essay here, which I highly recommend you do.red-hot-summer-sunsetThe title of the essay points to the powerful metaphor which serves as the essay’s focal point.  In the first paragraph O’Faolain puts it like this: “After dusk departs, the dark is not just dark. It contains the memory of what it  was. And that’s what I think happiness is like–radiant like the last of the  sun, but always in the process of disappearing.”  Or, to put it in a decidedly colloquial way, happiness is wonderful, but it doesn’t last.  Human life can be seen as a series of ordinary events punctuated by occasional moments of pure delight and sublime serenity.  Yet life contains a great deal of pain– which O’Faolain calls “a background of black”–as well as a great deal of mundane duties and periods of boredom (a background of grey, if you will).

This presents us with a paradox and a problem.  The paradox is that it is the very intermittent nature of happiness that makes the experience so utterly sweet when we experience it.  The reason our Saturday and Sunday are so precious is the five days of work that precede them; the reason that happiness is so utterly delightful is that it stands in sharp contrast to the ordinary and at times unpleasant feelings that surround it.  Because happiness feels so good we want to feel it all the time, yet if we did, it would no longer feel good–it would just become our new baseline, our new normal, and would cease to be special.  As one of my philosophy professors put it so long ago, a fish doesn’t know that it is wet; because it has nothing to compare the sensation of water to it loses the ability to recognize what being wet is actually like.

fish in water

“Whaddaya mean I’m wet?”

The problem is that we live in a feel-good, self-help culture that tells us that if we aren’t happy then something is wrong.  Thus we pathologize non-happy emotions such as fatigue, sorrow, sadness, anger, boredom, disappointment, and ambivalence (you know how some people say “I don’t know how I’m feeling right now”?–that’s an actual feeling!).  Of course, any of these emotions can, in fact, become pathological.  Anger can become homicidal rage, sadness can become crippling depression, ambivalence can become neurotic indecision.  But happiness can also become a pathology in extremes–think of Ira Levin’s famous 1972 science-fiction novel The Stepford Wives (filmed in 1975 by Brian Forbes in a magnificent cinematic adaptation).  The Stepford Wives is obviously a feminist social critique but it is also saying something about the nature of happiness, and both men and women audiences intuitively recognize that the constant cheerfulness and grinning optimism of the women of Stepford is unnatural, and inauthentic.  In both the novel and the film the women of Stepford turn out to be robots (if you were one of the last four or five people in the western world who didn’t know the twist ending, forgive me for spoiling it); the story’s subtext is that only a robot could possibly be so continuously happy, cheerful, and optimistic.

No one wants to be perpetually happy like the women in Brian Forbes' 1975 film THE STEPFORD WIVES.

No one wants to be perpetually happy like the women in Brian Forbes’ 1975 film
THE STEPFORD WIVES. We need to experience and embrace the full range of human emotions, including sadness, fatigue, ambivalence–even boredom.

I suspect that the secret to happiness is to accept the fact that we cannot necessarily control when or why we experience happiness.  As O’Faolain says near the end of her essay: “Because nobody can summon it up, nobody can say that it will never come again.  But nobody can stop it from disappearing either.” Maybe we need to acknowledge the fact that it is okay to not be happy all the time, and to allow ourselves to experience the full range of human emotions.  Maybe on a grey, drizzly Monday morning when we drive to work with a heavy heart, we need to tell ourselves, “Right now I am not happy.  I am discouraged, and I do not feel one shred of enthusiasm for the things I have to do today.  And that’s okay.  I am allowed to be unhappy sometimes.”

I suspect that it isn’t unhappiness that troubles us so much as our misguided belief that unhappiness is bad.  Just as anxiety about insomnia is far more destructive than insomnia itself, it is anxiety about unhappiness–and not the unhappiness itself–that serves to make us truly miserable.

Embrace your sadness, your fatigue, your bouts of ennui.  Happiness comes and goes, and when it returns, it will burn all the brighter for these moments you have spent in the shadows.