This entertaining illustrated post by graphic artist Matthew Inman explores happiness fascism, a subject I have addressed once or twice myself. He pillories the vague definition of “happiness,” and compares and contrasts it with meaningfulness, proposing creative flow as a variant of happiness, or at least as a modifier of unhappiness.
I nodded my head all the way through this, but in the end, I don’t entirely agree. I think we do all know happiness when we experience it, and if we haven’t (or can’t remember that we have), there’s a good chance we are anxious and/or depressed. Sorry if I sound like a Jenny one-note here, but personal and social factors converge to make many people unaware that their life is being blighted by a mental disorder, and I am on a mission to save them all.
I speak from personal experience, of course (that is what usually inspires a mission, no?). For decades I felt just like Matthew Inman, only with less flow. I didn’t really know what this happiness thing was all about. Maybe I experienced it once or twice, but I had only the haziest impression of a memory, certainly not enough to give me a retrospective déjà vu of what it felt like.
Since then I have learned that one of the characteristics of depression is to unceasingly pump up all memories of misery until they are so huge they block out the mind’s sky, memories of past happiness included. From a less depressed state, I can recall that I have indeed experienced moments of happiness: moments where I felt awed and filled with the beauty in the world, free from fear, doubt, and worry, and fully realized and present in the spot on which I stood.
But how important is it to feel that all of the time, or even a lot of the time? I think that might be the question Matthew Inman is really asking.
I ask a different question – is it even possible to be happy all or most of the time? And I ask that as if the answer is the same for everyone, but I am pretty sure it isn’t, which is the answer. Maybe for some people it’s possible. Maybe for some it’s even easy. Maybe for others it’s rare. Maybe all of that is OK, and serves different personalities in different ways. Different jokes for different folks.
However, I believe if you never feel happy, there’s probably something wrong. You have to have some idea of the spectrum to perceive where you are on it, which is an important thing to know. The danger of a life without happy moments is not only the loss of those moments. A far greater danger is that pain becomes too normalized to ever recognize the depth of it – or the possibility of relief.
That’s where my mission kicks in. And the first person I have to save is myself. You’d think I’d have a handle on that by now – I’ve been working on it for 20 years! But I have to rediscover the importance of using my management tools, and the difference it makes, over and over again. Maybe that’s why I talk about it so much. As an old friend of mine used to say, “you teach best what you most need to learn.”
The thing is, there’s a very tricky transition point in the emergence from unhappiness, like letting out a clutch. Depression not only impairs the ability to remember happiness, but also the ability to imagine it (otherwise known as hope). Becoming conscious of how dreadful your life is without hope of anything better can kill you. But if you are too unconscious of your pain, the status quo may seem safer than some pie-in-the-sky, how-likely-is-that-really leap of faith into making a change, even one for the better. For people living in a constant state of anxiety, change of any kind threatens to demand more resources than we feel we have, and is therefore highly alarming.
All I can say is: it’s worth the risk. I don’t remember where I first read the advice, “Don’t go looking for trouble. It’ll find you when it wants you,” but I think I’ll have it inscribed on my tombstone. There’s enough suffering in life. Don’t put up with any more of it than you have to.
I don’t know enough about happiness to draw any conclusions about its relationship (or not) to meaningfulness. Like Matthew Inman, I have found a satisfaction in meaningfulness that counteracts unhappiness to a significant degree. But I’m not sure that’s the same as happiness.
This much I do know: my life isn’t quite where I want it to be. For me that’s not a “negative” thought that keeps me from enjoying invisible happiness that was right there in front of me the whole time. Rather, it’s the match that fires my determination, inspiring me to persevere in the face of overwhelm, to trust my instincts, to exercise my authorship over my own life. Call it “striving” if you will, but it has already saved and improved that life immeasurably.
So what does this happiness I pursue look like – what is my happy destination?
A life with more time to spend in flow.