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Resisting the Obligation to be Happy

The problem with pursuing only happiness

It is a commonly asked question. “Are you happy?” If you say yes, then your life is supposed to be okay. If you say no, then the person who asked the question assumes an air of concern. They may give you suggestions on how to be happier. If those don’t work, you can always go online. There are tons of blogs on how to live a happier life. Social media celebrities, through their empowered life choices and modish sense of style, promise you that happiness is not just attractive; it is quite attainable. You only have to be bold and act. Choose a job you love. Be with the person who looks at you as though you were magic. Be kinder and more grateful. None of this is untrue. But, when consumed in regular doses, it creates a subconscious narrative that could be hampering us from leading fuller emotional lives. That subconscious narrative is: I have to be happy; if I am not, something is wrong. Then that narrative collides with life in all its diversity. And we discover we are not happy most of the time. Instead, we are busy, anxious, bored, challenged or sad. So now we ask ourselves: Am I doing something wrong? Am I not leading my best life?

Getting to the root of the happiness game

Perhaps we need to step back and ask ourselves: Why do we need to be happy most of the time? When did happiness get silently and successfully institutionalized as the unarguable end goal of our emotional lives? Well, marketers do have a lot to gain from making you feel you are not happy enough, so they can promote their products and services and ideas to fill that perceived void inside you. That’s an old phenomenon of course. But in our time it probably exists in subtler, more sophisticated ways. The person who doesn’t need better clothes or a better car to be happy is still a good target. Because that person probably needs more ‘authenticity’ and ‘spirituality’ to attain the next level of happiness. So, whatever your age or social status or psychological disposition, you may be playing the happiness game. Trying to increase your score. And fretting when you don’t.

Why we probably don’t need to be happy all the time

But our ideal emotional life is maybe less like a single-minded pursuit race and more like a balanced diet. Just like a balanced diet needs carbohydrates, proteins and fibre, your emotional diet also needs to be balanced with a range of emotions. Wanting to be happy most of the time is a little like wanting to eat doughnuts most of the time. It’s tasty. It gives us a high. But it would be unrealistic, even detrimental, to want it all the time. Our minds and hearts and bodies need more than just the emotional fast food of happiness.

So change begins by finding the awareness and the courage to do something seemingly weird: stepping back from the unconscious cultural catechism of happiness and saying, “No, I am not happy right now. And that is alright.”

Because I am sad today and my sadness is teaching me endurance. Because I am nervous today and my nervousness is teaching me to stay calm. Because I am uneasy today and I think it’s because my mind is trying to tell me something I need to know about myself. Because I am content today and my contentedness is telling me that despite the lack of ecstasy and delirium in my life, I am actually quite alright. I just don’t know it. Because the people who control the narrative won’t let me feel okay about that, the narrative of which emotions are desirable and which are not. We need to recognize that brand of ideological theft. And take back our emotions, whatever they may be, and calmly inhabit them in the knowledge that we are okay, even if we are not overtly ‘happy’ at the moment. We are okay because we are experiencing a broader taste of life. So we are learning. We are growing.

How can we remember to make it come alive every day?

The Gita says, “You have a right to the action but not to the fruit of the action.” Perhaps it is the same with happiness. We have a right to make informed choices that are projected to increase our long-term happiness. So let’s find the job we love and the person who makes our soul bloom. But when we start to live out those choices, let’s remember we do not have a right to happiness. Instead, we must be ready to experience, without panic or resentment, the full range of emotions that are inevitably going to come our way, and with the intent to treat it all as essential for our growth. Then, paradoxically, we will be ‘happy’ but in a quieter, less conventional way. It will be a kind of happiness we can call our own.

In a society that subconsciously commands us to do more of what makes us deliriously happy, recognizing our non-happiness as ‘okay’, as even something crucial to our emotional growth, can be an interesting act of rebellion. And freedom.

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