This week I get sad


I’ve been writing this column for a while now – 72 weeks to be exact – and I have to confess, I’ve had it with trying to be happy.  It’s all become too much.

While this column is a somewhat tortured search for a better life, most of the literature I’m exposed to is about happiness. You see, since positive psychology emerged ten years ago, happiness has become the holy grail of our existence. Everyone’s trying to get happy because a happier life is a better life. Or so we’re sold.

And, so, every week I’m sent half a dozen happiness books to review, I’m invited to happiness pow-wows and my inbox receives a chundering of the latest theories and studies about how best to land a smile on one’s dial, usually involving Tibetan monks or a bunch of Greek goat herders.

Ergo, I have happy wash; I’m “cheer exhausted”, you might say.

Happiness used to be something you experienced appropriately, on occasion (on birthdays, when running under sprinklers). It was a spontaneous thing you got glimpses of, if you were lucky. Nowadays, these countless theories prove happiness can be manufactured and sculpted. We can work hard at being happy (by turning sad thoughts into happy ones and thus reshaping the synapses in our brains). And, when we do, we attract more happiness (you reap what you sow and all that jazz).

All of which has served to create a highly tedious imperative to be happy all of the time. Which has simultaneously rendered the slightly less sunny among us, well, lazy. You’re not happy? The sun not shining on your patch? A bit down that you have incurable cancer? Pull your socks up!

I had someone do this to me the other day. He bounced past me on the street and told me to, “Smile, be happy”. Had I been in a more beamish mood, I’d have said, “No thanks, I’m experimenting with the miserable end of my mood spectrum right now. It’s proving highly productive.” Instead I glowered.

But has anyone stopped to ask if happiness is all that much chop? Is happiness the only path to a better life? This week, having reached saturation point with the Pollyanna antics, I thought it was time to ask if pessimism doesn’t also have its place.

Me, I was born a sad sack. My default setting is “deeply emotional”. And frankly I’ve always found sadness rather rewarding. Sometimes I’ll come home on a Friday night, open a bottle of red, watch some SBS news, put on Martha Wainright and wallow. It feels deep and true and real and is often creative.

Further, saccharine types can drive me mental. They’ll be chattering away in the high-octane affirmative at a party and I almost fall asleep. Where’s the angst, the grist from which their spirit ricochets in glorious discordant colour? Trying to connect with the vigilantly jubilant can be like breaststroking through fairy floss.

As I found this week, the latest research is swinging around to this vibe, too. The Australian Science Journal recently reported that negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking and broody types cope better in demanding situations. In Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World, Barbara Ehrenreich defends deep, dark, angry emotions in the fight against cancer.  And a University of Michegan study this year found while Russians brood more than Americans, they get less depressed. In fact, the brooding protects them from depression – it allows them to emote from a self-distanced perspective. So they don’t get attached.

In fact, it’s our attachment to happiness that explains why many people like me are so over trying to be happy. Two studies published last month found the more you try to be happy, the less likely you’ll attain it. Dramatically so. In one of them, a group were asked to read a bunch of bogus newspaper articles extolling the virtues of happiness; another group read articles extolling other values, such as “making accurate judgments”.  Both groups were then made to watch a happy movie. The former were unable to elevate their mood. The study showed pressure to be happy makes it harder to see the actual positive events in front of us. Presumably because when happiness is the focus, we’re reminded of where we’re lacking. Which is always depressing.

Although nothing a balanced dose of Martha Wainright won’t fix.

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Rachel J

    Our natural process in response to thoughts and events is to experience a broad spectrum of emotions. To not feel particular emotions and seek only happiness would be to suppress those emotions we are uncomfortable with feeling and processing. The link between suppressing emotions and our mental and physical health is rarely discussed but is such a major cause of health challenges (as I am currently only learning after 38 years of suppressing emotions). Feel that broad spectrum of emotions people! And talk about it more often to teach others it is ok to do so!

  • Janine Beck

    OMG I love this!!! I relate to it fully and completely. I also found it interesting, I watched ‘Inside Out’ by Pixar this week (all about emotions and our brains, and how a young girl copes with a major challenging life change), and “Sadness” (a character alongside ‘Joy’, ‘Anger’ and ‘Envy’) was a bit of an outcast (largely of her own doing thinking she was screwing everything up with ‘Joy’ trying to make her positive all the time), yet, in the end, the movie suggested that tinging her old memories (and her present) with sadness, and being able to feel that, was what actually made the turn around. To heal and move through. Was thought provoking for this positive thinking (and subsequently disillusioned) junkie!

    • Janine Beck

      Oh yeah, don’t forget the character ‘Fear’ 🙂

  • Janine Beck

    I also believe it’s cultural and social isolation that is becoming the bigger factor in unhappiness, not the way we process things in our brain (although the latter is certainly important and influential).

  • Janine Beck

    Funny. I haven’t read renaissance poetry although I never ever appreciated poetry until I stumbled across a group of maybe twenty poet afficionados, performing and listening to each other in a graffitti-ed tunnel in South London. I was moved to tears a couple of times at the power, emotion, sentiment and passion of their words. Direct from their authors, live.

  • JennyM

    Best blog yet. Couldn’t agree more. Pressure to be happy makes me angsty and cross.

  • mw

    Fab piece of writing .. I think this is from just b4 I first became aware of you .. I missed the whole Master Chef thing .. saw you on Good News Weekend with Paul McDermott .. and thought that you were refreshingly unpolished compared to all those jaded cheesy (for the most part) comedians. Yes .. because we spoke briefly on NYE that year and I offered to carry your bike down some stairs for you .. You refused of course ..

  • Holly Skelton

    I agree, there’s so much pressure on people to be happy and it’s almost as though it’s a crime to feel anything but. It’s a multi-million pound industry and the more you try, the less happy you become so you’re constantly searching and trying to find new ways to be happy which is why the business keeps growing.

  • Tez Ong

    We develop more when in somber moods as it is almost a prerequisite to self reflection – since when do people contemplate life earnestly when they are in a deliriously happy mood?

    And that reference to releasing the creative juices might help explain why the greatest writers & artists suffer from long periods of Unhappiness…