Without sadness, we would never know what happiness is. Yet we live in a society that has become scared of sadness, and obsessive in its pursuit of the positive. “Every night, write down three good things that happened to you today”, some of the merchants of happiness urge us. Why? Happiness is just one among the many emotional states – some pleasant, some unpleasant – that we must learn to recognise and embrace as signs of our humanity.
If I were to urge you to write down three things at night, I’d be suggesting you go for the contrasts: what different emotions did you experience today; where did they spring from; what did they teach you about what it means to be you?
These days, sadness, however justified it might be by circumstances or natural mood swings, is too often and too quickly put under the microscope in case it turns out to be ‘clinical depression’ – a bit like the current penchant for describing a light head cold as the ‘flu. Some forms of depression are serious illnesses requiring specialised medical treatment – no doubt about that – but the boundaries of its diagnosis seem to have become elastic.
To be fully human – to be ‘normal’ – is to be occasionally engulfed by waves of grief or sadness, and stymied by feelings of despair, doubt or disappointment. Without all that, we’ll never know what happiness is (even assuming we know what we’re looking for).
It’s easy to be sceptical about the pursuit of happiness, partly because happiness – at least as that term is commonly used in the modern world – is one of the most passive, elusive and unpredictable of emotions, but also because many people report that their most significant personal growth and development has come from pain, not pleasure. (And there is a kind of sweetness about some form of pain and sadness, isn’t there?)
Of course, most of us enjoy feeling happy and feel, when we’re miserable (as we inevitably are, from time to time), that life is being unkind or unfair to us. So it’s easy to see why we might think of ‘being happy’ as a suitable goal for our lives or even the ‘natural’ state to be in.
But that overlooks an important truth about the experience of being human: sadness is as authentic an emotion as happiness. The fleeting moments of bliss and joy, and even the deeper sense of contentment that occasionally envelopes us, only make sense because they represent such a contrast with the experience of pain, trauma or sadness, or even with those times when we feel ourselves trapped in a tedious, dreary routine.
Dreary routine? In fact, the emotional flatline we associate with the routines of daily life is not as flat as we sometimes imagine it to be. We might scarcely notice the moments of up-ness and down-ness but they punctuate our days – prompted by events, encounters, shadows, patches of sunlight, memory. Pin-pricks of sadness; bursts of bliss; attacks of angst; surging waves of joy that recede, like any waves, as quickly as they build . . . and all those more muted sensations of light and shade that pop in and out of our psyche: reminders, all of them, that the emotional spectrum is broad and that to miss any of it – yes, even the disappointments, the failures and the daily grind – would be to miss out on the spectacular experience of wholeness.
“Be happy” strikes me as an odd thing to say to anyone – just as odd as, for example, “be sad”. I’d never want to wish a ‘positive’ emotional state on anyone, particularly if they are wrestling with some difficulty or dealing with tragedy. I’m with Marcel Proust on this: “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”
If I had to wish them something, it might be this: “Be whole”, since wholeness strikes me as a far healthier, more realistic goal than happiness.
In any case, ancient wisdom suggests that the pursuit of personal happiness is actually counter-productive: the more you seek it, the less likely you are to find it. That reflects an incontrovertible truth about human experience: self-absorption – like puffed-up self-esteem – is rarely the pathway to fulfilment, let alone enlightenment. “How can I become happier?” is a classic sign that we’ve missed the point. (“How can I be more useful?” might be getting warm.)
The critical question, of course, is what we mean by ‘happiness’? The Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that the ideal life was the life of eudaimonia – a word usually translated as ‘happiness’. But Aristotle was certainly not talking about a life of sensory pleasure or even a life so disengaged from the real world as to create the illusion that things are better than they really are: his brand of happiness involved the idea of living in accordance with reason, fulfilling one’s sense of purpose, doing one’s civic duty, living virtuously, being fully engaged with the world and, in particular, experiencing the richness of human love and friendship – in other words, something that comes closer to our current word ‘wholeness’, rather than ‘happiness’.
Rapid social change raises anxiety levels and leads to a culture of control. Everywhere we look, change is in the air and much of it is happening too quickly for comfort or on too grand a scale to be easily absorbed. When individuals experience sudden and dramatic change in their lives – divorce, bereavement, retrenchment, life-threatening illness – their anxiety levels rise and they typically report feelings of stress. When the changes are society-wide, we get epidemics of anxiety, and a generalised sense of insecurity.
In the past 30 years or so, Australians have reinvented the institution of marriage (and abandoned it in droves), transformed the nature of family life (almost 25 per cent of Australian families with dependent children are now single-parent families), sent the birthrate tumbling to an all-time low, shrunk our households, felt the tremors of a restructured economy, widened the gulf between wealth and poverty, and rewritten our labour market statistics (especially those involving female participation and part-time work). We have re-defined the very meaning of ‘Australian’ in the context of new regional alliances, and the emergence of a truly multicultural society with greater ethnic diversity than any society in human history. Like every other Western society, Australia has also been swept up in the information and communication technology revolution that has transformed the way we live and work and redefined notions of privacy and identity (especially among the young).
Did we imagine such a period of sustained social, cultural and economic dislocation would not take its toll? Rising levels of anxiety and a worrying sense of ‘loss of control’ are the inevitable consequences of such a period of upheaval. No wonder people take refuge in a pro-regulation mentality, or in the comfort of black-and-white fundamentalism (religious and otherwise), or in a retreat to the domestic sphere and a pre-occupation with a small, personal agenda that can be controlled: “Let’s have our breasts or our backyards sculpted!”
Given our turbulent circumstances, might we only exacerbate the problem by putting too much emphasis on ‘positive outcomes’ and not enough on the process of living courageously, kindly and even nobly?
Thinking positively is all very well – better than thinking negatively, no doubt. But thinking realistically has even more to commend it: to be realistic is to acknowledge that the richness of life lies in its contrasts, its light and shade, and in our capacity to experience and deal with the full spectrum of human emotions and responses.
I fear that happiness may be taking on a rather narrow meaning in response to our increasingly obsessive desire for control – itself a response to our sense of powerlessness in the face of rapid social change. We’re in danger of concluding that happiness means you’re ‘in control’ and that’s to be contrasted with sadness, which presumably means you’re not in control – as if you can choose to be either happy or sad.
When I hear parents say they only want their children to be happy, I’m tempted to ask: “What, exactly, do you mean by ‘happy’?” If, as I suspect, they are thinking of the current, absence-of-sadness variety, rather than the richer and deeper idea of living virtuous, dutiful and fully engaged lives, I’d then want to ask: “Is that all you want for them? Do you really want them to be as emotionally deprived as that? Don’t you want them to learn how to cope with disappointment, failure and even unfairness? Don’t you want them to be whole?”
Is happiness beyond our control?
I hope so. I’d be worried if I thought it was something we could summon up, more or less at will. If ancient wisdom teaches us anything, it’s that the deepest forms of happiness – satisfaction, contentment, peace of mind – have almost nothing to do with pleasure and don’t come to those who desire and pursue them. Indeed, most of the mystics would tell us that contentment is all about the quenching of desire – even the desire for happiness.
A life nobly lived is probably the ideal of everyone, but every life – examined or unexamined, reckless or responsible, sacrificial or self-centred – has value, if only because every life expresses something about what it really means to be human.
My personal test of a life well lived? To me, the answer lies in the quality of our personal relationships and the care we devote to them. Everything else is peripheral, and mostly trivial. Our personal relationships – the test bed of our sensitivity, our moral courage and our capacity for love – are not only the source of life’s richest meanings, but as we struggle to establish them, nurture them and sometimes forsake them, they teach us that notions like happiness or sadness are mere accidents of our fluctuating emotional state, and are incidental to the great realisation that it is in loving we are made whole.
Article is largely drawn from Hugh Mackay’s 2004 book, Right & Wrong: How to decide for yourself (published by Hachette Australia, RRP $29.95), and from some recent newspaper columns.
Hugh Mackay is a psychologist, social researcher and novelist who has made a lifelong study of the attitudes and behaviour of Australians. He is the author of 12 books, including five bestsellers. The second edition of Advance Australia…Where? was published in 2008, and his fifth novel, Ways of Escape, came out last year. His latest non-fiction book, What makes us tick? will be published in October. He was a weekly newspaper columnist for over 25 years and now writes occasionally for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is a frequent guest on ABC radio.
Share this Post