Why pressuring yourself to feel “happy” all the time actually gets in the way of being happy
If I’ve learned anything in my 25 years on Earth, it’s that people look at you strangely when you stand in the middle of a sidewalk and cry.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I found myself crying against a urine-stained wall next to a Pret A Manger in Midtown Manhattan. As I tried desperately to shove the tears back into my eyeballs with my fists, passing business people eyed me with the same combination of confusion and disgust usually reserved for subway creeps.
There was no real reason for my meltdown. I was a healthy, employed woman with loving family and friends. And I was hopelessly sad.
It had been building for weeks — that heavy knot of bile and despair that forms in your gut and travels slowly up your digestive tract before lodging itself at the back of your throat. When I felt it coming, I fought it with everything I had. I meditated, and when that didn’t work, I exercised, and when that didn’t work, I drank tea and lit candles, and when that didn’t work, I drank wine and smoked cigarettes. I read, I wrote, I slept, I ran, but nothing worked. The darkness was still there, lurking in the corners of every moment.
And then one day, I couldn’t fight it anymore.
So, I did what any adult with rent payments and crow’s feet would do: I called my parents. I aired my grievances, anything I could think of to account for the unbearable tightness in my chest (My alarm didn’t go off… Our country’s going to explode… I don’t think my left eye opens all the way…).
But as my parents calmly talked me through each issue, I realized none of these things were really the problem. There was no problem — I was just sad.
There is this idea in the United States that sadness is some sort of aberration; that happiness is both the norm and the goal, and that if you’re not happy, you’re doing something wrong.
This isn’t that weird – who doesn’t want to be full of joy?! But at some point, probably somewhere between the incense burning and sobbing into a jumbo margarita, our tireless insistence on being happy, on “fixing” our emotions, ends up getting in the way of actual happiness.
We are constantly surrounded by things telling us how to be HAPPY and our BEST SELVES. The women in tampon commercials look like menstruating in white jeans is the most exciting fucking thing that has ever happened to them. Your high school bandmate just posted about her wildly successful candle business. Your coworker shared a picture of his elaborate Whole30 meal with the caption “Never felt better in my own skin” while you licked the inside of a bag of Doritos.
Sure, objectively you know that it’s all a lie, or at least a distortion of the truth. But the truth doesn’t sell. Feminine hygiene product companies don’t want to slap their logos over a video of a bloated woman in marinara-stained sweatpants screaming obscenities into her pillow. Your high school bandmate isn’t going to write “Thank god I have this candle business because my relationship is on the rocks and I need something to take my mind off of it.” And your coworker isn’t going to share a picture of himself being turned down for a promotion.
We know this, and yet part of us suspects that that everyone else really IS perpetually, overwhelmingly happy, and we’re the only ones lying. We suspect that this is the result of some failure on our part, like if we did more yoga or lost 5 lbs or went to more parties, we would also reach Happiness.
Happiness isn’t a destination, though. Sure, things like achieving your goals, taking care of yourself, or connecting with another person are more likely to bring you joy, just as isolating yourself or behaving destructively are more likely to bring you sadness and regret. At best though, these emotions are road signs, and shitty ones at that. They appear more or less frequently depending on the path you take, but they also appear out of nowhere, miles away from where they should be.
You can have accomplished everything you ever set your mind to, you can be respected, loaded, loved, and have a pair of jet-skis and a barn full of pugs, and still wake up some mornings and feel hollow and cold — like the darkness has folded in around you. Just as you can be lonely and struggling, but still experience moments of beauty so overwhelming you think your sternum might crack open because your heart can’t contain so much joy.
We take our emotions too seriously. We think of them as the objective and definitive when in fact they’re slippery and capricious (this is especially true if you struggle with mental health issues). I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t work to be happy. We should eke every drop of happiness we can out of this life.
We just don’t need to fear our negative emotions. We don’t need to fight them.
They’re going to pop up no matter what, so we may as well accept them and ride them out. It’s okay to not be okay.
Accept this, embrace this, and maybe you’ll manage to avoid crying against a urine-stained wall. It would make one of us.