Every person wants to be happy. But life is about embracing the tough times, too, says Hugh Mackay
We seem to have become afraid of sadness. There’s been so much emphasis on happiness, positive thinking, and invincible self-esteem; we are in danger of forgetting that an important part of being a complete person is learning to handle the tough stuff as well.
Obviously, the “positive” emotions are more enjoyable and easier to live with, but it’s perfectly normal to be occasionally engulfed by waves of grief or sadness, and stymied by feelings of despair, doubt, or disappointment. All those emotions have something to teach us about ourselves and, without them, we’d never know what happiness is.
But it all depends on what we mean by “happiness”, so let’s start at the beginning. The Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that the ideal life was the life of eudemonia-a word usually translated as “happiness”. But Aristotle was not talking about a life of sensory pleasure; nor was he endorsing a life detached from reality by the delusion that things are (or should be) better than they actually are.
His idea of happiness comes much closer to our word “wholeness” than it does to the often self-indulgent, pleasure-based feeling we call “happiness”. For Aristotle, eudemonia was about living in accordance with reason; fulfilling our sense of purpose; doing our civic duty; living virtuously; being fully engaged with the world, and, especially, experiencing the richness of human love and friendship.
“The richness of human love and friendship”? Everyone knows that’s no bed of roses. Personal relationships can bring us our deepest satisfaction and make immense contributions to our sense of wholeness, but they are essentially messy, unpredictable, and quite often, our greatest source of disappointment, angst, and sadness. And that is precisely why they have so much to teach us.
When we are dejected or miserable, we may feel as though life is unkind or unfair. So it’s easy to see why, at such times, we might regard happiness as a suitable goal for our lives or perhaps the “natural” state to be in. But that would ignore an important truth about the experience of being human: sadness is as authentic emotion as happiness. 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 our experiences of disappointment, suffering, or sadness, or even with those times when we feel trapped in a dull routine.
When I hear parents say, “I only want my children to be happy,” I’m always tempted 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?”
When individuals experience sudden and dramatic change-divorce, bereavement, retrenchment, life-threatening illness-their anxiety levels rise and they typically report feeling of stress, sadness, and even occasional panic. When the changes are society-wide, we get the same reactions on a large scale: an epidemic of anxiety, and a general sense of insecurity.
Considering the upheavals that have been reshaping our society, it’s no wonder we’re a bit shell-shocked: we’ve reinvented the institution of marriage (and some are abandoning in its droves); transformed the nature of family life: shrunk our households; felt the tremors of an international economic crisis; widened the gulf between wealth and poverty, and rewritten labor market statistics (especially those involving female participation and part-time work).
We have 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.
As predicted 40 years ago by Alvin Toffler in his prescient book Future Shock, all these disruptions to our way of life have not only increased our level of anxiety (and boosted our consumption of tranquilizers), but also induced a nagging sense of powerlessness and loss of control. There’s a real danger that we might only make things worse if we put too much emphasis on “positive thinking” and not enough on the process of living courageously, kindly, and even nobly in the face of all this change.
I fear that even “happiness” may be taking on a new meaning in response to our desire for control.: we’re in danger of treating happiness as a symptom or a sign that you’re “in control”, which means that, by contrast, sadness would be a sign that you’re not-as if you can choose to be either happy or sad.
Thinking positively is better than thinking negatively, But thinking realistically has even more to commend it, and being realistic acknowledges that the richness of life lies in the interplay between light and shade.
“Cheer up!” we say to each other, but why should we try to induce a chirpy emotional state in someone who is passing through the shadows or dealing with loss or disappointment? I am with Marcel Proust on this- “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”
Most people report that their really significant personal growth and development has come from pain and suffering, not pleasure. So, when we need to be sad, it’s a mistake to rush the process of dealing with our sadness, our disappointment, or our distress. Happiness usually visits us in quick bursts, but the darker emotions need time to do their work.
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