Happy All the Time
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2014
Uninterrupted happiness isn't the goal. Experiencing a single emotion, devoid of the richness of living, is an impoverished existence. We can't be happy all the time.
A youngster once commented, “Happiness is truly a choice. I choose to be happy all the time even when I'm dying in the inside. You can drown in sadness, but you can't drown in happiness! You swim!” Words are just words. We can draw limited conclusions without comprehending the complex intertwining of feeling and context. But these words, whatever the intended meaning, struck me, representative of a prevailing mode of thought—positivity. The deep conflicting message of being happy, while dying inside, conveys the modern message of forced smiles while suffering. The myth that we must continually experience glee exacts a costly toll on well-being. We charge ourselves with forcing happiness. There is confusion between experiencing pleasurable emotions and living a rich and meaningful life.
Certain segments of the happiness movement popularize the myth that we must experience pleasurable emotions—all of the time; if we aren’t happy, we are defective. Happiness is a choice, they proclaim. Instead empathy for those grieving, hurt, or downtrodden, their advice simply is: “why are you choosing to be sad?” I’m concerned with this direction of thought that has even infiltrated trained therapists.
Many awash in despair, possibly as this young poster describes, “Even when you’re dying inside,” feel an uncanny drive to force a smile and ignore underlying affects bubbling beneath the surface. Emotional expression, such as a smile, isn’t a singular event, that is unconnected to the complex stream of felt experience. Underlying despair is a complex construction of environments, evaluations and memories, not to be ignored and replaced with a smile. Some studies, however, have discovered a smile does positively impact mood; but impacting the mood doesn’t suggest a permanent cure for despair, or that constantly forcing a smile is healthy.
Sometimes, on a gloomy day, a smile might be all we need, other times something more sinister elements are at work, requiring more than a deceitful grin that leave demons unchallenged. A more sophisticated cure should be sought.
Faulty expectations of happiness create internal conflict, when life—at the moment—is unhappy; we slip into a battle that can never be won. Attempts for continual pleasure clash with reality, the body seeks homeostasis, not an extremity—monopoly of any one emotion. Extreme emotions motivate action; we avoid challenges, engage in pursuit, or aggressively defend. We need motivation from both the pleasant and unpleasant affect.
"Faulty expectations of happiness create internal conflict, when life—at the moment—is unhappy; we slip into a battle that can never be won."
We are increasingly surrounded by smiling people, chanting life is wonderful, but dying inside. How are we to empathize with those falsely expressing emotions? Perhaps, the growing masses suppressing emotional expression, pinning on a happy face, will create an epidemic of a loss of connection. Is our push for unrestrained happiness partially at fault for the sweeping darkness of loneliness that is plaguing our young people?
Henry David Thoreau said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." If the mythical land of continual happiness is what we seek, we may never sing the song of the rich, fulfilling life that includes an array of emotions, open to feeling experience of living. To connect with experience and effect positive change, we must face some difficulties that evoke discomfort. Intimate relationships require sorrows from loss and even the occasional pain of disloyalty. But these deep pangs of feeling create meaning, connection, and purpose. The feelings create wholeness. Building connections on superficial pleasant emotions authors a thin personal narrative, constructed from a disjointed patchwork of misunderstood feelings.
To flourish, we must face the heartache of personal and societal suffering. Reality consists of happiness and sadness; both contributing to fullness, and imparting wisdom. Sadness is not a sign of defectiveness but of passion and connection. We can swim or drown in the flow of emotion; but our survival depends less on the nature of the feeling than our relationship with the feeling. We flourish when feelings are accepted. We bask in the energy and richness and life.