“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” Robert Frost
The first house I owned was built in 1760, located on what is today the edge of the Quabbin Reservoir. As someone who had never lived in a home built before World War II, I was enchanted by all the colonial details: the 12-over-12 windows, the enormous block of local rough-hewn granite that sat above the fireplace (rumored to have taken six men to carry and install). I marveled, too, at the wainscoting in the living room—single boards measuring 3’ x 16’—made from King’s Pines, the oldest, tallest New England white pines reserved exclusively for ships’ masts by the Crown in 1691, but frequently nicked by local colonists for their own building purposes.
Discovering the history behind my new home made me curious about the history of the community. Who were these people who inhabited what would have been an isolated area in the years before the “horseless carriage?” How did they manage daily life?
Among the exhibits, artifacts, and papers I perused, it was a collection of women’s journals and letters I remember most, especially the ones dealing with the death of a child. Infant mortality was a serious threat well into the nineteenth century. For 1850, it’s estimated that almost 25% of white babies, and over a third of black babies never saw their first birthday. Virtually no family was left untouched by this kind of tragedy.
The women’s writing bears witness to the deep sadness such loss evoked. Letters filled with poignant reminiscences of a “wee one” asleep in its mother’s arms, a toothless smile on its lips. Heart-rending descriptions of a child’s last moments, gasping for breath or burning from fever. Sorrow, heartache, grief—they were part of the emotional landscape in the 18th century. Openly acknowledged and vividly expressed.
In the intervening years, much has happened to reduce infant death and combat disease. Pasteur formulated germ theory in the 1860s. An effective vaccine for tuberculosis became available in 1921. Penicillin arrived on the scene in 1928, a “miracle cure” for millions. But sadness is not so easily eradicated.
Death, displacement, loss, rejection—these things still dog us, an inescapable part of the human condition, as core to our being as an arm or a lung. Only our acceptance of sadness, our ability to deal with it or even to admit to it, has changed.
In a 2013 article for scientificamerican.com , psychotherapist Tori Rodriguez describes how startled she was to hear a patient apologize for talking about his painful experiences. “I’m sorry for being so negative,” the man said.
People who seek therapy presumably do so because they recognize the distress of their situation is greater than they can manage alone. Therapists don’t expect them to “put on a happy face.” But Rodriguez has noticed a definite uptick in the number of patients who feel guilty or embarrassed by what they perceive to be their own negativity. “Such reactions undoubtedly stem from our culture’s overriding bias toward positive thinking,” she says. “Problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.”
John Naish, author of Enough: Breaking Free From The World Of More, writes: It’s almost as though we must have a duty to be happy in today’s highly developed Western world.
Conversations you may have heard or had:
“Hey, how it’s going?”
“Good. Great. Everything’s going well.”
I actually knew someone who responded this way though her 15-year-old daughter had recently been arrested for prostitution, her son was in rehab, and her husband was jumping ship.
Are we in denial here or what?
A quick google on the matter reveals that, at best, we are confused about just how happy we can or should be, as the following subject lines attest:
Is Being Happy All the Time Possible?
Are Humans Supposed to be Happy All the Time?
Is it Normal to Feel Happy All the Time?
Why It’s Not Normal to be Happy All the Time
And, my personal favorite: 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Stay Happy All the Time
So, how did we get from those letters of our foremothers with their unabashed expressions of sadness and grief, to thinking we’re supposed to feel happy all the time? Where did this sad-shaming come from?
I can’t pinpoint the moment it arrived, but the $10 billion-plus (annual) self-help industry might be a good place to start.
The Happiness Industry
In 1952, a Reformed Church (RCA) minister, Norman Vincent Peale, published a book that would remain on The New York Times bestseller list for 186 consecutive weeks. The Power of Positive Thinking, using a blend of what can best be described as glib spirituality and pop psychology promised readers that if they could imagine it, it would come.
“Stand up to an obstacle,” Peale exhorted. “Just stand up to it, that’s all, and don’t give way under it, and it will finally break. You will break it. Something has to break, and it won’t be you, it will be the obstacle.”
By way of explanation, he offered: “When you expect the best, you release a magnetic force in your mind which by a law of attraction tends to bring the best to you.”
It’s all a matter, as Peale would explain again and again in his next 45 books, of changing your thoughts. “Change your thoughts and you change your world,” he told a readership hungry to swallow the idea that eternal happiness was theirs for the believing.
(Interesting side note: Peale was a close friend of Richard Nixon and he officiated at Donald Trump’s wedding to Ivana. According to The Washington Post, Trump sings Peale’s praises when asked about his own religious convictions, and Peale described Trump as “kindly and courteous” with “a streak of honest humility,” touting him as “one of America’s top positive thinkers and doers.”)
The Power of Positive Thinking sold an impressive 7 million copies, but two decades later, the man John Rogers (AP) called “the pied piper of the self-help movement” crushed those numbers. Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones (1976) has sold 35 million copies to date. Unlike Peale who had no mental health credentials—indeed, the psychology community was annoyed with him—Dyer held an Ed.D. in counseling. This, however, did not prevent him from frequently making equally questionable, facile (and highly profitable) claims such as:
It’s been proven that the thoughts we choose have everything to do with our emotions. I can tell you that a commitment to feeling good can take away a stomach ache, fear, depression, sadness, anxiety—you name it. Any stress signal is a way of alerting you to say the five magic words: I want to feel good.
Different Gurus, Same Message
Indeed, if Peale’s and Dyer’s writings were jotted on scraps of paper and mixed together, it would be hard to distinguish one happiness guru from the other. Try it.
- Our happiness depends on the habit of mind we cultivate. So practice happy thinking every day. Cultivate the merry heart, develop the happiness habit, and life will become a continual feast.
2. Feelings are not just emotions that happen to you. Feelings are reactions you choose to have.
3. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
4. When you get up in the morning, you have two choices – either to be happy or to be unhappy. Just choose to be happy.
5. Whatever people can imagine clearly with emotion, by creating a perfect vibrational match, is theirs to be, or do, or have.
6. The essence of greatness is the ability to choose personal fulfillment in circumstances where others choose madness.
(This last reminds me of the parody on Kipling’s “If”: If you can keep your head while all about are losing theirs … it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.)
Here are the correct attributions: 1 and 4 (Peale); 2,3 and 6 (Dyer).
Number 5 is a quote from Esther Hicks (okay, I wasn’t playing completely fair). Hicks is an inspirational speaker and co-author of nine books, including the popular Law of Attraction series (Abraham Hicks Publications), whose seven titles include Money and the Law of Attraction: Learning to Attract Wealth, Health, and Happiness, and Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires. According to Hicks, the books are “translated from a group of non-physical entities called Abraham.” Hicks says she is simply tapping into “infinite intelligence.”
It’s a very appealing idea that one can be happy all the time—no one seeks pain—but is it true?
What unites Peale, Dyer, Hicks and a zillion other happiness gurus is this: Believing makes it so. But if it’s possible to be happy all the time, and it just depends on your willing it, then it’s a short leap to the conclusion that if you’re not happy all the time, it’s your own damn fault. Indeed, Dyer says as much in what may be the sad-shaming daddy of them all: You didn’t come forth into this world to suffer, to be anxious, fearful or depressed. Remember, your thoughts, not your world, cause you stress.
Tell that to a Syrian child who lost both parents and her home when her village was bombed, a refugee orphan whom no country wants to take in. Tell that child it’s her thoughts not her world that is causing her pain. It’s a mythology that can only exist in absolute privilege and the real twist is that it doesn’t even exist there. The monied classes are full of unhappy people who believed that a 5,000 square-foot McMansion, a bright shiny new car, and a load of the latest high-end digital gadgets and appliances would prove a talisman against sadness and disappointment.
We don’t need more and bigger stuff to insulate us from sorrow and pain. What we need is resilience.
Resilience and the Complications of Happiness
Resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress” (American Psychological Association). Though some of us seem to be more resilient than others, and all of us can increase our resilience, none of us can render ourselves impervious to emotional shocks and pain. “Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress,” the APA explains. “Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives.”
It’s worth noting here that it’s not only sorrow, disappointment, and grief that prevent us from being on a never-ending happy trip. It’s happiness itself. Happiness, as it turns out, is complicated. Just ask anyone who has killed time waiting for a preschooler to make her choice among the list of possibilities at the ice cream stand.
And though the choices change with maturity, the complications remain as we struggle to juggle work, family, friends, personal pursuits, and the need for solitude—all important contributors to our health and happiness. As Jennifer Hecht, a history professor who studies among other things the history of happiness, says in her book The Happiness Myth, we all experience many types of happiness, but that doesn’t save us from experiencing conflicts. Putting our energies into one source of happiness, say, landing our dream job, takes time away from another source of happiness, our partner and children. Devoting ourselves to raising our kids means many fewer hours for alone time and our own interests. Alas, we are mere mortals and it’s impossible to stretch the day beyond 24 hours or to be in two places at once.
The High Cost of Faking It
Okay, so it’s not possible to be happy all the time, but is it even desirable to act as if we are eternally happy, happy, happy?
Consider the following scenarios:
Your house and everything in it burns to the ground.
You are robbed and beaten at gunpoint.
Your best friend betrays you.
You lose your job at age 50 and can’t find another.
Your spouse develops Alzheimer’s.
Your child dies in a car accident. (As a parent, I can hardly bring myself to even write that.)
Can you seriously imagine acting happy in the wake of any of these situations? Would it even be remotely possible to vanquish all anxiety, heartache, and grief just by “choosing to be happy?”
Our language is awash in words for pain, disappointment, and sorrow because they are part of the human experience. These emotions happen to everyone. There ain’t no way around them. And attempting to suppress them may be the unhealthiest thing we can do. Refusing to deal with something consciously doesn’t stop our subconscious from dwelling on it. And dwelling on it. And dwelling on it some more. It’s only when we allow ourselves to experience and accept difficult emotions that we can open the door to making sense of our feelings and moving on. According to psychologist Jonathan M. Adler, “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being.”
You Can Handle This
I shared an apartment with a dear friend in my Boston days. Whenever she was sad or distressed, Terri cleaned like a madwoman. She once painted the entire apartment in a weekend after a break-up. In a painful place at the time myself, I watched her as I downed a tumbler of Jameson’s and played all the sad songs my record collection offered. Not the best of times, but we both got through it. As my dad used to say, “This too shall pass.”
There are many ways to cope with unhappiness. Like Terri, you can throw yourself into projects while your heart calms. You can call a good friend—and if your friends only want to hear from you when you’re happy, it’s time to find new friends. You can go the gym—the workout will flood you with endorphins and do your heart good. You can write or paint or compose a song about what you’re feeling. Much of the world’s great literature and music has its source in difficult moments. I generally choose to “sit” with my pain. Or more precisely, to let my pain “sit” with me while I go about my day, allowing my distress to float through me, neither indulging it nor suppressing it.
And if you find your sadness continues to overwhelm you, there’s a world full of professional help out there. Seek it, and don’t apologize for “negative feelings.” None of us gets through this life without the aid of others.
Personally, I have always taken comfort from the fact that the moment the bottom falls out—the punch in the gut when your world is turned upside down a little, or a lot—that’s the worst moment. In the seconds it takes to realize what’s happened, that moment is already in the rearview mirror. You’ve survived it. And from there, everything after is movement away, upward, toward the light.
Toward another chance at happiness.