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Finding happiness in being unhappy

Last updated: 13 September, 2011
Sudhirendar Sharma 21:28 IST

Recent research suggests that happiness may not be bliss; people who strive for happiness may end up being worse off.

Says June Gruber of Yale University, who published the research findings on perspectives on psychological science: “Doing things with the expectation that these ought to make you happy can lead to disappointment and decreased happiness.” Conversely, being unhappy shouldn’t be thought of as a universally bad thing.

Should such research gain wide credence, happiness therapists and reams of literature on ‘being happy’ would become redundant. So it should, given the fact that not only is search for happiness a problem, too high a degree of happiness can be bad as well. It has been found that people who feel extreme amounts of happiness are not only less creative than their counterparts but tend to take more risks.

In reality, however, staying happy has been considered an unwritten obligation for humans. So much social pressure there is for people to remain happy that most pretend to be happy even when they are not. Those who respond otherwise are often ashamed or uneasy.

Although country like Bhutan has `happiness’ as an indicator of social well-being, the question that present research tosses up is: are humans born to be happy? Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had long declared that happiness was impossible because “the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of Creation.”

Unlike the domain of hunger and thirst wherein everything must be immediately available, the heart and desire have their own rhythms and intermittences. No wonder, therefore, that even amid great havoc can still there be moments of unprecedented ecstasy.

Abandon pursuit
Surfing through an acerbic history of happiness, distinguished French philosopher Pascal Bruckner argues that we might be happier if we simply abandoned our relentless pursuit of happiness. But we are probably living in the world’s societies that make people unhappy not to be happy. That happiness is a different kind of emotional quality that depends neither on wealth nor on goodwill has rarely been understood.

Bruckner reminds us that it is better to lead a rich life with tears than a happy one lacking meaning. He further contends that modernity may have succeeded politically but it is an aesthetic failure, costing people the graces of the mind for the gewgaws of amusement. Yet, there is an obligation of being happy.

Neither is giving up on happiness being advocated nor is pain being presented to have some intrinsic or artistic value. Conversely, many contradictions that happiness manifests are being unveiled: there is a happiness of action and another of the senses, a happiness of prosperity and another of deprivation, a happiness of virtue and another of crime. Understanding many facets of happiness is critical for those who have ever bristled at the command to ‘be happy.’

Happiness borne out of the western notion of eradicating physical pain and poverty through money has rarely freed us from worries. Instead, it has become an obsessive worry, an end in itself. Aren’t rich people bored, inactive and tortured by their own emptiness? One cannot deny capitalism’s hand in improving the world’s standard of living, but that brand of happiness associated with booming postwar economic growth is indeed a cause for worry.

Indeed so, because materially happy people have mania, such as in bipolar disorder, that can lead them to take risks, like substance abuse, driving too fast, or spending their life savings. Happiness also can mean being short on negative emotions—which have their place in life as well. But being unhappy creates space for ‘fear’ that can keep one from taking unnecessary risks; and ‘guilt’ that can help remind one to behave well toward others.

A case for unhappiness as a virtue has indeed been made. Aren’t we happy, in spite of the suffering around us, and only for rare, unexpected and often inexplicable moment? Happiness, it has been suggested, may not be as important as qualities like lucidity and dignity. But if you really want it, the best way to find it is not to care too much about it. After all, philosophers have long argued: “It is not shameful to die in pain; it is shameful to die in pleasure.”

In his scholarly book Perpetual Euphoria, Bruckner laments the growing mode of existence that constantly defers genuine joy and its corresponding pain in favour of a safe, steady intake of ‘well-being.’ You go to the health club to ensure your future entry into the ‘paradise’ of living to a 100; you set up a retirement account to underwrite your longevity; you scramble to take the right vitamins and pills; and somehow, in the meantime, life passes you by.

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