Don’t Worry, Be (Un)Happy
How we can escape from our endless pursuit of the unattainable
According to several studies conducted over the last twenty years, at least 80% of couples are either dissatisfied with their relationship or very dissatisfied with their relationship. This trend holds true across heterosexual and same-sex partnerships and across cultures.
Billions of dollars are spent worldwide each year by people desperate to find hacks, tricks, techniques, life-changing skills, tips, and ways to empathize with others. The hope is that by discovering the hidden secrets of relationships like the Five Things To Drive Your Partner Wild In Bed or the Seven Empathetic Things To Say After A Fight there will be a way to feel less trapped, disappointed, and hopeless every time you look across the breakfast table at your Significant Other.
Relationship gurus depend on this belief for their livelihoods. Because if people felt the attempt was hopeless, they wouldn’t buy the books, sign up for the online courses, or pay for the life coaching. Just like the diet industry and the health care industry, however, the relationship industry thrives on failure. If any of these hacks, tricks, tips, etc. actually worked then customers wouldn’t come back for more. What the relationship industry sells, just like so many other industries, is blind hope in the face of repeated disappointment.
(Not unlike the democracy business, in fact. But that’s a tale for another time.)
One of the absolutely charming aspects of our species is our near-total inability to learn from experience.
If we’ve failed in seventy-eight successive diets, each one attempted with more desperation than the last, and we now in consequence weigh two hundred and twenty kilograms (that’s 484 pounds, for those readers still attempting to navigate life using a system of measurements that now appeals only to remote tribes living in the Amazon basin or to headhunters in the equatorial rainforests of Papua New Guinea) it’s pretty obvious that we’re most likely going to fail on the seventy-ninth attempt also. But instead of drawing this rational conclusion and thinking, “hey, maybe if this isn’t working I should re-examine my premises” we throw ourselves frantically into a repeat of the same old pattern.
Surely, surely, this time it will work? It must work!
And of course, it doesn’t.
There is, fortunately, an alternative to spending our entire lives in a state of sullen disappointment while simultaneously spending our hard-earned money on spurious how-to self-help personal improvement products.
Why should we imagine that our relationships should be a source of emotional satisfaction, of succor during hard times and of pleasure during times of ease? Remember: throughout history most people have been miserable. Forget the opium of Disney fantasy and women’s trashy romance novels. Forget the “happy ever after” lies you’ve been told since childhood. Forget, in fact, absolutely everything you think ought to be true about relationships and accept reality: humans totally suck at being with each other.
We’re stupid, we’re obtuse, we’re self-centered, we’re self-destructive, we’re lazy, we’re thoughtless, we’re cruel, we’re insecure, we’re incapable of consistency. Most of the time we have no idea what we’re really doing. We’re about as capable of forming and maintaining satisfactory relationships as a snail is of building a spaceship.
Once we recognize this simple fact, it becomes immediately obvious why we’re unhappy in our relationships. We’re like elephants who’ve been told since birth that they should aspire to fly through the air like birds. It’s a totally unrealistic aspiration so of course it is unattainable. Imagining that if only we try hard enough and if only we really truly wanted it enough we could fly, is a one-way road to purgatory.
The universe is not our personal butler and it does not ensure that “everything happens for a reason that was meant to be.”
If we embrace our condition and understand that nature cares not a jot for our personal happiness, our dysfunctional miserable relationships suddenly appear in a different light. It’s not we ourselves that are at fault, any more than individual elephants are at fault for failing to glide effortlessly through the air. It’s the way evolution has shaped us.
We’re a semi-monogamous species, the worst of all worlds. We want to be pair-bonded but our genes drive us toward a certain degree of extra-pair promiscuity. Our brains have a prefrontal cortex but our capacity for reason is stunted so we use that part of the brain mostly for inventing “reasons” why we’ve just done something over which we had no conscious control. Our bodies are hardwired to crave tastes that in today’s world of over-abundant McSlop make us unhealthy and ultimately kill us.
Why should we think, even for a moment, that happiness is within the human purview?
Do we really truly think elephants can fly?
Just think about the problem for a moment. In order to be moderately content with one’s relationship there would need to be, at a minimum, the following:
Mutual understanding and tolerance
Seriously, how plausible is it to imagine we’ll find even a tiny sub-set of these qualities existing between two deeply flawed and clueless human beings?
So of course we’re unhappy in our relationships. Just like we’re unhappy with our jobs. Just like we’re unhappy when we look in the mirror and see a roly-poly triple-chinned face gazing blankly back.
Once we realize unhappiness is the natural state of human beings, this takes a weight off our shoulders (even if it doesn’t take any weight off our over-burdened bodies). We can relax a little, knowing all this misery we’re feeling isn’t actually our fault at all. We can embrace our failure, just as we embrace that extra-large tub of fried chicken and the super-sized cola we swill every day.
What we need are honest books like The Five Habits of Highly Defective People, not the nonsense peddled in the self-improvement section of Amazon Books. What we need are movies where the couple, having overcome the obligatory adversity, walk off into the sunset squabbling bitterly with each other. We need stories that exalt the sheer unrelenting misery of people being together.
Because then we can stop imagining that “if only” something or other, things would be different.
The grass is also parched and withered on the other side of the fence.
So let’s hear it for a realistic acceptance of the fact we’re born crying and as we grow up we simply learn to cry silently inside. There’s no one “out there” who is “just right” for us, because we’re “just wrong” for ourselves.
And hey, there’s an upside. We even have a saying for it: misery loves company.
I exhort everyone, everywhere, to stop chasing a dream and embrace reality. Be miserable. Accept your disappointments. Stop waiting for a non-existent universal butler to come along and serve up happiness on a silver platter. Freedom from disillusionment is within your grasp.
Don’t worry, be unhappy.