The Myth of Perpetual Happiness

If you’re influenced by popular culture then you likely think you should be happy much of the time. We see ads filled with smiling young people ecstatic because they’re all swilling some sugary beverage. We see ads filled with smiling happy parents because their children are playing with the latest expensive toy. We see ads filled with smiling happy seniors who are delighted because some new product has enabled them to walk without incontinence or achieve sexual intercourse once more or, perhaps, merely enabled them to stave off senility for a few precious months. Regardless of the product, everyone is happy. Even the guy whose ultimate dream was merely to eat an entire pizza without succumbing to indigestion is happy. Thanks to a new pill, he can now gorge and then smile at the end of his over-indulgence.

Doctors also play their part in this assumption of eternal happiness. If you feel sad, they will readily prescribe a pill that will dull your senses because although there are no legal Happy Pills yet, being insensible is surely better than feeling sad.

We play our own roles too. Not satisfied with our sex lives? Someone must be to blame! Because somewhere in the Declaration of Independence, doesn’t it say we have the inalienable right to happiness? Therefore, if we’re not happy it’s time to change jobs, partners, clothes, or hairstyle. It may even be time to go on a self-help odyssey. Every day in every way I shall become happier and happier.

Social media, which has been blamed for many things, can’t really be blamed for our implicit notion that we deserve to be happy. Social media merely reflects the bias and amplifies it to an absurd degree.

The obvious flaw in the always-happy assumption is of course that most of the time it is unrealistic to be filled with joy. We evolved under conditions of danger and scarcity. Any human born with a set of genes that resulted in them being happy for most of the time would have met with an early demise. We need to be alert to our environment, we need to be conscious of resource scarcity, we need to be suspicious of our peers. The fact that in the last few thousand years we’ve altered our environment dramatically doesn’t alter the fact that our behaviors and emotions are fine-tuned for a very different world.

So although it’s lovely if you are living on a trust-fund and can fly to some exotic location to sit with other privileged people in an all-catered yoga retreat where you can explore the delights of your inner ecstatic chakra (or whatever), the reality is for 99.9% of us the notion of “frequent happiness” is largely spurious.

And here’s the other very important detail the always-happy narrative fails to include: we can only experience joy if we’re also capable of experiencing (and accepting) despair. We can only be happy if we’re also capable of being sad. We don’t get to play a game whereby we experience only the emotions we want. We’re either open to our emotions or we’re suppressing them. Thus in order to be happy we also have to accept the fact that at times we’re going to be sad.

At this point I should point out that I’m talking about the everyday range of emotions here, not about clinical depression. Biochemical imbalances really do need to be treated carefully, but that’s not my topic in this article.

So much for the abstract overview. Now I want to talk about the most emotionally debilitating time of my life — something I’ve never written about before and something I’ve shared with fewer people than I have fingers on my right hand.

First some background: for thirteen years I had been in a relationship. We were totally wrong for each other in every single way it’s possible for two people to be wrong for each other. So, in the mad emotional logic that too often applies in such cases, we were both determined to “make it work.” We endured thirteen years of mutual unhappiness. It would have been a stable enough situation had we not decided to have children together.

From the moment my son was born, everything changed. Although I was running a start-up I shouldered the bulk of parenting duties, having him sleep with me each night, making breakfast and dinner, and playing with him as much as I could. For the first time in longer than I could remember, I felt happy every day. I held him constantly, I read to him, I fed him, I changed his diapers, and as he grew and our interactions became more complex I “learned” him and loved him to the core of his being. Quite astonishingly (for me) was the fact that as he grew and grew, he loved me back.

Unfortunately if one grows up in a situation where love is scarce or non-existent, one craves love and attention and one resents any love that’s being directed anywhere else. I noticed my wife’s unhappiness when my son and I were with each other and the love was flowing between us, but I didn’t know what to do about it. She thought she did: have another child. Perhaps unconsciously she thought of children like possessions; if he has one then we’ll make another so I get to have one too. But this is just speculation. Who knows why unhappy people do the things they do?

Anyhow, we had a second child. Things seemed briefly to improve around the house but soon enough we were back to square one. To cut a very painful story short, we ended up separating and then divorcing. A lot of the fault was mine. Like too many divorces it was acrimonious and bitter. But for me the revelation was this: it was so much easier to be in a situation where I had to look after two children than to be in a situation where I had to look after two children and an unhappy adult who was acting out much of the time.

As the initial trauma of separation and the challenges of setting up a separate household diminished, daily happiness with my children was not only possible but almost guaranteed. We sat on the sofa while I read them stories, we played outdoors, they drew and painted, and every evening we had “candle time” where we sat together in the warm glow of candlelight listening to music like Bach’s Air on a G String, the largo from Bach’s Klavierconcerto in Fmoll, Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea, and other plangent soothing sounds.

Into this life came someone I’ll call Becky (not her real name, obviously). She was young, cheerful, and had a natural way of interacting with my young children that was nurturing and fun. I learned a huge amount from her about how to create stimulation and excitement for my children. We became lovers. Although there were many evident reasons why this relationship was unlikely to last, I began to dream that perhaps the whole thing was possible: a loving family in which everyone could be included and be loved. It was a delightful dream, albeit not without its share of difficulties and tensions, and it lasted around sixteen months.

When Becky moved out and we went through the inevitable acting-out phase that seems necessary in order to ensure a complete break with one’s past, I was devastated. I was overwhelmed with grief, an uncontrollable outpouring that I knew was disproportionate to the loss I’d suffered yet which was consuming me entirely.

Sure, I was able to function on a daily basis. I went to work, I looked after my children and read to them and played with them and took them on excursions just as if nothing much had changed. When they talked about how much they missed Becky I sympathized with them and never stopped stressing that her departure wasn’t because of them in any way but rather just because things between her and me hadn’t worked out. I went running most days and I went to the gym every day. I continued all my self-administration and it fortunately never occurred to me to resort to alcohol or narcotics in an attempt to flee the constant emotional agony that I just couldn’t shake.

Intellectually I understood I was grieving not only Becky’s departure but also every single other loss I’d experienced in my life. I’d been so busy surviving that I’d previously not had time to grieve. Understanding this fact, however, didn’t make the grief any less overwhelming. Plus of course I was grieving the loss of my dream of a happy family.

Some days, when I was alone, I would literally howl with pain for hours like wounded animal unable to help itself in any way.

All the color drained out of my world. Everything took a huge effort. Even being with my children, whom I adored and who were the emotional center of my universe, required an effort that afterward left me utterly exhausted.

I did go to a therapist. I’d previously seen, on an on-and-off-again basis, a very unusual guy. He’d previously been a boxer and a nightclub “bouncer” and his approach to therapy was far more direct and challenging than the stereotypical “so, how do you feel about that…?” passivity that is sadly the norm for too many other therapists. But even this didn’t really help, though the sessions left me with a deeper understanding of the sources of my grief. Nor did it help that I saw Becky in my dreams and nightmares every single night and would wake up soaking in sweat with the feeling of my heart tearing itself apart.

What I did not do was go to a doctor and ask for medication. Even in the deepest pit of bleak hopelessness I knew I had to let myself pass through this awful time, no matter how long it lasted, rather than attempt to run from it. I knew, intellectually, that if I could not allow myself to suffer I would cauterize my emotions and thereafter be unable to experience love and joy.

So I suffered. It took nearly two years — far longer than the relationship with Becky had lasted — before color began slowly to return to my world. I still remember the precise moment the first hint of color came back: I was driving across a bridge across a creek, the sun was shining, the Spring foliage was verdant. For just a few seconds I felt OK again. It didn’t last, it was just a glimpse, but it was the beginning of the next phase of my life.

There’s a cliché that time heals all wounds but as anyone who’s suffered significant loss knows, that’s untrue. What actually happens is that you learn to carry the loss and the pain. You find a place for it somewhere inside where it won’t wreck every other part of your life. From time to time it will break out and you’ll grieve all over again, but then it will return to its storage locker and be quiescent for a while. It will be quiescent for longer and longer periods. One day you’ll discover you can go there and take it out and look at it without being overwhelmed. It’s part of you, but it doesn’t own you.

I still miss Becky from time to time. A female friend of mine went onto the Internet a few years ago and discovered she’s been married for fifteen years and has a family of four children. The guy she’s married to seems lovely and she’s found a profession that ideally matches her qualities. In short, she’s built a life for herself that is richer than the life we’d likely have had together and I am genuinely pleased for her because part of me still loves her after all these years. But now it’s an abstract love, a non-possessive love; a love that is pleased she built a good life for herself and a love that hopes she is happy.

I’ll never again interact in any way with Becky. The post-parting acting out on both sides was too painful and it is far better for her that I remain at most a vague memory that has nearly faded into oblivion. But I will always be grateful to her for the time we had together and I will always love her and part of me will always miss her.

This is not some “romantic” tale of lost love and endless fidelity. Over the years I’ve had other relationships and a wide range of experiences. My children have grown and my relationship with my son in particular is a never-ending source of amazement and joy to me. I’ve seen things and learned things and met amazing people I’d never have known if Becky and I had made a life together. I’ve experienced joy many times since she left.

And that joy has only been possible because I let myself grieve. Grieve deeply, uncontrollably, painfully. Joy and grief are the opposite faces of the same emotional coin. We don’t get to be selective about the emotions we’re prepared to experience. It really is an all-or-nothing deal.

Perhaps if we were all willing to suffer from time to time we wouldn’t need the avalanche of pills our doctors hand out like candy on Halloween.

And perhaps, ultimately, we’d all be a bit happier.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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