Sunday, May 6, 2012

Happiness Is Not Always the Appropriate Response to Life

I have a friend who's going through a rough time. Her friends are making her feel even worse by saying that she's "choosing" to feel unhappy. They're pushing the idea that "a person chooses to be happy or unhappy" down her throat. I guess that's what friends are for.

Okay. In a sense we are responsible for our own happiness. That idea empowers us and prevents us from blaming other people for our feelings. But that doesn't mean we're always in control of how we feel. Nobody is, not even the greatest Zen masters. We're human beings driven by unconscious impulses, despite how rational we like to believe that we are. (As evidence, in biological scientific terms, the human body transmits 11 million bits of information per second (bps) to the brain, but our conscious mind can only process up to 50 bps (Information Theory, Britannica Online)).

But there's another important issue here. Happiness is not always the appropriate response to your life's situation (any more than it is always the appropriate response to the situations of others). Sometimes, unhappiness is a very appropriate response to what's happening in your life. Being unhappy can motivate you to make changes that can lead to growth as an individual and create more meaning in your own life and contribute more meaning to the world. Happiness can do that too. Anger can do that. Sadness can do that. Emotions are not bad or good, they are responses to internal and external stimuli. What we do with the emotions is what is important.

Americans are obsessed with being happy. If you're not happy, people act like you're a loser or you have a mental illness. Happiness has become a competition. There's so much pressure to be happy that it makes people miserable. That expectation to be happy all the time is a lot of pressure. A better goal might be to be accepting of the way you feel and to have the confidence to know that you can move beyond those feelings or channel them in a creative or constructive way. Another better goal might be equanimity. Equanimity is a state of mental or emotional stability or composure arising from a deep awareness and acceptance of the present moment.

If you let go of the need to be happy all the time, and don't let others peer pressure you into feeling that way, you might find that happiness comes a bit easier when it comes and you won't be so worried that you'll "lose it." And when you're unhappy, you can accept that state without being miserable about the fact that you're unhappy, and hopefully find ways to work out of that state, or, be accepting and at peace as you wait for it to pass. Because it will pass. As will all your other emotions. They come and go, and they're all a part of being human.

And even if you are unhappy most of the time (as some great people in history were), you can still lead a meaningful life and be a loving person. And I think that's more important than being happy.

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