Saturday, February 20, 2016

Debunking Happiness - the Importance of Being Sad.

This is the second of a series posts for 2016 that explain the work I have been doing in the happiness movement. The first post "What's Gross About Happiness?" explains the Gross National Happiness Index. This second post looks at the interplay between sadness and happiness.  At the end of the year, these posts will be compiled into an e-book. 

Ponder this.
Have you ever deeply pondered what happiness really is? When asked the question, at first what automatically spring to mind  is probably a smiley face maybe, a cherished memory, favorite food, a reward or even maybe a state of ease and contentment, but if you allow yourself the time to think
deeper, your initial, automatic thought, will probably seem trivial and even a bit silly compared to what you come up with. So, try it. Take a few minutes now, or, if you read on, some lazy morning or a quiet afternoon, and really think about what happiness is.

You may be surprised at the complexity of this question, and what your mind comes up with if you give it time to deeply ponder.  Carl Jung said “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” The Dalai Lama instructs us, in his book The Art of Happiness to “examine the factors that normally give rise to feelings of discontent and mental unhappiness.”

Two Sad Stories

Two stories are indelibly stuck in my head when I think about this question. In the first story, I was giving one of my first talks about the happiness movement to a group of students at a local performance arts college, the Cornish College of the Arts. I like to take risks when I speak. I asked the students to say “popcorn style” (meaning anyone can shout out what they have to say as it comes up), in one word, what happiness means to them. After about 20 of the expected and popular words – family, love, a pet, dancing- a young woman shouted out “sadness.” Silence fell. I filled it with a definition of happiness that encompassed all feelings, but to this day, regret that we did not take more time teasing out what that young woman had to say.  I learned from my mistake.

A few months later, I was invited to speak at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at the University. I chose a different question to ask the audience.  It was a question we used to have in
our Gross National Happiness Index (but since got cut because of the demand to shorten the survey). I still love the question.  The question is: How long do you expect to live? 60? 70? 80?

Then I started at 60, asking people to raise their hands. A few did. a voice in the back emerged. “Younger.” 55? I asked. The voice was bolder. “Younger.”  “45”.  It felt like the air was knocked out of my lungs. I had just passed by 45 birthday by one year. I could feel the audience. A group taken aback.   I stood in front of them and panic came up and with it an urge to roll over the moment of our talk. Not this time.

I asked the speaker if he would tell us his name and if he would be comfortable with us all (there were about 250 or 300 people) taking a moment of silence for him. He said yes. David Stewart.  We sat in silence for him, sending love and hope.  When it was over, I was still not sure what to do. Then someone from the audience said “why not let him talk.”  I looked into her face for guidance and knowledge. It was not she specifically I was looking to, but the face of humanity. Yes, why not?  It was the right thing to do. It was, as is said, a sweet comeuppance.

Vandana Shiva had been in the audience, but by this time she had left, her entourage in tow. David took the microphone easily. His doctors told him he had three years to live. He had two small children.  He told us why he was at the conference at this time in his life. She missed a magnificent and instructive talk on the meaning of life.  He died a year later, at 41. 

How to Be Sad
If you have read this far, you have probably figured out that happiness is not all rainbows and unicorns, unending bliss and contentment. Not if you are living in the real world, at least.  Being truly happy includes feeling sad, angry, distressed, panicky, upset, and all the other feelings you would not ordinarily seek out or want your self or your loved ones to continually experience. But you need to have those feelings to truly be happy.

When Brené Brown gave her TED talk on vulnerability she said “You cannot selectively numb (the bad feelings)…when we numb those (feelings), we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.” 

In other words, you gotta take the bad with the good. If you want to be happy – be sad.

In the comment section in the  Gross National Happiness Index, it is evident that there is lots of sadness in people. A few comments people have left are:

“I was designed to enable the fulfillment of another persons dream and not only is that soul crushingly depressing, it pisses me off.”

“I just need to figure out something to do about why I am always feeling down all the time.”

“I have been in this state of depression and being anxious about money for most of my life, and yet I have lots of money, and a good stable job that they will never fire me from.”

“Sadness and lack of joy overshadows all of the many positives I have achieved and have in life.”

There are lots of positive comments too, but the ones about depression, being down, and other difficult feelings made an impression on me and my board of directors. That is why, in 2014, my board decided the Happiness Alliance should focus on sadness, depression and grief for the year. We wanted to talk about the hard stuff that no matter how much you put on a happy face on it, focus on the silver lining or try to fake it ‘til you make it, you just don’t feel truly happy.

Lots of people say they do not want to take the Gross National Happiness Index survey because they fear they are too unhappy. I understand that. When we first put out the survey, I dragged my heels before taking it. The truth was I was quite unhappy, and I felt embarrassed to see my scores when I was working on happiness.  When I did finally take it, it was not so bad. It helped me see my situation in a different context. But what our survey did not do was give people truthful help for really tough emotions, something beyond getting good exercise, sleep and swapping out bad habit for good ones. Those lessons (and there are many) are valid and important, but not much help when you’re stuck in an emotional mire. 

The first two tools we issued were Feeling Sad, Feeling Happy, a discourse on how to deal with hard feelings that starts with a validation of all feelings. It quickly got 300 hits, and then continued to gain popularity. That was followed by a tool for identifying feelings, How Are You Feeling, and the first of a series on grief, Happiness for When You Are Depressed. Tools for the stages of grief followed: Denial and Bargaining & Anger (these can be found on the Happiness Alliance website at 

All of these tools for happiness can be boiled down to three simple statements:
·      Your feelings are important.
·      If you don’t feel like your feelings are important, you end up feeling like you are not important.
·      Talk about your feelings – and find someone (like a therapist, doctor or good friend) to talk with.

It’s a little bit strange to focus on misery when you are working in a happiness movement, and some people objected. One person felt the focus on unhappiness was unhelpful and wanted information that focused on happiness. She was at the stage when she was ready to move out of depression by focusing on the positive, which is a very different place from someone who has not yet processed their difficult feelings. 

In my job as the executive director of the Happiness Alliance, I tried to steer her to our tools that were designed for this, like the Personal Happiness Handbook, our most popular took, and Happiness Paths, but she objected that the tools might be seen as a replacement to much needed therapy. 

There is a lot about the happiness movement – or any movement for that matter - that is open to misunderstanding. I felt a bit sad and disappointed about the exchange with that person. That the person who reached out was so very unhappy about the message that its important to have all your feelings, including the unhappy ones, left me feeling unhappy to. The irony is this person was expressing the negative feelings that it is helpful to express.  

So I talked about this with my board members.  We knew we were doing something no other happiness organization had done by taking unhappiness head on, and decided that even though some people were not going to like it, it was still important enough to do.

Like I said earlier, there is a lot about any movement that is open to misunderstanding. That is because there is a lot to learn about any new field.

How to be sad in order to be happy is one of the things we need to learn.

What Happiness is Not

The truth is, there is such thing as being too happy.  One common complaint is that people who are completely happy lack ambition, and there is some truth to this.

Let’s say you define happiness as pleasure. Then let’s say you decide to spend your life energy on
pleasure. What is your pleasure? If you read Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner you will remember the passage when he experimented with hash in Amsterdam. He contemplated a life spent in the hash den.  He decided that kind of happiness led to no happiness at all.

No doubt, you can imagine a similar scenario. Maybe you even know someone who has dedicated their life to chasing happiness through a pleasurable substance or activity, or you did this for a while. You’ve probably also seen the damage that does to their own wellbeing and the happiness of their loved one. So we know that constantly seeking pleasure, and avoiding unhappiness with pleasure, does not make us happy.

The Wrong Kind of Sad

Anyone suffering from manic-depression will tell you that the manic phase of the dysfunction is wonderful. Foods taste better. People look lovely. You’re super productive and optimism
rules.  But you pay with the flip side. And the depths of depression that you sink to are debilitating.  Manic happiness and debilitating depression are not the kind of happiness and sadness that lead to happiness and well-being.  It’s the wrong kind of sadness. But debilitating depression can be brought on for other reasons. An overwhelming shock when you do not have the resources or support to deal with it can bring on depression. Sometimes an insignificant event will trigger depression when a bigger event in your past was never processed.  Whatever the case, if you are suffering from depression and do not have the resources or support to work through it, then often talk therapy combined with medication prescribed by your doctor can play an important role in finding a path to happiness.

More Ways Not to be Happy

Pollyannaism is another happiness trap. If you can only see the bright side, you probably lack some basic survival skills. If all humans were like that, we probably would not have survived as a species. The Dalai Lama is sometimes quoted as giving the example of a person seeing a grizzly bear in the woods. The foolishly happy person will assume it's a big teddy bear, and poses no threat. A sane person would not be happy about seeing that bear, and keep way.

We are programmed with the tendency to search for danger in an unknown situation. Our naturaldisposition is to see the dark side of things. There is a reason for this. A hundred or
ten thousand years ago, it made a lot more sense to assume the dark shadowy figure lurking up the path is a threat and proceed with caution – or turn and run – than to blithely go along a dangerous alley assuming everything is awesome. You know this on an instinctual level. And if you have a friend who is a Pollyanna, you probably find her annoying mostly because she seems incapable of taking care of herself in the face of obvious – at least to you - danger. 

Besides being annoying, a person who is too happy may also lack imagination, motivation and may not be very good at whatever it is they do.

What Happiness Is

There is no definitive answer to the question of what happiness is.  There are working definitions, and these are informed by the values and goals of the person making the definition.  For my board, me, and this project, our goals are the sustainability, resilience and wellbeing of all beings on our planet. This means we define happiness multi-dimensionally.  With the Gross National Happiness Index we looked at dimensions of happiness, and by doing this, we link a person’s happiness to others and to the environment. Here are some examples of the kinds of questions the survey asks:

     To what extent to you feel your life is worthwhile?
     Are you optimistic about your future?
     Do you have enough money to buy what you want?
     How satisfied are you with your work?
     What is the state of your health, ranging from poor to excellent?
     How much of your time do you spend doing things you enjoy?
     How safe do your feel in your city?
     Do people in your life care about you?
     Do you have a sense of belonging to your local community?
     Are you satisfied with the opportunities to develop your skills through informal education?
     How healthy is your environment?
     How satisfied are you with the job being done by local government officials?

The intent is that, by pondering all these different aspects of happiness, a person will see how the wellbeing of others, the state of the conditions in their life and their own feelings and sense of the worthiness of their life all fit together.  It’s a big goal, and not at all easy to explain in a sound bite. Instead, we chunk it – divide it into small bits and take small steps. One of those is re-defining happiness to include sadness.

Posted with love, Laura Musikanski