THE HAPPINESS MYTH: OR IN PRAISE OF MELANCHOLY

happinessI would like to be happy, and sometimes I am. I can’t predict it though. Some days are blue sky and sunshine, and my mood is anything but. Other days are cloudy and rainy, and my mood is all sunshine and light. So, what’s up with that?

The Bell Curve for Happiness is actually real, according to psychologists. A thin slice of the population seems to be helplessly happy, purely by luck of genetics, or some combination of genetics and environment. Literally, these smiley-face people couldn’t be un-happy if they tried. They are no more immune to bad things happening in their lives than the rest of us, and they can be as sorrowful as anyone when there is something about which to feel sorrowful. But their temperament — rain or shine — is one of sheer happiness. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The rest of us, as it turns out, have to work at happiness. Or else, we have to learn to live with the temperament that we have. We live, to some degree or other, outside of that thin Bell Curve zone of happiness where the happy minority live. The majority of us are moody, at least some of the time. And a fair number of us are moody almost all of the time. “Melancholy” is a word that describes us, as defined by Webster’s, “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.”

Now, having “no obvious cause” to be sad, blue, or upset is a difficult thing. Our culture is inordinately uncomfortable with this. “No cause for your lack of happiness,” might be met with quizzical gazes when you share your current mental state with a friend; or worse, you may get scolded: “Cheer up, be happy! There are people who really have something to be sad about! What’s wrong with you?”

Or, let’s say, you are one of the many, unblessed by being born outside the Bell Curve happy population, but you grow up in an environment where “happy” was the privileged state of being, and “sad” was against the rules or, worse yet, just out and out ignored. Your sadness had to be repressed, landing in a place in your soul where sadness turned to misery, isolation, and any number of other shadowy moods or nascent addictions. I worry that this common family dynamic is also becoming the privileged American, cultural dynamic. It’s as if there is a “Happiness Club,” and you’re either in it or you’re out. And if you’re out, just run down to Barnes and Noble or your local library and find a book on the shelf telling you how to be happy in 10, 5, or even 3 easily imitated steps. We even have an entire new branch of psychology now known as Positive Psychology that has much to be said for itself in terms of making conscious choices to optimize the possibility of happiness. But I think it is still fair to ask the question: “Why are we so quick to judge sadness or melancholy as a bad thing?”

As you may be able to tell, I have struggled with the Myth of Happiness pretty much my entire life. I’m sure that, even if everything is going well — or seemingly so — my psyche can easily find itself rolling around in some muck, some dis-ease, or restlessness. It has always been so, so it’s a good bet, it shall always be this way — not just for me, but for many like me. Do I need a break from myself sometimes? You bet! But do I value my muck-loving psyche too? That, I most certainly have learned to do. I have had so many experiences now, of leaning into the sadness or melancholy and finding some illusive but transforming fruit there, learning something I needed to know or do. Sadness can often be a well where the only way to bring up the healing water is to go down into it.

You see, with all due respect to people as admirable as the Dalai Lama and his book, The Art of Happiness, happiness is often used in our society as a marketing ploy — it’s just not reality for most of the world. A mindful person, a person who meditates, a thoughtful person, a person who has not stopped listening to the news, or just a human person knows the truth that sadness and melancholy are often mirrors for life as it is. As Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, states, life is both wonderful and monstrous — life is not universally happy, nor has it ever been.

“All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” (Joseph Campbell, Reflections on the Art of Living)

So well stated: “to live in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is.” Sorrow AND joy — they seem to be conjoined twins, destined towards eternal togetherness.

I have learned that avoiding my sadness is the quickest path downward into staying stuck in the muck. But when I see my sadness as a friend, melancholy as a mood about which to be at least slightly curious, then sadness becomes the path towards meaning…, and sometimes, yes, incredibly mysterious wonder and joy.

6 thoughts on “THE HAPPINESS MYTH: OR IN PRAISE OF MELANCHOLY

  1. Karenjennie says:

    I relate to this post!

    Like

  2. Bryan Readling says:

    John, I enjoy your writing. You take-on issues that haunt humanity with an honesty and clarity that comforts and heals. Thanks for being real. I am glad I know you!

    Bryan Readling

    Like

  3. John, thanks for taking on the tough issues with honesty and clarity, a healing force in the world. Thanks for being real. I am glad I know you.

    Bryan

    Like

  4. Jeffrey Forman says:

    John, thanks for the reminder that “melancholy” is neither good or bad. Just a state of being that many of us share.

    Like

  5. DC says:

    Your life experiences make you a great healer!

    Like

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