Random Introspective Question: What is Happiness (and is going after it making me less happy?)


Just to be up front, I was diagnosed as bipolar in May (after thinking I was battling some kickass Post Partum Depression).  I’m now on meds, sleeping through the nights (thank you, hubby), and doing all the things I’m “supposed” to be doing – meditating, yoga, journaling, etc.  But from time to time, I shall explore my journey with this diagnosis, and my thoughts on happiness and depression.

The idea of happiness has been percolating in my mind for some time.  It seems to be closely related to another idea that’s been floating around; the myth of having it all.

I seem to be surrounded by the idea of happiness lately.  Since I believe in a flow/chi of the universe, I am starting to think that this may be a case of a teacher appearing when the student is ready.

I studied history in school, and I’m a self proclaimed history nerd.  I’m particularly interested in the medieval period.  So I think about happiness in a historical context.1000 years ago, the average person was happy if they had a hovel, bathed once a year, didn’t die of the plague, and managed to feed and shelter their family.  Actually, thinking about it, up until the Enlightenment, and even until say, 150 years ago, the average person probably wanted little more out of life than a steady job, a reliable source of food, some time off on Sunday to go to church and be with their family, and to not get too sick.

Recently I saw this magazine in the Chicago airport.  Live Happy, about, so they say, the “timeless” quest of living a happy life.  Incidentally, on the plane to Chicago, I started reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, a woman who had a great life, but wasn’t appreciating it.

I find this interesting.  A hundred years ago I would have been satisfied with regular meals, a comfortable home, and a steady job that gave me some time off.  Now, according to the magazine, I suddenly need to cultivate “compassion” – and not just for others, but also myself.  I need to eat mood-boosting foods.  And their website gives me 5 steps for a great nap.  What.  The.  Fuck.

I live in a world where there is a magazine devoted to getting a great nap?

I wonder whether all of this quest for happiness isn’t just setting me up for misery.

Look, I get it; depression and bipolar disorder are physical conditions that have social manifestations, and being depressed or bipolar are very different than just having a general feeling of malaise.

But can’t all of this focus on happiness put pressure on us all to constantly strive for an unsustainable level of peppiness and compassion the same way that supermodels put pressure on young girls to eat grapefruit and be a size 0?  When you have sad days, when you’re just generally depressed, when you’re disappointed by life; do you somehow feel that you have failed in this happiness quest at which it seems like others are excelling?  Can’t that lead to some kind of circle of happiness-pressure-misery?

I’ve also been reading All Joy and No Fun; the Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior, which discusses many of the newer pressures that parents are dealing with now.  Only after WWII did the idea of modern childhood, as a protected period of play, exploration, and learning even come into existence.  Before then, children worked in the fields when they were able to.  They worked in factories.  They contributed to the general good of the family.  Now they do just the opposite – parents are running themselves ragged taking them to hyper-scheduled dance lessons, math tutoring, string quartet sessions and Girl Scouts.

I’m not saying that I want Hannah to go work in a factory.  Hell, I’m looking at Waldorf schools.  But I am saying that I think there’s a little bit too much pressure on all of us right now to achieve unsustainable levels of happiness and fulfillment.

Something I’m realizing – sometimes life just sucks.  Sometimes you’re sleep deprived and miserable, and you don’t want to act happy and meditate and do yoga and be zen (from the woman who gave her daughter the name Zen).  Sometimes you just want to flop on the couch and watch bad tv.  Sometimes you’re not particularly happy.  And that’s ok.  Maybe we can be more happy by embracing the unhappy suckage, and not trying to fix or change that.