The Unhappiness Project

For the past few years, or decades, perhaps, we've seen an explosion in what I call Happiness Project Pulp. Web sites, books, articles, even happiness life coaches all geared to make us happier or to help us in our quest to attain happiness.

I have no qualms with happiness. I'm a fan of being happy.

But happiness is a feeling, an emotion. Feelings aren't good or bad; they just are (as any pastor will quote to you). People can be happy because they are content in their life circumstance or because they've set traps for all of the imaginary antelopes that migrate through their bedroom on the summer solstice. One is probably a good thing; the other may be problematic (or not, depending upon your view of imaginary antelope traps and solstice celebrations).

In its best incarnation, these happiness projects invite us to delve into what measures we are using in our lives to feel contentment and joy. Many remind us that happiness is mostly an interior event - something that is not truly controlled or impacted by having certain things or attaining the approval of certain people. I generally prefer the word "contentment" to "happiness," but that's my thing. If we seek happiness and contentment through material gain, through a "perfect" relationship, or a position of prestige, we are almost always going to experience anything but happiness.

And in its worst incarnation, these happiness projects diminish the importance of being unhappy.  Just as we may label happiness as a good thing, we may also be tempted to label unhappy as a bad thing.

Being unhappy, just like being happy, is a natural part of life. Life, as it unfolds, is filled with disappointments, tragedies, and times where we are unhappy, sad, and grieving.  When we lose someone we love to death, to the ending of a relationship, or to the realization that who we thought they were is not who they are, we feel sad and unhappy.

When there is too much month for the money, when our children are faced with hardships, when we come face to face with the painful reality of racism, sexism, homophobia, or whatever else wounds our dignity, we are unhappy.  When our hopes and dreams are thwarted by any number of events, we are unhappy. When God feels far away, we are unhappy.

What if, instead of avoiding, medicating, and negating our unhappiness, we sat with it? What if we held feelings of unhappiness, sadness, grief, ennui, or any other not-happy feelings as holy and part of the normal human experience instead of buying yet another book on how, if we aren't gleefully happy all of the damn time, we need to be "fixed"?

What if we acknowledged experiences of unhappiness as a source of wisdom and an opportunity for contemplation or simply a time to feel sad? Trust me, I don't like feeling unhappy or sad. Most of us are tender about those emotions, which is why we almost always try to cheer up our sad friends. But these times are also ways for my soul to rest, reflect, and change.

Feeling unhappiness is hard and challenging. It requires courage to sit in the mud of life and know that life is indeed hard, unpredictable, and bruising at times. Unhappiness is a holy emotion.  I daresay Jesus was unhappy on Good Friday, and probably a few times before and after that auspicious day.

And we will be unhappy, no matter how many books we read or TED talks we watch. Disappointment, grief, sadness - all of it will be part of our life. So next time you feel unhappy or sad, why not welcome the feeling. My experience is she won't stay forever. But give her space, feel her wisdom. Let the tears flow or be alone or don't smile or laugh if you don't feel like doing so. If people tell you to "cheer up," roll your eyes at them and go about your business of being unhappy. Job used ashes, sackcloth, and potsherds. I find that a bit dramatic, but if it works for you, go right ahead.

Don't numb it with alcohol or excessive food. Remember that God is with you, and be courageous as you open your soul to the feelings most of us would rather mitigate or ignore.

Let unhappiness remind you how loss hurts, how disappointment feels hard, and how tender souls really are. Let her hold your hand and your heart. Trust me, her touch is more gentle than popular culture says.

When you are ready and she is ready, she will move over for Joy to share some space. As we mature, we may, one day, remember that for Joy and Happiness to live truly in our souls, Grief and Unhappiness must reside there, too.

A note: The unhappiness I speak of here is not the same as clinical depression or other debilitating emotional events. There are many, many wonderful mental health professionals who can help in these situations. 


Anonymous said…
Unknown said…
Amen sister. It is a really good observation, and mirrors something Brené Brown talks about at TED and one of her (secular) books. We need to be open to both joy and grief or we can have neither. And I think the Job reference is good. Not that you or I will "solve" theodacy, but the notion that pain and grief are an inherent, and not "bad" part of the human experience is surely part of the problem of evil (and rattlesnakes and earthquakes).

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