We live in a society obsessed with the concept of happiness. We’re constantly prodded with questions: Are you happy? Why not? Why don’t you do something to make yourself happy?
Happiness seems almost to have become a product. Our highly industrialised and celebrity culture has taken lifestyle branding to a level where many of us have internalised the images we see to the point of viewing our lives and experiences through a media filter. As one character in the movie The Joneses explains, “If people want you, they’ll want what you’ve got.” This mediated view of our lives then begins to define our concept of happiness.
The consequence of this is a disconnect. The media-fuelled ideal of happiness leaves little room for exploring our other emotions and truly connecting with others and the world around us. Sadness and other “negative” emotions are perceived as unnatural and malignant. The melancholy are often treated as ‘abnormal’ and encouraged to do whatever it takes to stop them feeling that way. Sometimes this means using anti-depressant drugs or other substances to physically change their mood.
True, we all want to achieve our ideal of happiness. True, also, there are those with genuine emotional problems who need clinical help and even medication. But what about those people who embrace and experience the full spectrum of emotion? Do their life experiences — which may provide joy but also supply pain and suffering — make them better people? Do all our emotions not have equal validity? If so, why are we so down on being down?
Some years ago, I was lent a book called Swallowed by the Snake. It compared dealing with sadness to an old Indian story of a village that was being terrorised by an enormous snake that continued to carry off its inhabitants and eat them. A young man went into the jungle with just a knife and a bag of rice. He was swallowed by the snake but rather than fight it, he allowed himself to get accustomed to the darkness and confinement of the snake’s belly — and slowly cut off pieces of the snake from the inside until he had worked his way through and into the light.
What I gained from the story was that there is no real quick fix, no way to fight sadness. All we can do is work through it. Only then are we truly able to appreciate the beauty and treasures of those moments of happiness that came before and since. The French poet Louis Aragon expressed it thus:
Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness, and truth presupposes error. It is these mingled opposites which people our life, which make it pungent, intoxicating. We only exist in terms of this conflict, in the zone where black and white clash.
So it’s not merely the moments of sadness or happiness that define our lives: it’s the conflict and opposition that does so, and how we respond is what brings out our real character. Sadness, after all, is an unavoidable part of the human experience. We all taste it — relationships turn sour, possessions get stolen or lost, loved ones die. Loss is the inevitable consequence of attachment, so if we are unwilling to feel the extent of our emotions we build walls around ourselves. Subconsciously, we know that forming a new attachment could bring us future grief, so we avoid real connection. Instead, we accumulate wealth and possessions or learn to be impressive in other ways to attract false friends, but it doesn’t address the problem.
Living consciously through sadness and finding its beauty gives us the courage to be open to the world and all its hidden dangers. It’s the fear of uncomfortable feelings that causes so much anxiety and depression. Embracing our emotions and learning not to resist them or judge them allows us to process the events of our lives.
This often gives us the opportunity to recognise our inner strength. Out of sadness we can be inspired to be better. Not that we should actively seek it out, of course, or revel in being morose. In fact, it’s understandable to recoil. But when the low moments of our lives do come, we could also grit our teeth, bear the trauma and say, “Yes, I will grieve. Life is unfair. Now let me figure out what I can do to ease the pain.” That may involve reaching out and connecting with others. As we do so, we encourage and fit into each other’s lives. Thus, in adversity, satisfaction can be found in relating to and serving one another, building relationships either temporary or lasting, and finding a useful role to perform. We dig the trenches together.
Some of the worst experiences of my life have always been made into fonder memories when I think back to those with whom I shared those moments. Maybe it’s the Shackleton phenomena (the British explorer stranded with his men on the South Pole) — even in seemingly hopeless scenarios, there can be beauty and heroism in a shared struggle.
The thing is, we’ve been taught to hide our sadness from others, and eventually we learn to hide it from ourselves. So we never learn the skill of simply experiencing it for what it is and letting it take its natural course — it pulls at us all our lives, driving us to try harder to achieve our media-driven ideals of happiness, when all the time the sadness is there, waiting for us, offering us an alternative path which allows us to go with the flow of our emotions, instead of resisting all the time.
If we follow that path, the inevitable discovery we make is that our emotions dissipate and integrate as we allow them to be. From that follows peace of mind, which is the real reward, the real happiness we crave.
Many of us mistake the absence of sadness, or the presence of excitement and external stimulation, for happiness. But the real thing is a much deeper thrill — that of being truly alive to this cruel but beautiful world.
There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. 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. – Carl Jung