There is a demand that I have been struggling with, a demand that originates from myself, the people I love and care deeply for, and from the greater society in general: optimism, happiness – just be happy. Just be happy. We have all been demanded so before. For me, the first thing that this demand brings to me is a feeling of failure and disappointment of self. After all, why can’t I just be happy? There are so many things in my life that I am blessed to have, and for those things I carry with me a constant and deep feeling of gratitude, but gratitude is not happiness, nor does it automatically translate into ease of feeling happiness, although this is what the argument would be. There is so much to be grateful for. Why can’t you just be happy?
The gratitude argument rings familiar arguments that hierarchicalize oppressions, ones that say, at least you are not that person who is more oppressed than you, just be happy. This logic, however, falls apart pretty easily if we consider the fact that if this were a valid premise to base our emotional lives upon, then only the most oppressed person in the whole world could ever feel misery. It is quite clear that this does not work out realistically or idealistically. There is validity in arguing that we should be grateful for the ways in which we are not oppressed (although in what ways are we not ultimately oppressed?), but further than that the be-happy-for-what-you-have demand discounts the context of the realities of the lives of individuals, which clearly are much different anywhere you go. I once stopped a well-dressed man walking on the side of the road to ask if he needed assistance and he declined, saying that he was caught up in his head thinking about the fact that he had just lost $20,000 to the seduction of the Las Vegas gaming industry. Some may say that at least he has $20,000 to lose (families living below the poverty level in the United States don’t even make this much money a year) and not feel empathy for this seemingly economically privileged individual. I’ve been that person before, and in many ways, I still am. But the reality is, misery is misery, suffering is suffering; while our oppressions and the nature of the unfortunate and downright tragic events in our lives may take on different shapes and sizes, sadness and despair feel the same universally.
So back to the original question: why can’t you, I, just be happy? I ask myself this as someone who strives to enjoy the fruits of life as deeply as possible, I am appealed this by the people that I love who just want to see my happiness, I am goaded this by a society that attempts to paint negative emotions as the doing of the individual, which is not untrue in some ways, but which is also not true in many others. How many of us have heard, especially us women to whom the facade of happiness and contentment is expected lest we be perceived as bitchy or naggy or any of the other wonderful sexist stereotypes that confine us from full expression of self…. how many of us have heard that we are just being “too sensitive” or that “it is all in our heads” or that if we just “looked at things differently” then we would resolve to happiness? It is hard to distinguish the aspects of these words that are not simply rooted in demand because on some level the words are very true, but I suppose on some level everything can be true even within the context of bullshit.
So why can’t I just be happy? I know for one that I have tried and felt failure when I didn’t feel pure unadulterated bliss, and then gone on to feel guilty for not “achieving” happiness when, well, it was all in my head right? And then it turns into a spiral of feeling bad when you don’t feel happy (which is supposed to feel like what again?) and then trying to feel happy, and then feeling bad again when it doesn’t work, and on and on and on. I’m starting to realize that maybe this demand of happiness is causing me more stress than, well, happiness as I keep struggling to meet it and keep wondering why I cannot. This demand of happiness is starting to feel a bit unrealistic, starting to sound like comments from the peanut gallery, the bullshit-ass peanut gallery that doesn’t realize that human beings are a little more complicated, that we are a little more complex and that we are always, always, existing in a state of contradiction. Contradiction is inherent within complexity. When I attempt to happy myself and try to feel something that is not already naturally existing within me at that very moment, it feels like I am denying the right of my other complex, contradictory emotions to exist; it feels as though I am subdue them for the sake of trying to make space for this supposedly desirable other emotion, which is what again? Happiness is so much of a social construction that I don’t even know what I am making space for anymore.
None of this is to say that I am not “happy.” I guess I could say that I consider myself to be a happy person, but I only say that because I do not consider myself to be a sad person. I have experienced moments of joy and rare moments of pure bliss, and I am so grateful that I have been able to do so. I am not an unhappy person. Just – what does it mean to be happy? Happiness is the only emotion that I can think of that is demanded of us on a near-constant level – that is, happiness is touted as a static state of being, rather than one of the myriad of emotions that we as dynamic human beings experience on a daily basis. Happiness is constructed similarly to success: are you a successful person? Well I don’t know. Doesn’t success come and go and ebb and flow depending on where and when and who and how and all of the factors of life and situation? I am going to stop thinking of happiness as a goal, as a state of being, as something that I must strive to achieve and once I get there, there I will stay because I will have had figured out its secrets.
Instead, in an act of self love, I am going to understand that my emotional self flows like a tide (I am a water sign after all) and accept the movements of the energies that course through my heart and soul in diverse and unexpected ways; I am going to embrace my emotional state of being whatever it may be on any given day, and let go of the demand to be happy. Happiness may come and go, but if I have love for self and love for others then I will always have love, and that, to me, is more important than happiness.