How to Live Unhappily Everafter


An excellent Article appeared today in the New York Times. “I just want to be happy.”

I can’t think of another phrase capable of causing more misery and permanent unhappiness. With the possible exception of, “Honey, I’m in love with your youngest brother.”
In our super-positive society, we have a zero-tolerance policy for negativity. But who feels ‘Great!’ all the time? Yet at first glance, it seems so guileless. Children just want to be happy. So do puppies. Happy seems like a healthy, normal desire. Like wanting to breathe fresh air or shop only at Whole Foods.

But “I just want to be happy” is a hole cut out of the floor and covered with a rug. Because once you say it, the implication is that you’re not. The “I just want to be happy” bear trap is that until you define precisely, just exactly what “happy” is, you will never feel it. Whatever being happy means to you, it needs to be specific and also possible. When you have a blueprint for what happiness is, lay it over your life and see what you need to change so the images are more aligned.

Still, this recipe of defining happiness and fiddling with your life to get it will work for some people—but not for others. I am one of the others. I am not a happy person. There are things that do make me experience joy. But joy is a fleeting emotion, like a very long sneeze. A lot of the time what I feel is, interested. Or I feel melancholy. And I also frequently feel tenderness, annoyance, confusion, fear, hopelessness. It doesn’t all add up to anything I would call happiness. But what I’m thinking is, is that so terrible?

I know a physicist who loves his work. People mistake his constant focus and thought with unhappiness. But he’s not unhappy. He’s busy. I bet when he dies, there will be a book on his chest. Happiness is a treadmill of a goal for people who are not happy by nature. Being an unhappy person does not mean you must be sad or dark. You can be interested, instead of happy. You can be fascinated instead of happy.

The barrier to this, of course, is that in our super-positive society, we have an unspoken zero-tolerance policy for negativity. Beneath the catchall umbrella of negativity is basically everything that isn’t super-positive. Seriously, who among us is having a “Great!” day every day? Who feels “Terrific, thanks!” all the time?

Anger and negativity have their uses, too. Instead of trying to alleviate some of the uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions you feel by “trying to be positive,” try being negative instead. Seriously, try it sometime. This will help you get in touch with how you actually feel: “I feel hopeless and fat and stupid. And like a failure for feeling this way. And trying to be positive and upbeat makes me feel angry and feeling angry makes me feel like I am broken.”

The truth about healing is that you don’t need to heal to be whole. And by whole, I mean damaged, missing pieces of who you were, your heart—missing what feels like some of your most important parts. And yet, not missing any part of you at all. Being, in truth, larger than you were before.

Human experience weighs more than human tissue.

—Adapted from “This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike,” by Augusten Burroughs. To be published Tuesday by St. Martin’s.

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