The burden of being happy

The notion that happiness is a life devoid of pain and sorrow, and is filled with intimate, life-enhancing moments is a fallacy

By J.R. Ram
  • Published 21.01.18
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Run the half-marathon, go for the organic farm show, attend the crazy office party, always be “connected”... there is simply too much to do. If we don’t or can’t, we suffer from the paranoia about missing out in life.

Nazneen is my patient’s daughter. She’s now 28 years old and she came to see me along with her mother, Mrs Akhtar, whom I had known for more than a decade. I have seen Nazneen grow up, from being a gawky teenager accompanying her mother who was battling depression, to an articulate, independent and adventurous young woman.

Mrs Akhtar, justifiably, had always taken pride in her high-achieving daughter. Nazneen got a master’s degree from any Ivy League College in the US and was now working in Mumbai. I assumed this was a routine follow-up visit for Mrs Akhtar and a courtesy visit for Nazneen, to say “hello” as she was in the city on vacation. 

But Nazneen said she wanted to speak to me as she was “unhappy about many things in life”. I knew, from my earlier conversations with Nazneen and Mrs Akhtar, that there were conflicts in the family about her choice of partners, and the matter of “settling down” was a vexed issue in the family. I thought maybe her unhappiness stemmed from these familiar fault lines. 

Nazneen indicated that the malaise was deeper. She had come home for a Christmas vacation after attending a Sufi music festival in the desert. She experimented with drugs like Ecstasy and LSD at the festival to “explore the depths of her consciousness and attain a trance-like state while dancing with the dervishes”. Instead, she felt empty and numb, a feeling which she could not accept. 

“Why can’t I be happy?” she asked. 

THE HAPPINESS FASCISM

On the surface, Nazneen had a life which most young people I know would envy. I probed deeper, again assuming that she could be suffering from clinical depression. Conversing with her I realised that she was like any of us, happy at times, sad at times, but mostly in an indeterminate state of mind, focused on the job at hand.

However, this indeterminate state of mind no longer seems to be socially acceptable. It is essential now to have a life which “rocks”, sex which is “mind-blowing” and all experiences have to be “awesome”. Anything less and you are not “living life to the fullest”, which is the new-age mantra.

Having spent considerable time in the United Kingdom, where moaning about life and the weather seemed to be quite acceptable, I had always assumed that this kind of “happiness fascism” was an exclusively American import. But no longer so. The burden of being happy, it appears, has arrived right at our doorstep too. 

Nazneen, like a few other people I meet nowadays, doubt whether their job and life are “meaningful”. Is there more they can do, achieve, feel, experience? Or is this it? 

This nagging doubt propels many of us to try a mind-boggling array of activities. We should not miss out on anything. We have to attend the literary meet, the music festival, the protest march, the organic farm show, run the half-marathon for the right charity, have time for cosy family dinners, attend the crazy office party and always be “connected”, work hard and look good. There is simply too much to do. If we don’t or can’t, we suffer from the paranoia about missing out in life.

RELENTLESS EFFORT TO FEEL HAPPY

I am coming to realise that our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve and experience certain “meaningful” life goals and activities, is perhaps making us unhappy and miserable. It is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative — insecurity, failure, sadness and, most importantly, boredom — that causes us to feel anxious or unhappy in the first place.

The burden to feel happy is enormous. As if we can buy it off the shelf, as if we have a right to feel happy, regardless. TV and social media disseminate a form of propaganda by insisting on and showcasing shiny, creative, fulfilling lives. It makes some of us feel inadequate because our lives, although reasonably good, do not send us into paroxysms of ecstasy every day. It is just life — sometimes good, sometimes bad, often a confusing mixture of both.

I am not advocating unhappiness — far from it. Happiness is good for us and for those around us and it is to be cherished. My unhappiness about happiness is that it has now become an industry. It is a commodity which we consumers feel we can buy into.

Psychologists have long agreed that one of the greatest enemies of human happiness is “hedonic adaptation” — the predictable and frustrating way in which any new source of pleasure we obtain, whether it is as minor as a new electronic gadget or as major as marriage, swiftly gets relegated to the background of our lives; we grow accustomed to it, and it ceases to deliver so much joy.

NEXT SOURCE OF EXCITEMENT

Nazneen took acid and “swirled with the dervishes in a trance”. What she felt was brittle and transient. She was worried about not being able to locate her next source of excitement and “meaningfulness”. I talked with her about the need for darkness to exist with light, for boredom to co-exist with ecstasy. For, if one does not exist, we will not appreciate and value the other.

Conversing with her, I realised that it is the belief system we develop about what things will make us “happy” is the real spanner in the wheel of achieving happiness. The notion that happiness is a life devoid of pain, sorrow and filled with intimate, fun-filled, life-enhancing moments is a fallacy. It is this fallacious belief, sold to us through media and corporate houses keen to sell their products, that causes us misery and pushes us to run faster on a treadmill pursuing illusory goals.

“The answer then?” Nazneen asked me. 

“Maybe I will have them by next Christmas when you will be visiting Calcutta again,” I said.

Dr Jai Ranjan Ram is a senior consultant psychiatrist and co-founder of Mental Health Foundation(www.mhfkolkata.com). 
Find him on Facebook @Jai R Ram