Jan 29, 2014

'Not happy'

The other night, I tuned into a documentary titled 'Happy'. It achieved my desired end and put me to sleep within minutes but not before I'd caught the requisite opening scene of a poor rickshaw driver in Kolkata, India (my hometown). He grinned happily while describing the joys in his subsistence level existence, full of confessed privations. The fuzzy thoughts running through my head as eyes lids dropped was "That's not 'happy': that's 'not sad'". In the light of day I recalled and altered my reaction: the interviewee WAS speaking of his simple sources of joy. That I'd read them as being illusory said a lot more about my entitled, elitist perspective than any weaknesses in his skills of self-expression. And that brought me around to this topic of 'happy' that had been buzzing around my head for a long time. I've read bits of Daniel Gilbert and Gretchen Rubin (authors delving into 'Happiness'), news magazines and zeitgeist tracking online sites and have a dawning awareness that deconstructing our 'happiness' is now part of our cultural fabric. At least for self-identified 'thinkers'.

The discussions about Happiness that pepper our world now range far and wide: Are we more or less happy as a nation? How about over time? What does it mean? How has it changed? It's pursuit, it's many paths and the very quality of it.
Aside: not to trivialise the indubitable value of such soul-searching for the average person, but really - talk about First World problems! Or even generational paradigms: most of our grandparents (and some parents, even) would be hard-pressed to take any of this seriously. Though honestly, some of them would have done well to have. 

I think though, that this discourse is illuminating after all....when you're done cringing over the sentimental indulgence it reeks of, and can have an open mind once again. As Time ticks on and inevitably somewhat muddies our goals, perhaps Tagore's "clear stream of reason" should make us ask a few questions of ourselves. 

"What makes me happy?" isn't a bad starting point. The honest answer might   surprise you if that last time you checked, your dress size was in the single digits and 'Crows feet' described bird anatomy rather than the corners of your eyes. 

Here's what might have happened while you were paying attention to living your lives, chasing 'happiness':

- The heady hormonal thrill of your teens gave way with a grateful sigh to maturity and reason, leaving you with some memories you will identify a few decades on as 'the best time of my life'.

- The simple adrenalin highs that the 20s so easily delivered got farther and farther apart as you became inured to novelty ('Been there, done that') and responsibilities and disappointments racked up. Still, memory making years, these: before they got old, the adventures were pretty adventurous.

- The intellectual new grounds broken in the 30s (new passions, perspectives and attitudes born of growing wisdom) started becoming over-familiar. Avague listlessness  might have set in. Of course this timeline is very generalized and doesn't fully apply to even me. But the phases are key, even if the dates/age-ranges are not.

'Happy' isn't what it used to be, right? 

But here's the thing: it never was! That state of 'happy' slid in and out of our lives in unpredictable rhythm, even when weperceived  times to be uniformly 'happy' or 'unhappy'. What  strikes me (not with a sledehammer 'thump' but fog-burning sunshine) is that not much is said about the rest of it.  What are we when we are not 'happy'? The answer is not always 'unhappy'. More often than not it's just 'not happy'. 

Big difference.

'Unhappy' is that pimple on your nose that pops up minutes before you set out on a rare date night. 'Not happy' is that concurrent queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach that you probably don't look as good as you think in this dress. That listless, numbness is a particular brand of purgatory that is difficult to articulate, leave alone discuss for fear of appearing shallow. When the world is rife with suffering and injustice, it seems self-absorbed at worst and churlish at best, to be moaning about how 'not happy' you are.

Yet look back on your life and I wouldn't be surprised if you found you spent most of it in this state. In fact, this 'feeling-less' limbo visits us throughout out our lives, sneaking by our notice as we fixate on highs and lows, cheap attention getters that they are. Just for the heck of it, here's an attempt at tracing some of it's forms:

As a child - 'boredom'.
Though it's really just 'not happy'.
  Parents in my childhood figured it stemmed from being inadequately stimulated. They set academic challenges - extra math, reading or even household chores in ever-hopeful though mostly misguided hopes of recovering our spirits. That it worked as often as it failed was proof enough that at that age, being distracted from your childishly dramatized emotional troughs is often all the help you need.

As a teen - 'sulkiness'.
Though it's really just 'not happy'.
  Most of this is likely a shutdown triggered by emotional overload from the combined assault of social adjustments (and maladjustment) and the punishing pace of high school education, not to mention looming college pressures. Small wonder our mental fuses start burning out. Hormonal surges don't help.

As young adults - 'frustration'.
Though it's really just 'not happy'.
  Struggles at new jobs and stagnation of sweetheart romances, changing relationships with parents and adjustment to disposable income (and the poor choices they sometimes lead to). SO many sources for frustration. This is often when Serious Romance, that heady chase after 'The one', serves its timeless purpose. It energizes and provides a focal point for the next decade (or two, if you're lucky or particularly impressionable). The hunt for a 'soulmate'  becomes a quest that replaces the race for grades, degrees and career. Provides the highs and lows that so effectively displace the 'not happy' fogging up our heads.

That brings us to the mid-life 'crisis'.
Though it's really just 'not happy'.
 And it's not even always a 'crisis'! A crisis would be something to focus on at least. Just the lack of anything exciting, new or passion-inducing. That chilling little voice inside mumbling 'Is this it?' as anti-climax descends like a winding shroud. All the high notes in life seem to have been either resoundingly struck or irretrievably missed. What next?

Of course all this applies to the essentially fortunate, ungrateful whiners amongst us who are spared any significant worries about money or health. I count myself firmly amongst them. Our aspirational upbringing convinces us that not only must we strive continually for greater happiness, but that we must demonstrably have achieved it, more often than not, playing to standards defined by others for something intensely personal. To bypass this route is to be perceived as having 'settled' and cements your credentials as an under-achiever. I know I'm being a bit severe but am I not in the ballpark of how this unfolds?

I think my takeaway is that it's actually okay to be 'not happy' more often than we are either 'happy' or 'unhappy'. That it's a decent enough default state to be in. No one actually promised after all, that life would be either happy or easy. Besides, if we were always happy, 'happy' wouldn't be quite the treat we need it to be. Aspiring towards it is fine but by a gentle pull, not propelled pell-mell by Demons and anxiety. That way leads to disappointment and frustration because no amount of happiness will balance out the angst expended on the journey towards it.
So lets be 'not happy' most of the time: the pain of it is an illusion. 'Not happy' might be our natural state and it's really not quite as bad as it seems.

After all, we could be 'unhappy'.

Oyon-isms (7+)
Some of the creative usages of 'past' and 'past continuous' of late. Maybe he's trying to form more intricate thoughts?
* You had bought-en this LEGO set on my 4th birthday
* This straw is not be able-ing to suck up any more water. I need to top up the cup.
* I turned off-ed the light.

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