The price of happiness

“You can’t be happy unless you’re unhappy sometimes.” – Lauren Oliver

happy unhappy

I’m aware that I’ve never really been a very happy person. I don’t remember a single time in my life when I was absolutely nothing but purely happy; everything I did, everything I had, that ever made me happy came with a price — and sometimes an appalling one — and I’ve never known it to be any other way.

So when Becca sent me this a couple of years ago, it really hit a note with me. And going back to it now, it seems especially poignant, because my own perception of happiness and what it means and entails have changed so much in just the last three years.

“So many people now think, ‘If I’m not happy, there’s something wrong with me.’ We seem to have forgotten that feelings are like the weather – changing all the time; it’s as normal to feel unhappy as it is to have rainy days,” said Russ Harris, a British-born Australian doctor and author of The Happiness Trap, in which he argues popular wisdom on happiness is misleading and destined to make you miserable. “Increasingly people are developing anxiety about their anxiety and dissatisfaction about their dissatisfaction. Painful emotions are increasingly seen as unnatural and abnormal and we refuse to accept that we can’t always get what we want. This sets you up for a struggle with reality, because the things that make life rich and full — developing a meaningful career, or building an intimate relationship, or raising children — do not just give you good feelings, they also give you plenty of pain.”

In the last three years, I’ve learned that it is completely possible to do something that makes you as unhappy as it makes you happy. I was giddily in love, swept up in the greatest relationship of my life — a relationship so intense, so electrifying, that it didn’t matter if the circumstances surrounding it made me unhappy, because I was happy with him in the here and now, doing all the things we loved together, making all the plans that we deluded ourselves into thinking would come to fruition. Then when it all came crashing down around our ears and we were backed into our respective corners for the sake of someone else’s happiness, I realized that I had to learn to take my happiness into my own hands.

So I started doing little things that made me happy, and in the last couple of months, I’ve started to remember what it was like to not have to think about someone else for a change, and instead to just focus on myself. And for the first time in years, I don’t feel guilty about putting myself before others and about making myself happy first. It is, all at once, terrifying and liberating, because I now know the truth.

It’s not difficult to be happy, but happiness comes with a price. The ones who have jobs, perhaps a pet, and who have friends, vow to themselves that as long as they can take care of themselves, they will be happy, even if they are alone. The ones who are married, who have significant others, and who have children, can convince themselves that as long as these figures remain physically present in their lives, they can be happy, even if their significant others have emotionally drifted away. But it’s the ones who have been truly unhappy who can look around them and decide that life is too short and too cruel to continue being unhappy. And I now understand that it takes real unhappiness, soul-crushing unhappiness, to make one reach out and take anything that makes one happy for oneself.

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