The Importance of Being Unhappy

Lately, there is an explosion of research and writing on “how to be happy.” Spiritualists such as the Dalai Lama, psychologists and academicians such as Martin Seligman, Jonathan Haidt, Sonja Lyubomirsky, the list goes on. Time magazine published a cover story on the Science of Happiness.

The number of self-help books on happiness has exploded. This drive towards spreading happiness is not surprising, given the fact that as the US became wealthier and more powerful, reported cases of depressed people increased.

Most of this advice gives pointers on how to be happy by not focusing on getting richer, by practicing gratitude, by giving up envy, by helping others, by reducing stress, by paying attention to small wonders around you, by changing the environment whenever it is under your control and practicing happy patience when it is not under your control, and most importantly by connecting to other human beings. Some tell you to “fake” happiness till you “make” it.

Let us for a moment pretend that everybody in the US practices the to-do-list on how to be happy and indeed becomes happy. We all learn to be mostly loving, kind, grateful, compassionate, un-envious form of happiness in the success of the others, optimistic, un-obsessive-overanalyzing, forgiving, virtuous, socially supportive, and mostly committed to practicing happiness within and without. The meaning in life can come from doing the best possible job of whatever is given to us, let it be cleaning toilets, parenting, or being a CEO. Does that sound as close to paradise as our world can get?

Somehow, most people are uneasy about this picture as well! Who would create great works of art, music, and literature? There would not be Van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Beethoven, and Dostoevsky in our world. Great leaders, artists, scientists, and wealth-generators have not always been happy. In fact it seem these individuals created their work out of painful conflict and struggles with adversity.

Without envy and jealousy there would be no fire in the belly to do more and to make progress. All negative emotions have a purpose, and most of the time this purpose is physical and emotional survival. Some say that negative emotions are essential for evolution. Others say that practicing happiness generates complacency which in turn generates a lack of motivation for excellence. Some psychologists argue that personality structures are not so flexible and a pessimist cannot choose to be an optimist and it would be unfair to expect people to all fall into the same mold of being happy.

If we were a nation of happy people, would we be the super power? Would we have the best military and the best weapons? Would we be able to defend ourselves against the aggression of other countries? Does that mean we need to wait for the whole world to be happy first, before we decide not to be zealous about being powerful? Is the self-protective mode, in this world in which cruelty exists, necessarily a happy state of mind? Is a happy state of mind capable of defending against external aggression?

Yet as much as we admire and appreciate great works by great people, if we are asked a question: “Do you want your child to have a happy, safe, and good life or be extremely gifted and yet have a life full of unhappiness?”, most parents will choose a happy, safe, and good life for their children.

What this suggests is the following. We understand the importance of having unusually gifted (albeit unhappy) people and the inevitability of defending against the cruelty in the world (by being a cruel aggressor yourself). However, we do not want to be one of them. If the world has to be divided into two groups of people, we would much rather belong to the happy side, the ones reaping the benefits of the unhappiness from the unhappily gifted and the cruel aggressive defenders!

This is what I suggest. When you are unhappy, let it stay for a while and consider what “purpose” this unhappiness is there to “serve”. Take your own sweet time to stay unhappy. Then allow it to serve its purpose, play out its role, before getting in a hurry to ward it off. This means that being unhappy could in fact make you excited that you are on to the next best thing in life. This is the importance of being unhappy!