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More about the Significance of Unhappiness for Happiness.

Posted Jun 09 2009 11:43am

Sadness My post yesterday – about unhappiness – has been bothering me. I feel like I missed some important points, but I’m not exactly sure what they are. The people who commented on the post brought out some important elements, but I still feel like there's more here to wrestle with.

One consideration I forgot to take into account is a Secrets of Adulthood: happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy. That is, the things that bring happiness also bring frustration, anxiety, boredom, fear, etc. Raising children, starting a blog, going to the gym, traveling in a foreign country…these are some things that bring me a huge amount of happiness, but also a lot of frustration, anxiety, boredom, fear, etc. But although I have bad feelings, I don’t think that’s quite the same thing as feeling unhappy.

The First Splendid Truth holds that to be happy, you need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. Sometimes people equate “unhappiness” with “feeling bad.” But bad feelings have a different... flavor...depending on whether they're accompanying an activity that's fundamentally making me happy, or making me unhappy.

For example, I have a low threshold for irritation. I get annoyed very, very easily. My children annoy me, and not owning enough socks annoys me. I willingly (more or less) accept the annoyance caused by the demands of little kids, but why suffer the annoyance of a lack of socks? Just buy some socks! As an under-buyer, this is a real challenge for me – but having enough socks does, in a small way, contribute to my happiness.

On a higher note, my work often causes me to feel anxious, stressed, frustrated – but I love my work, so it’s not hard for me to tolerate these feelings. It’s part of the process of accomplishing what I’m trying to do. But if I had a job I disliked, those emotions might overwhelm me with unhappiness.

So all bad feelings aren’t created equal. A bad feeling can accompany something that will, in the end, lead to happiness – or not.

When people talk about the foolishness of trying to eliminate unhappiness, I think they’re envisioning a life from which all bad feelings had been banished. That kind of life wouldn’t make anyone happy, and it’s not possible anyway. (Even the great St. Therese of Lisieux, with her tremendous spiritual gifts, felt despair and even petty annoyance in her cloistered convent.) The trick, I guess, is to figure out where bad feelings will turn to the good, and where they won’t – i.e., where they’re a necessary accompaniment to an activity that makes you happy, or when they’re a sign that you need to think about making some changes.

* I was thrilled when Barbara Arredondo of Mexico's Indigo Brainmedia wanted to interview me about the "proyecto felicidad." I don't speak Spanish, but this site is amazingly fun to visit anyway, because it's so dynamic. And check out the company I was placed in here! Sheesh.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

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