Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Happy people and unhappy people

I recently had an opportunity to think long and hard about an observation that some people seem to be just naturally happy while others seem to be (just as naturally) unhappy.

The "Happies" find life relatively effortless, and other than minor speed bumps and hurdles everyone has occasionally, seem to capably move on and move smoothly. The "Unhappies" seem to go along ok for awhile, then inexplicably, any joy they may have found in a given activity seems to collapse and drain away all by itself, quite suddenly and for no apparent reason, leaving them floundering, frustrated, exhausted, unmotivated and burnt-out. Everyone can catch glimpses of what it's like to be the other, and can even inhabit each other's shoes, learn from each other's responses, but I think there is likely a default experiential bottom to selfhood which is either mostly one or the other, at a genetic level. And after a lot of life has passed by, one is required to suck up one's relation to life and come out of the closet as authentic, warts and all, even if one is (gulp) an Unhappy.

I am quite aware that I was born an "Unhappy." Luckily, I recognized it early on and was able to construct a life that could accommodate this quirk, spot it in others, ignore it most of the time, and keep going in spite of it.

If life could be compared to modes of transportation, the Happies would be like captains of their own sailboats. Their trip through life has ups and downs but is mostly broad and flat and smooth, few obstacles, good leverage, small energies needed, good control over response to one's environment, lots of opportunity to stargaze, a three-sixty view, a telescope through which to assess potential beaches/shorelines/rocks and either avoid danger, or maybe deliberately court it, testing their own control. Stiff headwind? Adjust sails and tack. Whitecaps? Adjust sails and lean. Keep sailing, keep moving. One must watch for obvious dangers but there is no inner inertia to be overcome. The Happies are the ones that mainstream culture becomes modeled after, which can make the Unhappies or Less-Happies feel even less congruent, inside, and delay their authentication/integration process.

A transportation metaphor for an Unhappy, I think, would be an engineer on a train that has to climb a mountain over a lifetime. Not only does the engineer have to move that train against gravity, he or she has only so much track to work with. The big stall periods are when the engineer (the nonconscious) has to stop the train, go back and rip up all the track that has been traveled, go ahead and lay it all down again in front of the train, get back on the train, drive it forward as far as it can/will go until the cycle must be repeated.

With any luck, and with sufficient insight, an Unhappy can learn to live with this luck of the draw, can learn to not be in any hurry, to stick as much as possible to the least steep grades, not be disoriented by switchbacks, to even, some day, be able to lay track and keep moving all at the same time, even attach sails to the train and learn to work them to advantage. Eventually the long stalls decrease in length. The Unhappies can treasure the small but genuine hope that if and when they ever get to the top, the view will probably be astounding, and they'll maybe even be able to share it with the Happies, and their life will have counted for something, been worth the sturm und drang und struggle after all. Plus they can remember that a sailboat will never make it up a mountain, nor carry as much cargo.


Unknown said...

I really resonated with this post, but I read it just before leaving the country for a while and didn't have a chance to comment til now.

I too believe that my life (almost six decades now) has definitely exposed me as an "Unhappy". As you say, "Happies" can experiece a bit of what is like to be "Unhappy" and vice versa. I would like to think the happiness level is along a continuum, but there seems to be something uniquely different about "Unhappies", you have it or you don't. Ditto for "Happies".

Often I have despaired of going on living. Lately I find comfort in the fact that the end comes rather quickly even if one tries to live forever.

That is not to say that I have no joy. I think the transportation metaphor of the uphill train is a pretty good one. I can chug along for awhile and enjoy the ride, even if it takes a lot of effort. Then I hit the end of the line until I can get myself back together.

I am married to a "Happy". I have four children. As far as I can tell there are two "happies" and two "unhappies" but they are so young that there may not be enough data to know. One child in particular is very much like me. My heart aches for him. I would love to have had a way to give him a different fate.

As a Christian, I find it easy to understand the pain in this world. However, I find it impossible to fathom God's reasons for using this route to bring himself glory and to bring us closer to him. Since I am a finite being, I am able to believe that an infinite omniscient being can understand things that I cannot understand.
The reason I mention this is that my faith gives me hope that at the end of this life, I will indeed reach a mountaintop and enjoy release from the sturm and drang.

Thank you for a post that really hits the heart of where my head is a lot of the time. (mixed metaphor I suppose, but I hope you catch my drift).

Diane Jacobs said...

I'm glad to hear you found something in this post Kent.

I've been ruminating about this ever since I wrote it, and in the interim have found others stepping up to announce that they are also Unhappies, by and large, and are perhaps less reluctant than they might once have been to admit to it.

About the existential angst of all this uninvited awareness we human primates have, like the knowledge that death is certain, I find this artist and her painting quite lovely and peace-inducing. See link:

Her text: "I do not relate to our society’s choices either to preserve deceased bodies with chemicals, or reduce them to cinders, in either case as if to minimize their re-entry to the great cycle of life. I find great comfort in the fact that my body is composed out of atoms that have been recycled through many living things, and what assuages my fears of death the most, is this idea that those same atoms will become other living things in the future. What a beautiful gift! I see this as the promise which makes death bearable. Indeed, this chain is not even limited to living organisms, as the same atoms that make up the earth are recycled from once-burning stars. Perhaps our atoms will shine again as stars one day, but what a privilege indeed, to exist as a living being in the meantime."

I think existence, nature, the cosmos, and life are all more verbs than nouns, and from a materialist atheist neutral monist POV I do not hold my virtual self, i.e., the noun-ish perception my brain feeds me, AS "me," as being anything separate, immortal and different or more special or sacred than any of the rest of the world or its stuff (all mostly cyclic verb). Therefore I find the artist's words completely resonant and comforting even as yet another dark winter arrives above the 49th parallel and my virtual self I regard as "me" remembers that its existence will one day shut off entirely.

Furthermore I remind myself that every second of every day, millions of my cells die and are consumed or discarded into the environment as a multitude of tiny deaths, while millions more new entirely innocent cells are simultaneously born, as part of "me." As a carbon-based life form I'm already a functioning ecosystem within the larger ecosystem within the greater cosmos. It keeps one humble.

Eric Matheson said...

Derek Bownds blogged today on happy, unhappy, and tv. See the link.

Diane Jacobs said...

I saw that Eric, thanks for the link. It probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: correlation does not equal causation. I've lived for years with no TV, and years with one, without, with again, and I never really noticed much difference happiness-wise. (I will say I'm slightly happier with a flat widescreen than I was with the old big box type. :-)