When was the last time you were sad and felt good about it? Today’s interpretation of positive psychology brain-washed us all into believing happiness is the only acceptable way of living and the supreme goal and slowly let guilt and shame for our own not-so-happy thoughts and feelings creep in. While joy and happiness act as life motivators as shown in Schiller’s Ode to Joy, I’d like us to pause for a moment and rethink sadness, melancholia and pessimism, their value in our life and the dangers of siding too much with optimism and positivity.
It all started with Disney with its they lived happily ever after. But then came adulthood and we realised marriage was just two people asking each other what they want to eat until one of them dies – or finds something better to do. Or better said, what marriage? Because Disney implanted in our brain these expectations of how our partner should be that are not met in reality so we’re nowhere close to marrying anyone. Relationships should be easy as 1-2-3. Nobody told us relationships were all about accepting imperfections, compromising, commitment and living by values rather than chasing immediate intense pleasure, so when things get tough, we can’t really be bothered with working through differences. We’d rather be single than go through the headache. We were sold a romantic ideal we cannot replicate and then suddenly we feel alienated and defective – for not being able to love or commit or connect or accept anything less.
Professionally speaking, we were raised in a meritocratic society, which emphasizes we are all equal when it comes to our chance to succeed and that each of us can get to the top based on our personal abilities – sounds swell! That is also what many uplifting self-help books promote: a sense of opportunity that everyone can make it. Suddenly, you are fully responsible for your fate and for fulfilling your potential, as opposed to ancient times when your fate was in the hands of the goddess of fortune. This meritocratic belief is completely ignorant of any economic, social or even genetic factors that might prevent us from getting anywhere near the top. Just compare the complex career guidance and counseling some children get these days when they graduate from high school with me browsing the brochure of the local university and trying to make sense of the world. Meritocracy also indirectly implies that if those who got to the top merit to be there, so do the ones who haven’t and are at the bottom of the social ladder. Not long before envy and self-esteem issues start lurking beneath the surface and we start being very tough with ourselves.
Why is the suicide rate so high in such prosperous times, where our basic needs are met and we have access to so much entertainment? Precisely because we think we’re fully accountable for our wins and our failures, who we are and where we are, and we ignore the role of chance and other factors. Moreover, we’re an optimistic generation with very low tolerance to boredom, sacrifice, loss or any negative emotion. We seek a comfortable life. We’re the first generation that grew up in times of peace and we were promised a grand life, like in the movies, where we fall in love madly at first sight, it lasts forever, where we do jobs we are highly passionate about, everything is meaningful and intense and we are the masters of our destiny. We seek meaning in our work, forgetting that historically work was just a (rather painful) way to make ends meet. Few of us are happy with our jobs or marriages, yet we cherish these as standard sources of meaning and happiness and judge ourselves against this ideal of normality which has failed most of us. When anything doesn’t fit in those parameters, we are deeply shocked and have an existential crisis. As Alain de Botton, founder of The School of Life YouTube channel points out, bad things are written into the contract of life, a fact stoics like Seneca were very familiar with but which we tend to be oblivious of.
Our society of over-sharing on social media promotes this fake image of prosperity and well-being. Suddenly we have access to information about everyone we didn’t have before and they’re all better off than us. We start wearing masks of happiness, laughter and sink into empty small talk. I still remember when I sensed a melancholic predisposition in a friend in school and how he begged me not to tell anyone because he feared they would all shun him. Cherish those you can open your heart to who listen and understand not only your hopes and dreams, but fears, sadness and insecurities. We all have fair weather friends. Real connection is born when we’re there for each other in rough times as well. We seek relationships where we feel accepted even when we’re less upbeat and where we can talk about things that really matter.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about challenging your fears and limitations, taking the path less travelled, rethinking your world. The problem is when our optimist expectations aren’t in line with reality and that we forget it’s only human to have both positive and negative emotions. I had to be reminded of this myself the other day when I was blaming myself for feeling a bit rundown. I was living under the almighty rule of the happiness imperative, which I hadn’t even realised. Creativity and the greatest insights often stem from melancholy and sadness – imagine a Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending, a disco version of Leonard Cohen or a zenned out Dali. It just wouldn’t be the same. It’s feeling small and mortal that puts things into perspective, what’s important in life, than feeling unbeatable and grand. Imagine all that mental energy we’re using to suppress negative emotions that we could free up and put to better use. So next time you’re feeling sad, embrace it, cherish it – and the lessons it can unveil.