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Posts Tagged ‘sad’

There is a bit of a backlash against David Cameron’s desire to measure the nation’s happiness. Not that you can’t measure some of the things that often make us happy, or some of the signs that indicate we have reached a certain level of happiness. Just that the contemporary obsession with seeking happiness might actually be making us more unhappy!

Tim Lott wrote about this in the Times yesterday (2:4-5; paywall).

In this country we seem to take our cue from the American Constitution and believe in the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable right. In this formulation of human fulfilment, happiness is like an elusive animal that has to be tracked down mercilessly, until we finally capture, then cage it.

This world view is misconceived. In his recent book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, the writer Edward G. Wilson called America ‘a land of crazed and compulsive hopefulness’ and deplored the idea that unhappiness had become something to be ashamed of.

Much the same argument was put forward in Barbara Ehrenreich’s counterblast against the ‘positive thinking’ culture, Smile or Die, in which she complained that during her experience of breast cancer it was distressing constantly to be told that she had to ‘stay positive’.

Both Ehrenreich and Wilson are correct – the pursuit of happiness, as we currently imagine it, is counterproductive. The thing about happiness is, the more you seek it, the more it eludes you. As the novelist C. P. Snow wrote, ‘The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase; if you pursue happiness you’ll never find it.’ But we continue as if we took the fairytales literally, hoping to find a way of living ‘happily ever after’. We can’t; and neither should we want to.

Because there’s no such thing as happiness – at least as it is confected by marketers and advertisers. There is a whole commercial world, quite apart from that other imaginary world of fairytales, that is invested in telling us not only that something called happiness is achievable, but that you are a failure if you don’t have it.

This flies in the face of every fact of human nature. It is the most normal, natural and everyday occurrence in life to feel unhappy. The rejections, slights, embarrassments, petty failures, snubs, stresses and disappointments of life are simply not avoidable… Unhappiness is not some dreaded malignancy to be avoided at all costs, but a proper and inevitable part of the warp and weft of life.

Then he comes back to his central point:

…that the pursuit of happiness is actually what leads to unhappiness. Rather than spending our lives indulging in this hopeless quest, we should seek acceptance of what is humanly inevitable – the alteration of happiness and unhappiness. Recognition of this unpredictable process has the great virtue of avoiding an extra layer of unhappiness, that is, the disappointment of unrealistic hopes.

So we have normal happiness, and normal unhappiness, without the extra level of unhappiness that comes from being unhappy that we are unhappy. Easy!

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I came across another thoughtful article by Mary Kenny, this time about how we have lost touch with the importance of feeling sad, and our sensitivity to the different shades of sadness that can come upon us has been dulled.

Prince Hamlet

Depression, thank goodness, is much better understood than it used to be. And we are much more likely than we used to be to express our feelings to others. But our emotional vocabulary has become diminished.

Take the word, “trauma,” which is now frequently and commonly invoked in conversation today. A person who has suffered a bereavement is said to be “in trauma”.

“Trauma” comes from the Greek word for a “wound”, and in a medical sense, it is what happens to the body when a wound delivers a shock.

But bereavement, of which I have much sorrowful experience is, alas, part of the natural course of life’s sad events.

As Shakespeare observes, with Hamlet, his father lost a father, and that father lost a father before him, and so on, ad infinitum, through the hinterland of human history.

Grief is desperately upsetting: it hurts you for ages, and the loss of someone you love is emotionally painful, and can be enduringly so. But why not call it by its proper name: bereavement: grief: loss?

One reason, thinks Mary Kenny, is that we are losing touch with the social rituals that have allowed us to express these feelings.

When I was a young woman in France in the 1960s, you would come across a shop with its blinds drawn, and a notice saying: “Ferme pour deuil”: closed for mourning.

It is still seen in France, and is also a usual response in Italy. Mourning symbols were widespread in all cultures – widows’ weeds, black armbands – and the community was expected to respect those who mourn.

Outward signs of mourning have declined, if not been abolished in more secular societies now: but our sense of sadness and loss endure, and instead of this being called mourning, it is called “trauma”.

And she thinks it would help us if we could recapture some of the wider, non-medical vocabulary for the emotional difficulties we face in the ordinary course of human experience.

Depression may also be melancholy: it may be discouragement, disappointment, abandonment, sadness, sorrow, mourning, rejection, regret, anxiety, grief, obsession, introspection, loss, separation, loneliness, isolation, alienation, guilt, loss of hope, temperamental woe and simple, pure, unhappiness.

It can be forms of low mood now out of date. The Edwardians were very keen on a condition known as “neurasthenia”; Virginia Woolf was diagnosed with it.

It was also known as “nervous debility”, or, in its milder form, being hyper-sensitive and thin-skinned.

“Anomie” was another condition once favoured in the 19th Century by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and from a sociologist, a sociological condition. Anomie was defined as an isolated mood caused by the breakdown of social norms, sense of purpose and rules of conduct.

There was also a spiritual form of depression called “accidie” much brooded on by some of the saints – this was “dryness of the soul”. The writer Malcolm Muggeridge also complained of suffering from it at times.

There are even, I think, some romantic-sounding forms of melancholy: the German idea of weltschmerz – a yearning sense of “world-sorrow” and unfocused sadness for humanity: or the French nostalgie du passé, that bittersweet Proustian condition of longing for the past, with a rueful sense of regret for missed chances and lost opportunities.

I also rather like mal du pays – the exile’s yearning for the country of childhood, and it comes to me in flashes, both in the spring and autumn, when I think of Irish country lanes, and the smell of fields of mown hay. Ah, bonjour tristesse!

No doubt we are better off for shedding much of the stigma surrounding mental illness – but with it, have we lost some of the variety, the dark poetry of the human condition?

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