Sunday, January 5, 2014

Happiness is Probably not a Warm Gun

What do happiness and being happy mean?

To me, on a personal level, the answers come easy: The Babe, The Viking, my parents, my siblings, my friends and comrades, reading, steaming hot coffee in the morning, good and witty comedy, kindness in myself and others, sun glinting off waves, drinking wine in good company, new snow, feeling heard, a good run, feeling trusted, gaining knowledge, and being myself. In a nutshell.

But what about in a more collective sense? On a societal level?

I stumbled upon an article about this guy's Happiness Project. (It's in Finnish and can be found here should you feel inclined to challenge Google Translate once more, although Finnish has so far proven rather an insurmountable task for it). In it a Finnish expat living in Switzerland writes that "joy and happiness depend more on one's attitude and personality than the surrounding reality,"* that since he has his "basic building blocks of happiness together (health, job, and family)"* he is in grave danger of being sidetracked into a life in which he'll find it hard to experience happiness from everyday things and in which "food will have to be mind-blowing to taste of anything, every holiday shot will have to be photoshopped for it to be shown to the neighbors (or shared on social media). A life in which happiness can only be found by screaming out one's hurt by denigrating others on internet forums."* Sometimes he has the urge to shout at those who complain over what he deems as nothing: "WHY ARE YOU COMPLAINING WHEN EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT FOR YOU!"* So he's recommitting himself to finding joy in small things, at least once a day, a hundred times, and would like for you to do this too, as well as documenting it or not somehow. He wants you to stop complaining over nothing and start finding joy in seemingly insignificant things.

I don't wholly disagree, and I don't doubt that what he describes is very true and valid for him and his individual circumstances. I also command him for looking in and attempting to chance a tune he does not want to hum to. Good for him.

However, there are aspects of his article I'd prefer framed differently, delved more into, questioned, challenged, researched, and not presented in a way that to me seems very much like building on unquestioned truths, practically facts.

I mean, I'm all for happy, but not at any cost.

Basic building blocks

The first time I wrote about finding out that Babe had Down syndrome, I framed the post around the ubiquitous and well documented exchange that goes something like this:

Every other person: "So, do you wish for a boy or a girl?"
Expectant parent: "We don't care, as long as he or she is healthy."

I think I even linked to a Brad Paisley song about such thoughts. And then I went on to say that my kid will never be considered quite healthy. A statement which I will now amend, but not really. I know Babe and others with Down syndrome are not sick by virtue of having Trisomy 21. They have 47 chromosomes, a chromosomal variant, and that's it. End of story for me health-wise. However, when expectant parents utter the word healthy in the above scenario they don't mean "I hope the kid doesn't come out and turn out to have the flu or a stomach bug," they mean "I hope the kid does not have a chromosomal abnormality, be missing a part of the brain, turn out to be Autistic, have extra limbs or be missing some, or some other stuff that scares the bejeezus out of me."

So whenever I see "having my health" or "being healthy" listed as basic building blocks to having a good and happy life and being able to appreciate what you have, several things spring to mind. Not in the least my honest wish that my kid can one day say "My impairment is a source of joy, happiness, and connection for me." Or use whatever lingo will come to replace such a limiting term as 'impairment'.

I really mean that.

No, I'm not joking, in denial, or grasping at straws. I'm only asking for you to take your worldview, turn it completely upside down and then shuffle it some, drop a few hundred pieces and add in a thousand new ones. Or at least try. I want to question and challenge what "having my health" or "being healthy" have come to signify in our society, health as morality, achievement, healthy as the norm, as the default, and "being healthy" as a myriad of, often contradictory, aspects.

Then do the same for job and family. For achievement. For poverty. Then for intellect.

Then for cancer. Nope, still not being unreasonable. I know cancer is a horrible thing, but I also know that having cancer or having had cancer does not make a life less worthy or have to mean the disappearance of opportunities for happiness. I believe cancer and happiness and joy can all coexist, if need be. Much like sadness and joy, or anger and contentment. I don't want to be glib about cancer or trivialize the issue (and if it seems so to you please leave a comment and I'll rethink it), but I do think that a world in which cancer does not rob all happiness is possible, even when it results in a person's passing. It seems to me that this has more to do with attitudes about happiness than cancer.

To suffer is subjective. And at least I, in my previous life before Babe, had completely misunderstood suffering and its implications to a person's existence. Still, every day, I learn more and continue to grow my understanding. I also have a long way to go.

But I'm up for challenging and questioning and analyzing in order to be better at others. To discover the systemic wrongs that are mirrored in our thought patterns and that effectively comprise a "surrounding reality" that disables happiness for many. Something that cannot be removed simply by flipping a switch in oneself.

Happiness as attitude

The Happiness Project I mention above is not the first of its kind I've come across. It seems that many New Year's resolutions this year have focused on being more happy, being more accepting, being kinder to others but especially to one's own self. I think that's great. It's amazing that many people are choosing love and light and acceptance, and I sincerely hope it spills over into the world at large. I also personally choose love and light and acceptance, but with a healthy side of greasy fries, anger at injustice, and prolific outrage. Because I can. I'm privileged enough to do so.

Being happy is not always a choice one can make. And sometimes suggestions to "stop and smell the roses" or phrases like "the only disability in life is a bad attitude" are downright insulting. (Note: The latter phrase especially if superimposed on a photo of a disabled person. Read more about inspiration porn here.) I'm naturally referring to still very stigmatized conditions such as depression, but also to having the right to complain, of having the right to have your dissidence known, having your outrage felt and act as an agent of change, yet not having all of that seen as you not being happy or capable of happiness, joy, or love.

In my opinion, happiness and being happy should not mean you should only see the positive, only say good things, only speak of love and goodness, to look for the bright side, to not dwell, or to keep your mouth shut if you have nothing positive to say.


Silence isn't always golden. At least not for me. Someone's circumstances, perceived by others to be "all right" should not mean others then have the right to decide one is complaining about nothing. Or just complaining, lashing out, choosing to be unhappy due to having somehow become so complacent that only hurting others will bring joy. This last part is a leap I have to admit I don't fully comprehend the logic behind, and I'm wondering whether there really is a cause-consequence connection between not having hardships and not being able to enjoy the small things, or whether lashing out actually brings joy to anyone. I'm not sure the "hardships make you appreciate what you do have more" is or should be so easily invertible. I do know one thing though: catharsis is a thing, and not one I take lightly.

Maybe sometimes happiness and joy just are, just exist. Are felt briefly, or are the foundation to your being simply because that's how your brain is wired. Maybe your brain is wired so that you don't spend much time putting things into categories like 'happiness' or identifying parts of your life as those that bring joy as opposed to those that bring anxiety and despair. Maybe you have bigger, or more colorful, or many very small fish to fry than trying to locate your internal happiness trigger and reset it.

Perhaps happiness doesn't matter, and doesn't need to matter. This shouldn't mean that you're somehow living your life wrong, or have been pushed to a sidetrack that's not where you were meant to be.

I've spent lots of energy convincing people that my child, because of her having Down syndrome, is not always happy. And that's the truth. Her being perceived as happy often means that the person behind the perceptions is drawing on a stereotype, justifying my child's existence in the world and what's there to be read between the lines is "you have a lesser, more simple child, a child not capable of great achievements which is how we measure worth, but at least she'll bring warmth and comfort and an angelic joy into the world with her sunny, all-loving ways."

For her, happiness is not a choice in many an understanding, it's a qualifying attribute imposed on her by "surrounding reality" and used to justify her existence.  


I'm aware of the overwhelming privilege in my life to be able to dissect and ponder all this as I've done. I try to be very aware of my various forms of privilege as the absence of a multitude of shit other people, less privileged than I, have to deal with on a daily basis. So, rather than being in the possession of a set of blocks that should lead to a happy life as long as I choose to be "in the moment" and "find joy in everyday" I try to understand that our society is built in such a fucked up way that the most privileged existence is seen as the average, the default, on which happiness can be stacked on or in which it should be found, while simultaneously that most privileged existence, possibly in lieu of experiences of higher to reach I guess, leads to attempts at finding joy by treading on those underneath, or just on others. And as for those not privileged, they're sources of inspiration should they be able to "find joy in their everyday" regardless of the lack of those necessary blocks for the right kind of happiness.

While I often experience happiness in my life, and if asked, would likely say I'm very happy in my life and in my choices about my life, does that even matter? Why should my working on my happiness and finding joy in small things mean anything at all? Why is happiness and trying to find it within yourself such an issue for us? How did happiness become something to be achieved, our moral imperative? In what kind of a society does it take effort to choose happiness, instead of letting it flow over you as any feeling would, while sometimes embracing anger, sadness, inability, or joy.

How privileged are we to even be having this discussion? How privileged are we to be able to comment on what should make us and others happy and how happy we should and could be?


I know this post has come out somewhat disconnected and rambly, but that's the essence of my happy right now, so I'm leaving it. Although, and I do want to make this absolutely clear, the Happiness Project article that I've linked to is by no means all that I take on in this post, it's merely what finally made sit down at the computer and lay down some of the thoughts I've been having about happiness, joy, disability, illness, shaming, internalized privilege, and more. Furthermore, I'm clearly not done, so please add your excellent thoughts on this all in the comments. That would make me so happy.

If anyone asks, Xmas didn't happen. K?

*My translations from an article by Petri Hollmén on Perjantaikokin blogi.

1 comment:

  1. I have read that the goal should not be happiness but contentment. In saying that, can my goal sometimes be just to make it through, even though I have a warm bed and good food and have every single day of my entire life? To be privileged in some places would be to have only lost 1 of your 4 children, yet tragic in our society as I am put on by others to grieve in the way they see fit or wear a super hero cape of bravery so they can be more comfortable. Then again, after almost ten years this conversation becomes obsolete. I like the phrase that happiness is extrinsic while joy is intrinsic.


The Viking came home from a business trip packing a pink castle, a whole heap of princess and prince dollies and a carriage pulled by a unicorn. Life's good until someone swallows a crown or a glass slipper. I won't ever answer your comment, but I'll sure appreciate it while I'm sifting through shit looking for that crown. Yah.