what is happiness?

I don’t know how others do it. I mean . . .  We’re all different, I get that. But some people can churn out blog post after blog post no matter what else is going on in their life. I’m not like that never have been. When I’m “down,” I shut down. I can’t write about something I’m not focused on.

This would be true even if I had a blog about cooking. Or knitting. Or cycling. I mean, who cares about power meters or crème brûlée when your personal life is falling apart?

In a recent TED Talk, psychologist Susan David of Harvard Medical School says society has trained us to either judge ourselves for having so-called ‘bad emotions’ things like sadness, anger, or grief or to actively try to push these feelings away. “Normal, natural emotions are now seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and being positive has become a new form of ‘moral correctness’ . . . People with cancer are told to ‘just stay positive.’ Women, to ‘stop being angry’ . . . But when we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

A friend of David’s who recently died of cancer put the problem poignantly this way before she passed: “What it starts to do is implicate me in my own death, like somehow I’m culpable for not thinking my way out of ill health.”


. . . Well, okay. But you’re not dying of cancer, Jess. (Sheesh, Jess. Get a grip!) And outlook is everything, right? Like I stated in my last post, how you see yourself and what you put out into the universe is what you get back, right? There is always something to be thankful for.

Well, yes. And yes, and yes, and yes. But can you do all of these things and still remain true to yourself? Is it possible that sometimes your best self is the one that’s sad because something didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped? The one that’s disappointed because you didn’t get the position you applied for? The one that’s grieving because your relationship ended? Life isn’t all cupcakes and roses.

I suppose I’m often silent because I feel I have to choose between writing something positive and not writing at all, and because the last thing I want is to either a) appear to be looking for sympathy (we’re all going through something), or b) to hear, “Cheer up!” or “Hope things look up for you soon,” or “Tomorrow is another day!” Because folks, no. The only thing that’s guaranteed is now, and like it or not, happiness is not a goal. Happiness is a byproduct of living according to our values and striving to be our personal best through the good and the bad. Happiness is showing up and working through life’s problems authentically, recognizing that life is rarely if ever ideal but that there is beauty in its fragility.

Ironically, then, happiness doesn’t always mean being happy, just as courage doesn’t mean being without fear. I liked the way David described courage in her talk. She said, “Courage is fear walking.” I would even take it a step farther and say that happiness is courage. Incidentally, then, it is also within our control.

I don’t know about you, but at the end of my life I want to be able to look back and know I did the best I could to leave the planet a better place. Lately I’ve worried about whether or not I’m achieving that goal, but in this world of false positivity, David’s words give me hope. “Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”

With courage, I will find the light at the end of my tunnel. Happiness is my authenticity and the torch I’ll take with me to show the way.

The above is a preview of David’s TED Talk. The full TED Talk, which is less than 17 minutes, can be found here. She also has an interesting free Emotional Agility quiz, which you can access here. It takes less than five minutes to complete and aims to help readers make everyday choices and live their lives with more intention and insight.

21 thoughts

  1. Jessica, I think having explained how you feel and how you react, if you write when you’re not feeling upbeat, your regular readers would understand and appreciate it.

  2. I get this, I only ever put out one negative feeling post, and don’t think I’d do another, but that’s because I want my blog to be a happy place (!) and feel I’m quite capable of dealings with negative things by myself or with my chap. I should think if there’s no-one else you can do that with, a blog post would help connect and discuss stuff. As you say we all go through crap, and people understand if you let it out. You write so well, and like Gary says everyone would appreciate it too.

    • Thanks, Fraggle. It’s good to know others understand. For me, it’s funny… My blog isn’t an all positive place, but it’s certainly not a negative place. It’s a thought place! I’ve just got to find my own balance so that I don’t disappear quite so often. ;) I’m working on it!

  3. So glad I came across at least the Charlie Brown cartoon today. No, seriously, (because comments are supposed to be serious ya know) I appreciate your writing. Heck I stopped for over a year cuz the hole was so deep and I darn sure didnt think you would want to hear that.
    Again Thanks!!!

    • Thanks for reading, and yeah, isn’t Charlie Brown great? I actually stopped blogging for more than a year myself a while back. (You can check my archives for proof, lol.) I picked it back up again last year. Hoping to keep it going this time without much slack… Cheers!

  4. Years ago, my then boss called me the Angel of Darkness. Around the same time one of my kids’ friends called me the JoyKiller. I’m neither. Except for this. Reality is what it is. There is sadness and despair and misery. And, yes, there is happy and joy and good things as well. People call me the Angel of Darkness because I believe that we must deal with reality. Rather than ignoring it like so many would like.

    I’ve had an ongoing conversation with a friend of mine. She is married to a man and I to a woman who seem fundamentally ready to just roll through life. While we, my friend and I, fret about everything. And wallow in the sadness and the hurt that happens. And I always say, I wouldn’t want to be them, my wife and my friend’s husband, because it just doesn’t seem like living to me. Life is everything. Not just the good things. It is the loss and the hurt and the sadness and if you don’t experience that and wallow in it and chew on it … well, how do you really know that the good things are the good things.

    And I read your post and there is so much there that I want to respond to and I don’t even know how to begin.

    Thank you,, Jessica, for once again striking a chord. One that matters and makes a difference.

    • And thank *you* for your meaningful comment. Lol, but Joykiller? And Angel of Darkness? Those sound rather extreme! You *do* seem to have a very realistic picture of the world, as you say. As for me, I’m just too darn intense. But I can’t float on the surface either. My intensity is what makes me, me — and as I said in a previous post, I’m tired of apologizing for who I am.

      That said, I think it’s good that there are different people with different personalities out there. The world would be a dark place without the rollers and the floaters. There’s a place and need for everyone!

      • Intensity is another word for it. And, yes, we need all different sorts even if us intense ones can’t understand the rollers and floaters. ;)

  5. I’ve been pondering ‘what is happiness’ recently, and this post is timely. It’s such an open-ended question, and really what is happiness. I suppose for each of us happiness is different and what happiness is so someone often depends on what they want in life.

    True, all of us don’t have our happy days. Like you, the days where I am not happy I just don’t even want to write or do what I love – would much rather laze around and just…be. A few years ago I sort of did away with goals. Sure, I want to write a book. I want to buy a couple of places that I can invest in and set myself up for the future. I want to travel. I want to go gigs. Not bashing on goals and goal setting and I am very much a planner – they give us something to look forward to, to work to, and when we reach it we may find what is called happiness. Some of us still don’t. These days I have no expectations anymore and just…do what I want to and make sure I do something that genuinely makes me feel better, be it writing or just procrastinating and watching YouTube.

    ‘happiness doesn’t always mean being happy, just as courage doesn’t mean being without fear’ A lovely piece of narrative that is so poetic. To me happiness is about the moments, good and bad because one day we will probably look back on all of that quite fondly. Sometimes I find myself thinking back to random conversations I’ve had with friends in person and online and reminisce about them – some conversations that people don’t give second thought to. While I remember how challenging life was while living in Malaysia and then moving back to Australia, sometimes I wish I could go back to those moments.

    Lol not sure where I am going with this comment. But thank you for writing this :)

    • Hi Mabel, I am the worst! I’ve been meaning to respond to your comment all week. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

      The funny thing about this post is that I almost titled it something completely different. But I do think the concept of happiness has very much been on my mind — for a few years now — and apparently it’s been on others, too. So perhaps it wasn’t a bad title, after all.

      You seem like a very driven person to me. But I like the fact that you say sometimes you just want to laze around. I think happiness is a combination of goals and down time. No one can “go go go” all the time. Or, if they do, eventually it tears them down.

      I need to get over to finish reading your latest post. Hope you’ve had a good week!

      • Haha, I think it’s great you make an effort to respond to comments no matter how late you may be. LIfe just gets in the way sometimes :)

        Maybe happiness is something more of us think of, search for, as we get older. To me, happiness is more than one thing. I do think I am a very driven person but most of the time – and no kidding – I really just sit around dreaming 😃

      • This must be why we connect, Mabel. I sit around dreaming a lot, too!

        Also, currently my posts get a lot fewer comments than yours. Much easier for me to respond to them all than for you, and yet you still do it, too. My hat is off to YOU!

      • Dreamers connect. I like that. Thank you for your friendship all these years. I really wish one day we could meet up for a coffee or drink, and give you a hug :)

        While you may get fewer comments, your writing is as strong as ever, if not as stronger as before you still have that writer’s voice. I spend a lot of time reading and commenting on other blogs…too much to be honest. Which is why my book is not done yet lol.

  6. Hi Jessica,

    that is really big question.What is happiness at all ? That is different question for every person, and with that we have our answers. I believe that is the state when you are happy.From chemical side, when your is filled with hormones of happiness.Serotonin, Endorphin etc. The burning of these hormones depends on our emotions, and our emotions depends of our thoughts. We have about 60.000 thoughts per day, and most of them are the same like yesterday.We need to change our thoughts to change our emotions and with that to change our chemical composition.

    So, if you asking me, happiness is one great habit !

    Great post Jessica

    • I think you’re quite right, Ben. And you hit on something I’ve been thinking about all week — habits… Mankind is guilty of them in all forms, and they impact us on a daily basis. Thank you for reading and commenting! (And sorry for my late response. I’ve got some habits I’m working on changing myself, so that I can get to my blog more than once a week! :D) Cheers!

  7. The quote of Susan David holds so much wisdom. We need to embrace all kinds of feeling that are part of what we are. Happiness is not the ultimate goal, but it does make days look brighter. As for whether on not to only write when you are in a positive mood, I understand that it’s hard to write when things aren’t going you way. But I think most readers will actually appreciate a writer sharing whatever wisdom comes out of negative feelings, if it’s possible to formulate them.

    • Thanks for reading, Otto! Glad you liked the quite from Susan David. I felt the same. And yes, there is power in all human experience — good and bad. I’m going to try to harness mine more.

  8. When my wife died, I felt deep sorrow. And that is one side of what you are talking about. I really, really felt that I had something to be sad about. What I liked most during that time was when I could let my sorrow fill me thoroughly and cry and weep it out.
    And then there’s another side to what you say about positive and negative thinking. Being yourself is often to be negative to what society and traditions and people want you to be. Being negative to mainstream thinking is also one of the prerequisites for innovation and new solutions to age-old problems. I’ve probably mentioned it before – “negative capability” was what the romantic poet John Keats thought was necessary for being yourself and not just being one in the crowd. And, to him, this was what is needed to let creativity and poetry come into being.
    In the light of what I’ve mentioned above, I would even say that being always positive is a very negative thing to be ;-)

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