We have become a society obsessed with perpetual happiness. It has become the benchmark for measuring everything – our mental state, our success, even our world. The World Happiness Report has been ranking 156 countries by their happiness level since 2012. They released their 2016 report on March 2nd – World Happiness Day. (Yes, we have a World Happiness Day.)
The report believes it reflects a “growing global interest in using happiness and subjective well-being as primary indicators of the quality of human development”. Now, don’t get me wrong. Happy is a great emotion. It is one of my favourites. But, I believe it is dangerous labelling it as positive (along with joy and laughter) and others as negative (anger, worry, sadness). It sets us up to want to rid our lives of these “negative” emotions. Then, if we cannot shake them, we label ourselves as deficient in some way.
Our human nature is to feel and process many emotions. We all struggle and feel lost at times. But often these are the very emotions that lead us to reconsider what is important in our life. A painful event or struggle to make a difficult decision may be a calling to question.
Thomas Moore calls this struggle a dark night of the soul saying, “a dark night is a process in which your coarse soul is refined and your intelligence is deepened”. A dark night is more than depression; although, it may start there. When we see depression as a negative emotion that interferes with this happiness goal the world has set, our instinct may be to rid ourselves of it rather than lean in and listen to what it has to say.
Medication for depression may be part of the healing plan. It was for me when I experienced post-partum depression and could not feel anything. But, when it medicates us into numbness or a blank state of “happy”, it robs us of the opportunity to dig deeper and question who we are and who we want to become. I needed to bring myself out of the depressive fog so I could feel love for my new baby and grief for the two I lost before him.
When we measure our lives on our happiness alone, it can feel isolating. Should I always feel happy if I live in Denmark (ranked first)? What if I don’t? Is there something wrong with me? What if I do feel happy but I live in Burundi (ranked last)? Does that mean I’m not empathic to my neighbours’ pain? Measuring our self and our life on one emotion may mean judging ourselves harshly when we don’t measure up. And, it keeps us focused on our day-to-day feelings rather than on the purpose of our life, which is connected to something bigger than one particular emotion.
Life is complex and sometimes complicated. Grappling with its complexity opens us up to being empathic to others in similar situations or struggles. It is this emotional human connection that leads us to live a meaningful life. Welcoming all feelings and holding space for them in our life unburdens us from chasing happy day after day. Regardless of the emotion, we can choose to truly appreciate the authenticity of it in the moment and share it with the people closest to us.
“By riding the wave of your dark night, you are more yourself, moving toward who you are meant to be.” T. Moore.