People reminiscing on the happiest times in their lives rarely begin their story with, “There was this one time when I reduced my meat intake, came off the booze, started vaping, went to bed at 10pm every night and got to grips with my relationship with my mother. Man, that was amazing. Good times!” No. No one says that. Yet, somehow we’ve got to the stage where we equate happiness with healthiness all the time. When we see someone dieting, working out, dealing with their issues, reducing their vices, we show them affirmation on social media and validate them in real life, because we believe these things are synonymous with someone’s happiness. All that unhealthy stuff was just a manifestation of their inner turmoil and misery, but now they’re healthy and therefore happy, hurrah, Like! Maybe, to some extent, this is true. But how did we end up deciding that happiness is a by-product of healthiness? What about the lasting benefits of denial? How about the relief of suppressing painful thoughts and feelings? Or the regenerative power of short bouts of continual total insobriety? The sheer joy of eating every caloric obscenity in sight and the rebellion of gaining weight? Or the exhilaration of sleeping five hours in three days because of a powder a man in a sequin coat gave you?
I’m not minimising the gravity of the effects “unhealthy” behaviour has on people with addictions or serious mental-health issues – that’s a different subject. What I take issue with is how mainstream culture at large rewards and celebrates behaviour that we’ve acknowledged as healthy. We don’t appreciate how our worst and least healthy behaviours often bring about our moments of greatest happiness.
Perhaps it’s because you cannot market, brand and sell an unhealthy lifestyle in 2017, while you can certainly market, brand and sell a healthy one – it’s highly profitable and makes up the vast majority of my Instagram suggestions. Gone is the cool Marlboro man. Every advert for alcohol comes with a call for responsibility; ditto condoms. Menus in restaurants have the calories listed next to them. Because being healthy leads to better productivity – and better workers. You not showing up hungover to work is good for your employer. And, yeah, capitalism. So, at some stage, as a society we accepted that happiness has a correlation with healthiness. Yet I remain unpersuaded, mainly because my happiest moments have coincided with my least healthy moments and there are vices I am happy to admit I will never give up on.
I often don’t sleep at all, I’m back on almost a pack of cigarettes a day and I’m consuming a fair share of ungood substances. And, hand on heart, I have never been happier
I do not seek to advocate a life of unchecked hedonism, but I think there is a confusion between the pursuit of healthiness and the pursuit of happiness. You can be engaging in the former and be unwittingly distancing yourself further and further from the latter. In fact, often the effort to be healthy while being unhappy only serves to compound the fact that you’re failing to achieve the end goal you desired.
Over the past six months, the pendulum of my health has swung both ways. Around Christmas, I checked my drinking, took up jogging, undertook cognitive behavioural therapy, reduced my smoking and my consumption of meat. It felt good. And then I moved to Lisbon. For the past three months, I’ve been consuming nothing but white bread and beer (I have a wheat intolerance), I often don’t sleep at all, I haven’t FaceTimed Trish, my lovely shrink, once, I’ve realised with little to no dismay that I’m back on almost a pack of cigarettes a day and I’m consuming a fair share of ungood substances. And, hand on heart, I have never been happier.
A piece of writing I return to again and again is Zadie Smith’s essay Joy, in which she seeks to make the difficult distinction between pleasure and joy. She explains how she experiences pleasure daily in her meals, her children, in the purchase of a new dress. She goes on to describe how she thinks she’s experienced joy only five or six times in life, three times through falling in love and twice through drugs. She recalls a night on ecstasy in Fabric in the 90s and how she didn’t experience joy, but she “was joy”, describing it as an egoless feeling, a journey that suggested what joy might possibly be like: “At the neural level, such experiences gave you a clue about what joy not-under-the-influence would feel like. Helped you learn to recognise joy, when it arrived.”
Arguably, unhealthy behaviour, or what we might call “bad behaviour”, is really the engagement in pleasures in the hope of obtaining eventual joy. It leads to happiness in some ways precisely because of the egoless feeling it allows for – a total lack of consideration for the self and the consequences of one’s actions, the submission to bad habits and a collective unhinging. While it can be self-destructive, it isn’t solely self-destructive. Unhealthy behaviour can be freeing and optimistic – it’s driven by the idea that joy is obtainable in some nebulous way, perhaps not through this drink or this three-day bender, but somewhere close by. Healthy behaviour is the opposite. It’s an exercise in ego – discovering what is lacking, what needs nourishing, what new goal can be achieved, what can be done to stave off the approaching doom. It can of course be a source of great happiness. It’s just not the only one.
“Most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes,” Oscar Wilde writes in The Picture Of Dorian Gray. While Dorian isn’t exactly the poster child for how unhealthy behaviour can lead to happiness, I still think the quote is a good one. Our unhealthy behaviour sometimes can signpost moments in life when we were most free, hopeful and, perhaps, joyful. And, for this reason, we should remember to celebrate it and allow for it.