I saw a banner on a lamppost the other day shouting “a life without joy is no life at all”. In one way, I can’t argue. In another, I want to tear the propaganda down and stamp on it. Even the most miserable pessimist can admit we need to know what happiness is in order to find where it’s lacking. But we frame happiness so unhelpfully. The banner – an advertisement for skimmed milk – is just one example.
Another is International Happiness Day: an unbalanced celebration when held, as it is, in exclusion of International Sadness Day, International Anger Day or International Ambivalence Day.
It’s as though we are being commanded to be joyful.
When I was 23, my mum died. Two months later, my dad was diagnosed with incurable cancer and, six months after that, I found myself, an only child, orphaned at 24. During my dad’s treatment, I started seeing a counsellor on the NHS. I was having panic attacks and self-diagnosing with nervous breakdown, depression, anxiety. Much to my irritation, my counsellor told me I was “ordinarily unhappy”.
This wasn’t the label I had been searching for – something that reflected the awfulness I was feeling. I was soaking myself in premium lager until I was sick and furiously knocking over bins. I was printing out email correspondence and going over it obsessively with a highlighter. Strangers on public transport were offering me tissues, for goodness sake.
The term comes from Sigmund Freud, who said the purpose of therapy is to “transform neurotic misery into common unhappiness”. There is, I suppose, a possibility my counsellor meant it in a cheery way: “My work here is done.” I interpreted it, however, as a description of my grief and I have carried it with me, as such, for almost a decade.
I asked Stefan Marianski at the Freud Museum what the thinking behind my counsellor’s allusion to Freud’s term, “common unhappiness”, might be.
“My first reaction was that your counsellor must’ve been a quack,” Marianski says, “but on second thoughts…
“Freud argued that the success of an interpretation is not measured by the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that it is met within the patient but, rather, by the new material it allows the patient to introduce. Interpretations aren’t meant to educate, but to evoke.”
For me, the evocation of being “ordinarily unhappy” has been – as I gradually overcame the feeling of being short-changed – the comforting commonality of my experience.
In a culture that cheers extraordinariness – commonly through achievement, beauty or wealth – the idea that our most powerful feelings are ordinary is disappointing
“Your observation that it had had the effect of bringing the unbearable singularity of your loss into a universal category, the ‘ordinary’ process of life, is part of the story,” agrees Marianski.
In a culture that cheers extraordinariness – commonly through achievement, beauty or wealth – the idea that our most powerful feelings are ordinary is disappointing. It was extraordinary to lose my parents so young and in such a short time, but my response to this was the opposite, as psychologist Julia Noakes confirms.
“Who would not be challenged by the sort of loss you describe? But, as sad as I am sure it was, and is, it is loss attached to real experience, so therefore part of life and therefore sadly ordinary.”
In light of its normality, I wonder why I had been so ready to think of my grief as a psychological disorder. Maybe it’s because, as a millennial, depression and anxiety are default frames of reference. Not happy? You should see someone.
I think our keenness to identify mental illness contributes to a culture that pathologises negative emotions. In a society that elevates happiness, even justifiable sadness becomes a “flaw” – a problem that needs to be fixed. Hand-in-hand with this, we are sold the idea that simply cultivating a happy attitude is our solution. The happiness drive is so pervasive it has even stimulated a common misunderstanding of the purpose of CBT, the UK’s most-used therapy.
Katherine Macdonald, a cognitive behaviour psychotherapist, tells me a common miscomprehension about her practice is that it helps turn negative thoughts into positive ones. Rather, she says, “CBT works really well when it helps people to establish what is real.”
After I lost my parents, a friend said it would take at least five years for me to feel substantially better. It seemed like a projected eternity, but he was right and Macdonald confirms this is also standard. “Years of upset or intense reaction to losing a biological relative,” she says, “is actually a pretty normal reaction.”
My twenties were defined by sadness, but a turning point was when I stopped thinking it a sickness. That’s why I’m happy to be ordinarily unhappy – because joy is life’s highlighter pen, and not the ink it’s written in.