Is Happiness Over-Rated?

That’s 13 year-old me on the balance beam in 1978.           (photo credit? no idea)

That’s 13 year-old me on the balance beam in 1978. (photo credit? no idea)

Balance is Kinda My Thing, and I’ll Get to Happiness In a Minute

I’ve been fascinated with balance since I was a little kid. At six I started gymnastics, a sport that involves doing tricks on a four-inch wide slab, four feet above the ground. Outside the gym I developed radar for finding other elevated, narrow ridges to walk along (think: retaining walls, high curbs...). Or I’d be upside-down in the backyard, trying to balance on my head or my hands.

I still walk on my hands now and then, to see if I can. And I love when we do those crazy poses in yoga class—the ones where you’re crouched down low, hands on the ground, legs propped on your bent elbows, slowly lifting your feet, hovering.

Last year I started flamenco lessons, so I’m learning what balance feels like while moving in noisy high heels.

I make up my own little challenges at home, too, like standing up to put on my socks. So, I’m a bit of a balance geek. I’m hoping all this practice will keep me active and steady on my feet for years to come.

More than that, I like the way it feels.

It’s Not Just For Staying On the Beam

Lately I’ve been thinking about emotional balance.

That might conjure an image of serenity—an even-keeled state where nothing rattles you. Calm. Composed. Unflappable.

That’s not what I mean.

Think about it: We humans are wired to experience a complete spectrum of emotions, from elation through despair, from indignation to rage to heart-melting compassion. You, like me, have probably swung from one to another to another to another, all in one day, or in one hour.

At those times, we feel wildly out of balance. We wonder if we’re nuts. But I want to argue the opposite: that this IS what emotional balance looks like.

The Trap of Expectations

Here in the US, we strive for one emotion only: happiness. Like it’s the holy grail. The king of all the feelings. That elusive state that makes life worth living!

(With apologies to the psychologists in the room, I’m going to use the words feelings and emotions interchangeably here.)

Our Declaration of Independence features “the pursuit of happiness” as one of our inalienable rights as citizens. It’s baked into our American psyche that we should be happy, or at least be allowed to die trying. Our founding fathers can’t be wrong, right? Happiness must be ultra important, we are taught.

To help us achieve it, there are scores of books and courses and videos and experts in the marketplace. I know this because I own some, have taken some, watch some, and subscribe to some of their newsletters. I do this even though I generally feel like a happy person, if forced to choose from the false dichotomy of happy vs unhappy. Maybe I’m not as happy as I should be? Maybe true happiness looks more effusive than I normally feel?

But I wonder.

Is It Worth All the Fuss?

I get it, of course: Who wouldn’t choose happiness over unhappiness, if those appear to be the choices? And yes, we should definitely be free to pursue it, absolutely. I wish it for all people everywhere—the freedom to do the things that make you happy. 

Still, is it really all it’s cracked up to be? And if we’re lucky-slash-work hard enough to get there, can we stay that way forever?

I have a more specific question: Does it make sense, given the range of emotions we humans are wired for, to spend our lives striving for just ONE of them? To aim for a complete imbalance of feelings?

Here’s the Status Update, and It’s Not Great

In a convoluted way, we’re getting closer to this weird goal by narrowing the field of competing emotions. Research shows that American boys are socialized from infancy to experience a tiny range of acceptable emotions—namely happiness, sadness, and anger. That’s it. (I’ve also heard that many American men are only able to name these three when asked to list emotions.)

Girls and women are allowed more emotional range, but we also pathologize them for it. We criticize them, and worry that they’re unstable or depressed—that something is wrong with them, they’re too this or too that—when they express emotions besides happiness (and maybe fear, because we’ve somehow made fear out to be a smart thing, an astute understanding of reality, and therefore logical and acceptable).

Let’s Take It a Step Further

I have a few more questions:

Should we aim for a diet of just ice cream? Or maybe just ice cream, broccoli, and hot sauce? 

Shall we aspire to a lifestyle of only vacations? Or maybe only vacations, funerals, and arguments?

Do we want to reduce all music to the piccolo? Or maybe piccolos, oboes, and snare drums?

Only use the color yellow, and judge the rest for not being cheerful enough?

Crazy, Right?

We are capable of so much more, people! So much nuance, so much variety, so much texture. Why the big focus on this one emotion called Happiness?

It seems like a rip-off, if you ask me. Not to mention wildly unrealistic, unwise, and out of whack. In fact, I feel frustrated, provoked, and annoyed just thinking about it! (Haha, did you see my versatility right there?)

We’re Lazy, We’re Kind, and We Want to Fit In

Part of the obsession has to do with convenience. Our lives are easier when those around us seem happy. It’s painful to see your child, friend, or partner unhappy, in any of the forms that can take. We feel desperate to DO something about it—to finesse them back into a positive state. Others’ happiness requires less from us, and we’re kind of lazy that way.

On the flip side, because we're empathetic creatures and emotions can be contagious, we understand that our displays of non-happy emotions might infect others with non-happiness. We’re kind-hearted, so we don’t want to do that. It feels like a public service to keep our less-than-happy emotions to ourselves.

(Unless we value connection and honesty and mental health, that is.)

"But everyone else seems so happy!" we think. What if it’s just me? I don’t want to seem like a loser, a downer, a whiner, a wimp, a mess, a train wreck, or like I’m falling apart, or having a melt-down, or coming unhinged, or any of the many unflattering ways we describe people who show honest but not-happy emotions. As though it's a weakness, rather than the truth.

Everyone Says We Deserve It!

Add all that to the landscape of happiness marketing, which tells us we should not have to feel bad, period. Here are ten tips and 14 secrets to avoid painful feelings, and if those don’t work, we have the medical capability to numb them. No need to hurt, ever!


The Costs

I wonder how much of today’s rampant anxiety and depression can be linked to the popular belief that we should be happy always, and if we’re not, there’s something wrong with us—something to be fixed by doctors or self-help books or by trying harder to be positive.

I like all three of those things, but they’re not the point. The point is that unrealistic expectations are dangerous.

Let’s Hear it for These Unsung Emotions

In the spirit of balance, I’d like to put in a plug right here for Embarrassment. Embarrassment is a community thing—it needs an audience—and yes, it’s awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s also funny because we can all relate to that goofball thing you just accidentally did. You’ll be laughing about it soon, too. We’re more connected now because we shared that moment.

And let’s hear it for Irritation! Irritation is a great wake-up call. It helps keep your feng shui in order. Got a pebble in your shoe? Remove that irritating obstacle and enjoy a smoother gait. Bothered by your squeaky front door each time you walk in? Oil that irritation and appreciate anew the fluid swing of the hinges. Notice your irritations and you’ll learn a lot about yourself, the things that matter to you, and your power to affect your environment.

And what about Pride? Let's puff our chests a bit when we’ve made progress. Pride is an authentic form of confidence, it’s real-deal self-esteem. You only feel genuine pride when you’ve worked for it, when you own your accomplishment. Pride reminds us why we dedicated ourself to this thing in the first place. It’s a reward for a job well done.

Cheers for All the Feels

While we’re at it, let’s also honor boredom, impatience, awe, surprise, elation, anticipation, humiliation, disgust, fear, joy, pity, jealousy, indignation, wonder, excitement, and of course love. And even shame. And all those other feelings I forgot to mention. Every one of them has something to teach us about ourselves, about these other people on the planet, and about how to coexist without breaking everything.

Each feeling is normal and valid. They all came with the package when we were born human.

They’re Wired In For a Reason

It’s stunning when you think about it: Our body has—and needs—it’s own silent but powerful language for talking to our mind. Our emotions serve as a manager for our integrity. Our health’s housekeeper. It’s time we showed them—all of them—some appreciation.

So let’s adjust our expectations about happiness. It is, after all, just one of many worthy and fleeting emotions. When seen through the lens of balance, a constant state of happiness appears very abnormal indeed, not to mention impossible, illogical, stunted, suspicious, unhealthy, undesirable, and perhaps harmful.

It’s About Balance, Remember?

No, I’m not the Grinch. I just have a profound respect for balance.

And if it’s a matter of semantics, let’s use more precise language. If we’re haphazardly rolling everything that doesn’t suck into the term “happiness,” that cheapens the real thing when it comes along. If we’re really talking about contentment or satisfaction with our lives, let’s say that. Our vocabulary has space for all of it, from minor pleasures to big jovial hilarity to flow-state oneness with the universe. What is it you’re actually feeling? No, really?

This is my first blog post of 2019. Despite having offered many a blithe “Happy New Year” greetings already, let me practice what I preach by wishing for you this year a broad range of emotions, positive and negative, that lead you to more personal growth, honest communication, breadth of understanding, and connection with people and the planet. Amen!

Now It’s Your Turn

I have three balance challenges for you:

  1. The next time your body is writhing with an uncomfortable emotion, give a little nod of thanks for your gloriously textured life.

  2. Stop apologizing for feeling less-than-happy when you feel less-than-happy. We can handle your humanity. We relate to your struggle.

  3. Put your socks on while standing up. Bonus points for adding the shoes, too. ;)

And fourth, challenge me back in the comments. What’s your take on happiness? Do you agree with my definition of emotional balance? Have any household tricks for me to try on one foot?