I was fairly young when my dad gifted me my first self-help book (and I’m pretty sure he’s responsible for any of the others I own, too). How to Be Happy, Dammit was a very cute little book with a number of potentially valuable life lessons that didn’t mean much to me when I hadn’t really done any living.
As an adult who has experienced considerably more, I still have yet to delve into the lessons contained in the wee volume. While I’ve never experienced clinical depression, I find myself incredibly skeptical of the concept of being “happy.”
Part of this is due to my overall skeptical nature, I know. I’m pretty cynical and, though I consider myself to be a realist with a penchant for catastrophizing, I’ve been described as pessimistic on numerous occasions. But what people who don’t pessimistically catastrophize wouldn’t understand is that this habit of consciously averting my eyes from the silver lining is precisely how I keep myself “happy.”
Negative emotions are valuable – critical, in fact, to our evolution as humans. According to Harvard psychologist and author Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., feelings like fear, anxiety, jealousy and anger keep us alert to potential threats and enable us to better protect our partners and offspring. While I will readily admit my tendency to panic when someone sits in my regular spot at my neighbourhood bar might not be doing me any evolutionary favours, I certainly wouldn’t want those feelings to go away entirely.
To me, happiness is not a blissful state of being that I will someday achieve once all my immediate needs are met. Humans are a species designed to never be satisfied – we are driven to constantly do better, to be better. And that means our idealized version of “happiness,” as we have built it, will always remain out of reach.
The happiness and positive-thinking industry in the United States, according to Forbes, is worth $11 billion per year. Searches for “positive quotes to live by” on Pinterest increased by 279 per cent from 2018 to 2019. Thanks to the encouragement of motivational speakers, religious figures and “happiness gurus,” people are investing time and money into the pursuit of a fantasy that will, sadly, never come to fruition.
When my dad gave me that book twenty-ish years ago, I wasn’t a sad kid on the verge of depression – I was a pragmatic pre-teen who was learning that by reflecting on and planning for potential negative consequences, I could better appreciate positive outcomes. By never expecting to be happy, I find myself feeling pretty content most of the time. Call it pessimistic if you want, but to me, it’s the key to happiness.
To my version of happiness, anyway.