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Why There's No Such Thing as Unhappiness

Well that certainly got your attention, didn't it? I've heard some stupid things in my time, I can imagine you saying, but this takes the biscuit. Hear me out.

I'm not saying no-one's ever been unhappy. I'm not say you've never been unhappy. That wasn't what I wrote, though interestingly it seems to have been what you read. I didn't write, 'Unhappiness doesn't exist' (that would be a really dumb thing to say, wouldn't it?) What I said was, 'There's no such thing as unhappiness.' Or, to put it the same way but with less italics, 'There's no such thing as unhappiness.'

Unhappiness - and indeed happiness - is not a thing. There are plenty of things - a coin is a thing, a glass is a thing, a mask is a thing, dammit. Emotions are not things.

And this matters why, exactly? It matters a fair bit and for at least three reasons, which I'll list first and then explain:

1) 'Unhappiness' is a label, and not a very good one, for what you're experiencing;

2) Everyone is different, and everyone experiences emotions in different ways; and,

3) There's a particular set of reasons and context for your unhappiness.

So, first: it's a poor label. I'm unhappy because I didn't get a good night's sleep. You're unhappy because you lost your job and don't know how you're going to pay the mortgage. Same word, wildly different meanings. My favourite author, James Joyce, has a bit on this in Ulysses:

"Love loves to love love. Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly. Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle. M. B. loves a fair gentleman. Li Chi Han lovey up kissy Cha Pu Chow. Jumbo, the elephant, loves Alice, the elephant. Old Mr Verschoyle with the ear trumpet loves old Mrs Verschoyle with the turnedin eye. The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead. His Majesty the King loves Her Majesty the Queen. Mrs Norman W. Tupper loves officer Taylor. You love a certain person. And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody."

I think what he's saying, or part of what he's saying, is that the word 'love' covers many different emotions - infatuation, lust, puppy love, long distance timid flirting, deep abiding romantic love, animal bonding, keening, and whatever it is you believe God is doing when you pray to him for your team to win.

And that's fine. In most situations you can tell from the context what type of love is being referred to. No-one is likely to mistake your love of a block of chocolate for some kind of confectionery fetish. (Except someone with a confectionery fetish - funny how we find what we're looking for, isn't it?)

So what's my point? Good question, thanks for asking. It's this: when we lapse into thinking that love or unhappiness or anger or fear is a thing, we can too easily lapse into thinking it's a thing in the way a block of chocolate is a thing. Unhappiness is more like a process, or an action, or convenient but surprisingly clumsy label. Don't take it at face value. It's like a foreign coin (except, unlike a coin, it's not a thing): what's it worth?

Secondly, everyone is different. How a single woman in her twenties experiences the world is not the same as how I, a married bloke in my sixties, experience the world... and indeed different from any other single woman also in her twenties. Hell, it's even different from how the same woman experienced the world yesterday or will experience it tomorrow. That much is obvious... but not when you apply the same clunky label ('unhappiness') in different places and different times.

And surprisingly, perhaps, there's less agreement around the world about these emotions and the ways we experience them than you'd imagine. If emotions were things, that would be surprising.

What's my second point? Things aren't like experience or experiences, and that coin in your pocket, should you be lucky enough to have one, will be pretty much the same tomorrow, wherever it is (still in your pocket, in all probability. Who uses cash these days?)

Thirdly and finally, there's a unique set of circumstances that surround your or my unhappiness. Some are like the weather: outside of our immediate control. (Although I moved to the other side of the world to avoid another British winter so, you know, there's that.) Others are very much within your control, such as what you choose to have for breakfast, assuming you can afford breakfast and have the luxury of a choice on the matter. And yet others are sort-of within your control, such as whether you exercise your body and whether you commit to working on your mental health. Or what you do about the weather - as whoever it was said, there's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.

Your family: you don't get to choose them. Whether you spend a lot of time with them, however, may well be something you do have control over. Who says you have to spend every Christmas Day with your arse-grabbing uncle, your racist aunty and your disappointingly ailment-obsessed parents? Who made that rule?

Your friends. You get to choose whether to nurture friendships with people who make you feel good, who make you feel heard, who gladden your heart; or choose instead to hang around with the one who always makes bad choices and somehow seems to drag you into it. You know who's better for you. Find them, and make the most of that friendship. (By the way, if you fell out, text them and ask if you can catch up. What's the worst that could happen? I did, and the other person replied that it was an amazing coincidence because they were just about to text me.)

And so what's my third and, you'll be delighted to hear, final point? To wrap the whole thing up, here it is: emotions are not things. You're not 'happy' or 'unhappy,' but using a clunky label to describe a complex, indeed unique, situation, over which you have more control than you might otherwise believe.

Like this? Call me for more: it's free.

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