Non-happiness is not always unhappiness

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Alamy Stock photo

Glossing over grief and anxiety will not help our mental health: at times, we need to take pain in our stride in order to overcome it


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Sat 19 Jun 2021, 10:52 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:15 PM

“Why can’t you be happy?” a well-intentioned friend asked me recently. I did not have an answer to that question. I never do. And after the pandemic, I simply refuse to. Like most humans, I experience a range of emotions, but jumping in joy and flashing a smile when the inner world is falling apart is not something I allow myself to do anymore. The reason? Most of us have been through enough in the past year to reject any faux positivity. We are all slowly and steadily coming to terms with a new normal that we didn’t adapt to by choice; it was thrust upon us. The understanding of this simple, basic transformation does not turn us into pessimists — rather, it makes us realists. I often find it tedious to explain that my state of non-happiness is not unhappiness. It is a state of processing what is going on. I live in quiet contentment, waking up every morning not particularly looking forward to something, but coming to terms with the mundane. And that’s not exactly a recipe for doom, as many advocates of positivity would have you believe.

The year 2020 marked a personal pandemic, as I saw a parent slip into an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. This, at a time, when my brother and I were already bidding farewell to uncles and aunts whose arms we grew up in, in virtual condolence meets. Those who were grieving deaths of loved ones asked us to take heart because at least my mother was still around. Her physical presence was certainly reassuring, what wasn’t was the idea that my father and I may have to repeatedly remind her who we are. Loss of memory is also loss of being. If you don’t exist to a parent, do you exist at all? It has taken a lot of introspection and a clinical understanding of Alzheimer’s to know that, yes, you do. That life cannot be put on a ‘PAUSE’ button because someone close to you is lost. The resilience is in carrying on.

I am often told to spot the silver lining, to not indulge in negative talk and basically practise gratitude. All these are great ideas, but I often wonder if doing that also means simply glossing over your emotional injuries and not really deep diving into how you are truly feeling. The truth of the matter is it is excruciatingly difficult to make space for grief because we live in a culture where to be happy is equated with being fulfilled. Imagined happiness is not only detrimental to your being simply because somewhere it compels you to live in denial.

Then there is also that idea that strength comes from positivity. Why can’t that strength also come from acceptance of circumstances as they are, the acknowledgement that things may only go downhill from here and gearing oneself up for the inevitable? Why must our grief be always cloaked in positivity? A few years ago, a close friend, known to be chirpy and full of life, was fighting a divorce battle that had turned rather ugly. Some of her closest friends were unaware of it and couldn’t have guessed because she had maintained the charade of happiness. A mental collapse awaited her a year later when she couldn’t bottle it up anymore.

Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, our lives have fallen apart in the past year in ways we could not have imagined. We lost our loved ones, our finitude and limitations were more clearly spelt out, and the news of deaths — so many of them in our families and friend circles — nearly numbed us. Adapting to this new normal hasn’t been all fun and games. It has inflicted upon us some injuries — physical, emotional and intellectual — that will take a long time to heal. Till then, a better idea would be to allow ourselves those moments of grief that help us come to terms with our loss, rather than masking ourselves with a happiness that is not really ours.

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