We must not be scared of unhappiness as a feature of a meaningful life
Giles Fraser Guardian/UK 3 August 2012
'Church, like therapy, is a countercultural space where people are given permission to bring distress.
The worst time of day is just before you go to bed. It's when you feel the day has been for nothing. The purpose of time has been simply to survive its passing. You climb the stairs defeated. And there is little prospect of tomorrow being any different.
The joke is I'm on a platform in a week discussing the nature of happiness. At the moment, that's a bit like asking a vegan be an expert on the perfect filet mignon. Luckily, I'm sharing a stage with someone who seems to know rather a lot about happiness. The motion – "happiness comes from having more" – is being proposed by Francis Boulle from TV's Made in Chelsea. Judging by the OMGs from my teenage girls, Francis Boulle (gorgeous-looking, rich, clever, nice) has a great deal more of all sorts of things.
Now, I'm not interested in hair-shirted puritanism. Happiness may not be about having more but it's not necessarily about having less either. I've known some pretty miserable monks. My problem is with happiness as some sort of obligation to which we must all aspire and which failure to attain constitutes ultimate failure.
One of the most valuable things about therapy is that it's a place where you don't have to pretend you're on top of the world and where happiness is not held out as the ultimate mark of a successful life. This is a wonderful liberation. For it's precisely sunny-side-up fascism that forces those of us who walk the black dog into lonely invisibility. Obligatory upbeatness won't acknowledge the presence of anger, emptiness or despair. Perhaps that's why I'm just hating the relentless optimism of the bloody Olympics.
A while ago the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach came to St Paul's Cathedral to talk about happiness. She explained "what provides for relief is often not the dissolving of despair but the recognition of its legitimacy. The therapist endeavours to help the patient find words that speak of his or her experience and in so doing conveys the sense that emotional distress can be borne and not trivialised." In contrast, the exhortation "Have a great day" has become the ideological camouflage of late capitalism and Made in Chelsea is its purest form. The economy is tanking. People are out of jobs. A loved one has died. A relationship has ended. Don't worry, be happy. Take a pill. Watch the Olympics.
No, the sort of happiness that's more than synthetic soma must hold together a range of conflicting feelings, of which unhappiness is one. And we must not be scared of unhappiness as a feature of a meaningful life. To express this as a contradiction: unhappiness forms part of the recipe for happiness itself.
This week's church readings included the über-miserable Jeremiah, who complained: "Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable refusing to be healed?" and refused to "sit in the company of merrymakers". Church, like therapy, is a countercultural space where people are given permission to bring distress. Which is why the permanently smiling evangelical represents such a deep betrayal. There is more to the Bible than the bit at the end.
We want to be seen and valued, even when unhappy. Orbach again: "Sadly the means to being valued has been represented in ways to do with the purchase of brands, of perfected bodies, with celebrity, with money. This method for recognition is the manufacture of self-hatred in the name of the happiness deity." Which is why my kids want Francis Boulle's autograph. I will, of course, ask him. But I won't worship at the same shrine. For when it comes to the happiness deity, I am a non-believer. That is not the god for me. Twitter: @giles_fraser