Or give me death: The tyranny of happiness

On Deepavali this year Jeremy casually slipped me a gift-wrapped book when he arrived at my party. This was two months ago, and at that time I made the usual noises of gratitude and you-shouldn’t-have that one does in such interactions. The following morning I opened it and Instagrammed it. As one does.

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But it was only this evening that I humbled myself, made myself vulnerable, and gave it the respect of reading it. It has been the most difficult year of my life, and mounting depression has led to thoughts of suicide. There are days when all I can do is sit and stare out the window. (And those are the good days.) Or scroll mindlessly through my Facebook feed, looking at all the exhortations to be grateful, to make yourself happy, to view your obstacles as stepping stones to happiness. I have tried them all. I do have a lot to be grateful for. I have written the list. It hasn’t helped. Because it was not a lack of gratitude that broke me. So how can a surfeit of it fix me? Same thing with all the how-to-be-happy directives.

So you can perhaps understand with what cynicism I approached the book that Jeremy had given me – “On Happiness”. It wasn’t that I expected the book to be about how to be happy, or what happiness was. Which philosopher, playwright, poet, performer worth their salt would waste their time over such a trite premise? No, my cynicism was because so many works like this end with the nihilistic idea that there is no such thing. And I figured that it would probably deepen my depression but what the heck. Might as well go for broke.

The book has at its core a play entitled “Boxes” by Kenny Png and an essay by Jeremy Fernando that deals with the theme of happiness foregrounded by the play. As Jeremy explains, the problem isn’t happiness per se but the totalitarian nature of any prescription for the pursuit of happiness. The first thing Jeremy does is to question the conflation of happiness and freedom. There is, he says, a perverse freedom in the lack of responsibility of each individual subject in a totalitarian state, since all responsibility belongs to  the state. The self is free from blame from anything external to the state. Conversely there is an ironic lack of freedom in a democracy because each subject is responsible for any decision (however bad) made by the leaders they elected. Jeremy notes that according to Zizek, happiness lies in the gap between the ability to choose, and the actual consequences of real choice. The idea, therefore, is that happiness exists as possibility. Neither can we make ourselves happy nor is happiness to be found in others, but in the space of possibility between the self and the other. Perhaps this is why love is most keenly felt in yearning. Not in possessing.Perhaps also this is why the idea of freedom inspires while its reality (in whatever halfway form) is terrifying.

Peter Van De Kamp’s afterword adds a valuable distinction between the Aristotelian notion of contentment that is often mistaken as his definition of happiness, and the actual definition of happiness. The former (contentment) requires self-control. The latter (happiness) implies being favoured by fate. So it is a matter of chance. Thus any attempt to buy happiness, to make oneself happy through buying ideas or books or things, is mere superstition. The things themselves are no better than talismans. We were not born to be happy.

This book is more reassuring to me than anything I have read so far on how to BE happy. It isn’t that we can never be happy, or that there is no such thing. But that that isn’t the point of being alive. If happiness is always only a possibility, then really it is our UNhappiness that makes us human. So all this time I’ve been basically acting out a scenario of “give me happiness or give me death”. Asking it of some nameless higher power I’ve never admitted to believing in and never really felt a connection to. Now I wonder if it is the tyrannical nature of happiness – and its many advocates – that presents death as the only alternative.

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3 thoughts on “Or give me death: The tyranny of happiness

  1. I think humans were born to be happy. So I don’t quite agree with you.

    But — I too have struggled with depression and thought i might share this. If it works for you, great, but if it doesn’t, well at least I tried to help.

    For me, when I was in deep depression, what finally brought me out of it – albeit slowly – was finding a silver lining. It would’ve been a small tiny moment of ‘light’ – maybe your friend came around for tea, or your son gave you a hug. Little things. Tiny things. I held onto these.

    Then more and more tiny ‘happy’ moments came by. I held onto those as well.

    And slowly but surely, when once I wondered if I’d ever smile or be happy ever again – now, I found myself surfacing completely into the ‘light’.

    It took many months, and it was slow. But that’s what worked for me.

    Since then I’ve had many mini depression spells – the trick for me is to think optimistically and not dwell in the dark space. It doesn’t always work – but then when I try to rationalise with myself – “Why think about relatives who died when tomorrow you’ll be spending the whole day with ABC at the lunch buffet or the next episode of Homeland is on tonight” – it does work. Always look for the bright sparks in your life – even if it’s tomorrow, next week, next year, 10 years from now, or in the next moment. Rationalise or try to think optimistically – That is what keeps me away from the dark these days. I refuse to dwell in there, even if I find myself there from time to time.

    Hope this helps. And like I said, if it doesn’t, at least I tried.

    Take care, and keep well!

    1. Thanks for engaging with what I wrote, Ameline. I don’t think you and I fundamentally disagree on how to cope with what we are facing – the fact that we enact coping strategies means we have not given up on the possibility of happiness, which I think manifests as such (as a possibility) only when we face the reality of our unhappiness. There are reflections on happiness writ large (which inevitably problematise the concept of happiness as espoused by self-help literature) and there are the daily necessities of just getting through each day. I think that one does not contradict the other, because even as we try to get through each day the motivation is the possibility of happiness. Thank you so much for sharing your suggestions ❤

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