#107: How (Not) to Be Unhappy

There are many ways to be unhappy. For more, I recommend you read Paul Watzlawick’s excellent book The Situation Is Hopeless But Not Serious (The Pursuit of Unhappiness), still relevant after all these years. For example:

A man wants to hang a painting. He has the nail, but not the hammer. Therefore it occurs to him to go over to the neighbor and ask him to lend him his hammer.
But at this point, doubt sets in. What if he doesn’t want to lend me the hammer? Yesterday he barely spoke to me. Maybe he was in a hurry. Or, perhaps, he holds something against me. But why? I didn’t do anything to him.
If he would ask me to lend him something, I would, at once. How can he refuse to lend me his hammer? People like him make other people’s life miserable. Worst, he thinks that i need him because he has a hammer. This has got to stop!
And suddenly the guy runs to the neighbor’s door, rings, and before letting him say anything, he screams: “You can keep your hammer, you bastard!”

(Watzlawick, Paul. The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious: (the Pursuit of Unhappiness). United States, Norton, 1993. page 39)

That’s it! That’s what we do! Ain’t it grand? No, seriously. Sometimes, we can’t seem to help ourselves seeing the worst in people and in situations. It is certainly easier, and sometimes, it is mandated.

But there is a difference between unhappiness on the one side, and on the other, carefulness, mindfulness, realism, or fear. These are not all the same things. If I know a certain danger exists, denying that danger would not be making me happy, on the contrary. If I realize the seriousness of a situation, I am preparing myself to react appropriately, and thus minimize unhappiness. If I am mindful of my own or other people’s limitations, I am setting up realistic expectations rather than expecting an unfulfillable fairy-tale. If I am careful, I care about making the right decision.

Unhappiness and happiness may probably be described as outcomes of false expectations and of a flawed attitude towards life. If you expect everything to fail, that may be realistic sometimes, but you lose hope. If you expect everything to work out, you may be eternally hopeful, but such a pollyannish attitude sets you up for failure more easily than you would have hoped.

As we are living in a time where challenges about – a still persisting global pandemic, the crises following the necessary strategies for pandemic abatement, as well as climate change and extreme weather events, refugee crises, political crises, terrorism, domestic troubles, economic crises, maybe even an asteroid with higher likelihood of hitting our planet than we might be comfortable with; all of these certainly can very well contribute to a sense of doom. How, in all honesty, could we possibly be happy in all this?

If we focus on all of these, on the abundance of dangers and threats, we are pursuing unhappiness. Looking at history can be healing. Despite everything, our problems are manageable. Pandemic? Get vaccinated, wear the mask, distance, be hygienic, etc. Climate change? More difficult, but we can all do our part to protect nature, pollute less, consume differently, and be open to technological solutions old and new. Politics? Get involved. Asteroid? Sorry, can’t help you there.

Some problems can be fixed, others can’t be, but we can never stop searching for solutions. That may not make us happy, but at least, we can avoid being unhappy. Because this is important also: There are never just two options. Between unhappiness and happiness, there is the possibility of a neutral stance of acceptance of things as they are, and trying to make the best of it. You may not be happy, but you can choose not to be very unhappy at least.