“You don't have to be happy!” The words popped into my head – and landed there with recognition and relief. Ironic that I feel relief, but suddenly I realized the burden of happiness, which is our inalienable right, at least if you are American. If you are British, you have glum Protestant work ethics and cold baths.
Living in North America, I have absorbed the happiness tyranny. And it is onerous because there is a subtle subtext that if you are not happy, note I don't say “if you are unhappy”, then you are in some measure substandard. (Unhappy indicates an actual negative state, whereas “not happy” suggests a nebulous dissatisfaction.)
We are told we should be happy as if it were a duty. We measure our state against an imaginary ideal and then feel cheated. Only one life, we think, so we must enjoy it, heaven forbid we let the minutes trickle away in boredom or sadness. Is that why we dash about, filling each hour with activity, dulling our senses with explosions of electronic colour? We even take pills to make us happier or self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.
We set an impossible standard like the doctor who taught me pain-free childbirth, an oxymoron. She worked until 2 hours before she gave birth to twins and her babycare booklet started with, “Rise at six and wash nappies (diapers).” I threw it away, but after hours of painful labour I felt a complete failure before even attempting motherhood.
We fill our bucket lists to make sure we don't, on our deathbed, find we have missed an experience or sensation. Ironic when, in fact, many people wait till their last months to start living mindfully, all the dash for happiness having fallen away and the bare bones of life being left in sunlit beauty.
So my uncle could cry out shortly before his death from cancer, “I am so happy!” And I am sure he was, having loved my aunt deeply and faithfully, marvelling daily that she could love him.
We don't have to be happy. It is OK to have an off day, to feel down when it rains or bored while balancing a visa statement. It is OK just to be alive and there, to stop striving for nirvana. As I said to a friend whose doctor wanted to medicate her out of bereavement, “Your mother died – it's OK to be bereft and sad. You need to be able to rest in it, to heal and grow.”
It's OK to rest in pain, weep at times, to catch sunbeams of happiness, effervescent like bubbles. Happiness should not be pursuable. Its very substance is delicate, ethereal like a streaming cloud. Happiness comes from a grateful heart, sunlight and bare feet on the grass. It falls like a blessing, gently on my heart.