May 4, 2012, 7:26 p.m. ET
How to Live Unhappily Ever After
Augusten Burroughs on the upside of being downbeat, and embracing loss and anger
By AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS
"I just want to be happy."
I can't think of another phrase capable of causing more misery and permanent unhappiness. With the possible exception of, "Honey, I'm in love with your youngest sister."
~F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal
In our super-positive society, we have a zero-tolerance policy for negativity. But who feels 'Great!' all the time?
Yet at first glance, it seems so guileless. Children just want to be happy. So do puppies. Happy seems like a healthy, normal desire. Like wanting to breathe fresh air or shop only at Whole Foods.
But "I just want to be happy" is a hole cut out of the floor and covered with a rug. Because once you say it, the implication is that you're not. The "I just want to be happy" bear trap is that until you define precisely, just exactly what "happy" is, you will never feel it. Whatever being happy means to you, it needs to be specific and also possible. When you have a blueprint for what happiness is, lay it over your life and see what you need to change so the images are more aligned.
Still, this recipe of defining happiness and fiddling with your life to get it will work for some peoplebut not for others. I am one of the others. I am not a happy person. There are things that do make me experience joy. But joy is a fleeting emotion, like a very long sneeze. A lot of the time what I feel is, interested. Or I feel melancholy. And I also frequently feel tenderness, annoyance, confusion, fear, hopelessness. It doesn't all add up to anything I would call happiness. But what I'm thinking is, is that so terrible?
I know a physicist who loves his work. People mistake his constant focus and thought with unhappiness. But he's not unhappy. He's busy. I bet when he dies, there will be a book on his chest. Happiness is a treadmill of a goal for people who are not happy by nature. Being an unhappy person does not mean you must be sad or dark. You can be interested, instead of happy. You can be fascinated instead of happy.
The barrier to this, of course, is that in our super-positive society, we have an unspoken zero-tolerance policy for negativity. Beneath the catchall umbrella of negativity is basically everything that isn't super-positive. Seriously, who among us is having a "Great!" day every day? Who feels "Terrific, thanks!" all the time?
Anger and negativity have their uses, too. Instead of trying to alleviate some of the uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions you feel by "trying to be positive," try being negative instead. Seriously, try it sometime. This will help you get in touch with how you actually feel: "I feel hopeless and fat and stupid. And like a failure for feeling this way. And trying to be positive and upbeat makes me feel angry and feeling angry makes me feel like I am broken."
If that's how you feelhowever you feelthen you have a base line, you have established a real solid floor of reference. Sometimes just giving yourself permission to feel any emotion without judgment or censorship can lessen the intensity of those negative emotions. Almost like you're letting them out into the backyard to run around and get rid of some of that energy.
A corollary to the idea that we must all be happy and positive all the time is that we must all be "healed." When I was 32, somebody I loved died on a plastic-covered twin mattress at a Manhattan hospital. His death was not unexpected and I had prepared myself years in advance, as though studying for a degree. When he died, I was as stunned as if he had been killed by a grand piano falling from the top of a building. I was fully unprepared.
I did not know what to do with my physical self. It took me about a year to stop thinking, madly, I might somehow meet him in my sleep. Once I finally believed he was gone, I began the next stage: waiting. Waiting to heal. This lasted several years.
The truth about healing is that heal is a television word. Someone close to you dies? You will never heal. What will happen is, for the first few days, the people around you will touch your shoulder and this will startle you and remind you to breathe. You will feel as though you will soon be dead from natural causes; the weight of the grief will be physical and very nearly unbearable.
Eventually, you will shower and leave the house. Maybe in a year you will see a movie. And one day somebody will say something and it will cause you to laugh. And you will clamp your hand over your mouth because you laughed and that laugh will break your heart, it will feel like a betrayal. How can you laugh?
In time, to your friends, you will appear to have recovered from your loss. All that really happened, you'll think, is that the hole in the center of your life has narrowed just enough to be concealed by a laugh. And yet, you might feel a pressure for it to be true. You might feel that "enough" time has passed now, that the hole at the center of you should not be there at all.
But holes are interesting things. As it happens, we human beings are able to live just fine with many holes of many sizes and shapes. Pleasure, love, compassion, fulfillment; these things do not leak out of holes of any size. So we can be filled with holes and loss and wide expanses of unhealed geographyand we can also be excited by life and in love and content at the exact same moment.
This is among the oldest, deepest, most primal truths: The facts of life may be, at times, unbearably painful. But the core, the bones of life are generous beyond all reason or belief. Those things which ought to kill us do not. This should be taken as encouragement to continue.
The truth about healing is that you don't need to heal to be whole. And by whole, I mean damaged, missing pieces of who you were, your heartmissing what feels like some of your most important parts. And yet, not missing any part of you at all. Being, in truth, larger than you were before.
Human experience weighs more than human tissue.
Adapted from "This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike," by Augusten Burroughs. To be published Tuesday by St. Martin's.
A version of this article appeared May 5, 2012, on page C3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How to Live Unhappily Ever After.