The Happiness Project

More About the Significance of Unhappiness for Happiness

My post yesterday —about unhappiness—has been bothering me. I feel like I missed some important points, but I’m not exactly sure what they are. The people who commented on the post brought out some important elements, but I still feel like there’s more here to wrestle with.

One consideration I forgot to take into account is a Secrets of Adulthood : Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy. That is, the things that bring happiness also bring frustration, anxiety, boredom, fear, etc. Raising children, starting a blog, going to the gym, traveling in a foreign country … these are some things that bring me a huge amount of happiness, but also a lot of frustration, anxiety, boredom, fear, etc. But although I have bad feelings, I don’t think that’s quite the same thing as feeling unhappy .

The First Splendid Truth holds that to be happy, you need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth . Sometimes people equate “unhappiness” with “feeling bad.” But bad feelings have a different … flavor … depending on whether they’re accompanying an activity that’s fundamentally making me happy or making me unhappy.

For example, I have a low threshold for irritation. I get annoyed very, very easily. My children annoy me, and not owning enough socks annoys me. I willingly (more or less) accept the annoyance caused by the demands of little kids, but why suffer the annoyance of a lack of socks? Just buy some socks! As an under-buyer , this is a real challenge for me—but having enough socks does, in a small way, contribute to my happiness.

On a higher note, my work often causes me to feel anxious, stressed, frustrated—but I love my work, so it’s not hard for me to tolerate these feelings. It’s part of the process of accomplishing what I’m trying to do. But if I had a job I disliked, those emotions might overwhelm me with unhappiness.

So all bad feelings aren’t created equal. A bad feeling can accompany something that will, in the end, lead to happiness—or not.

When people talk about the foolishness of trying to eliminate unhappiness, I think they’re envisioning a life from which all bad feelings had been banished. That kind of life wouldn’t make anyone happy, and it’s not possible anyway. (Even the great St. Therese of Lisieux , with her tremendous spiritual gifts, felt despair and even petty annoyance in her cloistered convent.) The trick, I guess, is to figure out where bad feelings will turn to the good, and where they won’t—i.e., where they’re a necessary accompaniment to an activity that makes you happy or when they’re a sign that you need to think about making some changes.

* I was thrilled when Barbara Arredondo of Mexico’s Indigo Brainmedia wanted to interview me about the “proyecto felicidad.” I don’t speak Spanish, but this site is amazingly fun to visit anyway, because it’s so dynamic. And check out the company I was placed in here! Sheesh.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just e-mail me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.