If all you want is to be happy, you’re short circuiting your authenticity.
When I was growing up, my family was as far from happy as the Moon is from Mercury. My father was sulky, silent and abusive. He had wanted to be a lawyer but his father refused to pay for it so he put himself through accounting school, which he hated, and found a job he loathed even more, and he took out his rage on everyone, including himself. My mother had married him only because the man she really loved had jilted her and so she went to an adult camp and married the first man who asked her, my father, a mistake she soon realized when six months later, her jilter came to visit her, and was as stunned as she was that she now belonged to someone else. “Life is stinky,” my mother proclaimed. My sister, marrying young and unhappily, too, had her own version. “Life sucks,” my sister echoed.
I couldn’t bear that people I loved — my mom and my sister — were unhappy (my father was another story) and so I quickly became the fixer of the family. I’d cheer them up. I’d offer suggestions to go a psychic and get good news! To go to a therapist! To go into town and buy clothes! Sometimes it worked, like a gloss of polish on bitten nails, but things always went back to the way they were. Sorrow soaked. Full of rage and disappointment. And I began to feel full of rage and disappointment, too.
And that’s when I began to balk.
I was determined to be happy all the time, and to do that I figured I had to first be on my own. I had to be the opposite of my family in every way. My sister commuted to college from home, but I insisted on living in a dorm, even though Brandeis was ten minutes away from my house. And while I wasn’t quite sure how to be a truly happy person, I was a writer and already I knew a lot about creating characters and so I created one for myself out of my loneliness and fear, crazy Caroline, wonderfully intense, exuberant and a party girl who didn’t mind if boy after boy ditched her because she had never been that serious about them anyway. I had knee jerk reactions to people asking me if I was okay because I looked sad. “Never better!” I said, forcing smiles. And when I saw friends upset, I tried to fix them, to get them to happy, the same way I had tried and failed with my family.
Of course I couldn’t run away from sorrow, but I tried desperately to mask it. Wine didn’t work for me, but when a boy I loved betrayed me, a friend gave me my first taste of pharmaceutical codeine and I drifted off into a happy haze. Later when my first husband cheated on me, a friend gave me Percocet, which not only filled me with glee but energized me so I could take four ballet classes in a row without needing to even catch a breath. But then, when I moved and my supply was cut off, I got panicked. How was I supposed to stay happy?
That’s when I discovered the happiness industry. From Silva Mind Control, classes that insisted if I pressed three fingers together I could build an energy that would bring me what I wanted, Buddhist chanting to be one with the universe and all it offered. Affirmations. The Secret. Ask and oh boy, Ye Shall receive was the message. I went to psychics just to hear someone else tell me good news, because God knew, I couldn’t imagine it for myself. And because none of these things really worked for me, I began to suspect the Happiness industry, even more when I read a galley of The Happiness Thief, from Nicole Bokat, which delves into a joy guru’s misleading — and dangerous — insistence that happiness is our birth right.
Still, I keep trying to stay on the sunny side. But one day, I am having lunch with a friend when I start to cry. “Forgive me,” I say. “Give me a moment to perk up.”
She looks at me askance. “Forgive you for what?” she says. “What’s wrong with sorrow? Why would you need to be happy all the time?”
That makes me think. Why would I?
Because sorrow is hard to do. Because sorrow has no bottom.
Because sorrow is hard for others to be around.
Because sorrow cannot be fixed easily.
And then I think more and harder.
I think about love. The first year I was with Jeff, I could feel sparks coming off of me, a radiance and I couldn’t think about anything but him. Everything was more intense: colors, music, taste, touch. And then, of course, unhappiness came into our lives. We lost a child I was carrying and we were both devastated but what I remember most was how close we became, how Jeff never left my side. I was dying in the hospital, sick for a year, but Jeff cleaned my surgical wounds for me. He told me how beautiful I was even though I had no hair then and was bloated, with gray skin. I began to realize — to experience first-hand — that it isn’t always the happy times that make love richer, because those times are easy. It’s the difficult times that can actually be a gift. It’s the sorrows that make you realize the joy so much deeper. And I wouldn’t trade this state for anything.
Sorrow, for me, was and is a teacher. Early breakups made me realize what I didn’t want in a partner so I could go out and find what I did. Rejection after rejection in my writing career made me even more determined not to give up, no matter what, to listen to my own inner voice, and when my 9th novel, Pictures of You, became my first critically acclaimed New York Times Bestseller, the surprised and delighted euphoria I felt was so much stronger than if I had just been happily published throughout my whole career.
Plus, isn’t it better to be your own authentic self? Happy and sad. Cranky and patient. Helpless and determined. How can you know joy is you don’t know misery? How can you appreciate success if you have always had it and have never known failure?
Sometimes I think about the kids I went to High School with. The popular ones, the cheerleaders, the amazing-looking. None of them ever had to develop personalities or empathy because everything was handed to them. They coasted on people wanting to be around them, as if their shine might rub off. When I see reunion news, it doesn’t surprise me that the outcasts like me, the unhappy ones, became our own glorious creations. Because we had to.
Being happy is, of course, lovely. But sorrow really is the rich soil from which all the blooms grow.
Reprinted from Psychology Today.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You, Cruel Beautiful World and the Good Morning America Online pick, With or Without You, coming in paperback June 29, 2021.