Women and Happiness

The history, science, and experiences of women and personal fulfillment.

Cancer Doesn't Make People Happy

Looking for that space between false cheeriness and existential depression.

The idea for the happiness journal came from a little book called A Life of One's Own written by the British psychoanalyst Marion Milner and published under the pseudonym Joanna Field in the 1930s. Milner's idea was that if she recorded the best moments in her daily life, she might begin to trace patterns from those moments and discover the conditions for lasting happiness. An embarrassingly simple idea.

My own habit had always been to write about the things that ticked me off in a given day. If I kept a journal at all, I kept it to vent.

I had learned to analyze the darkness beautifully. Why not try the opposite?

My entries focused on contained moments of connection, achievement, beauty:

Monday
I was happy when I saw my 2-year-old son in his new red pants, carrying his new animal puzzles so proudly down the street. He wanted to show me what he had gotten at the consignment store.

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Tuesday
I was happy when I got a voicemail form Susie Bright. She had just read my memoir and loved it. That's an old book, but it made me happy to remember that people actually read what I write sometimes. Can be moved by words.

Wednesday
A student thought my lecture was funny. Cut flower in a vase.

But then on Thursday my mother walked into my house and told me she had stage-four lung cancer. And all my happiness melted into fear and sadness. And there it stayed. All wet and waxy. My mother never smoked! What was going on?

Mercifully, by the following Tuesday, Barbara Ehrenreich was on NPR talking about her new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. After her cancer diagnosis, Ehrenreich was not feeling particularly positive. She was pissed off. But everywhere she turned, folks told her that she had to be hopeful, that she ought to wear a pink ribbon and squeeze a teddy bear.

"Chin up! A smile on your face makes a cancer survivor!"

Cancer patients are culturally required to keep a chipper attitude and, I was quickly learning as i shared the news from my own family, the daughters and friends and encouraged to smile, too. Did cancer cells thrive on negativity? If I felt scared, was I bad-vibe-ing my mom? (It reminded me of when I was a little kid and afraid of dogs. Someone told me, "the dog can smell your fear and will attack you!" What was I supposed to do? Pretend not to be terrified when the dogs barked?)

Maybe the dogs and fear thing is true, but positive thinking, it turns out, has no effect on our cancer prognoses.

Good thing. ‘Cause I was feeling none too cheery.

Still, I thought about my happiness journal. Should I abandon it?

What was the point of happiness, after all, if it was so fragile as to require only good news?

Call me a hippie, but I was looking for something deeper.

The happiness journal wasn't about that false--and very American--cheerfulness of tired airline stewardesses. Was it?

I wanted it to be about training myself to meditate on the moments of this life that feel expansive--without denying the hard parts.

I was looking, I realized, for the space between false cheeriness and existential depression.

Canadian positive psychologist Paul T.P. Wong defines happiness as "the capacity to rejoice in the midst of suffering." I like that definition. Happiness isn't the absence of suffering, then. Happiness doesn't have to be about denial.

The day my mother had come to tell me her news, I opened my journal and drew a blank. I had to close my eyes, think back. She had been wearing a coral sweater when she walked in. The sweater had belonged to my grandmother. There was that simple moment of happiness, thinking about color and legacy and family and the way the season was changing.

I am angry, certainly.

I am really glad I quit smoking a few years ago, because otherwise I would really want a cigarette right now.

I am stressed.

I am neurotic.

I am acting out.

(Aren't you?)

But then somewhere, too, there is that capacity to rejoice.

And the capacity to listen.

My mother and I talked a little bit about her diagnosis, about the treatment options (the Western medical doctors say it's too late for chemo), about soy-free vegan diets.

And then this quote appeared quite randomly, in the midst of something unrelated to either cancer or mid-twentieth century literature. (My mother was a good friend of Henry Miller's. Back in the day in California. And so it was that when the quote fluttered down from the sky, we took it very clearly as a message from her dead friend).

It said, simply:

I know what the cure is: it is to give up, to relinquish, to surrender, so that our little hearts may beat in unison with the great heart of the world.
--Henry Miller

And I thought, Oh. Right.

The cure isn't about denying one set of emotions in favor of another. It isn't about cheesy silver linings. It's about giving up, feeling the way we do feel and accepting that for what it is, relinquishing our dumb sense of control, rejoicing at the sight of a proud 2-year-old marching down the street in his new red pants without denying that this world is hard, too, and full of environmental poisons and suffering also.

 

 

 

You can read more about women and happiness in Bluebird...

Ariel Gore is an award-winning journalist and the author of Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness.

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