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The Importance of Unhappiness for Happiness.

The importance of unhappiness, for happiness.

Because I write every day about happiness, and how to be happier, many people assume that I’m on an anti-unhappiness crusade – that I think that life, lived right, would be a stream of non-stop blissful moments.

As a consequence, I frequently hear arguments in defense of unhappiness – that without unhappiness, you can’t have a rich, complete moral and aesthetic life; that it’s a necessary corollary to love and attachment; that it’s an important goad to working for meaningful changes; that it’s not possible to have an “up” without a “down”; etc. (Some people, I suspect, argue on behalf of unhappiness because they ascribe to Happiness Myth No. 1: Happy people are annoying and stupid.)

But I’m not on a wipe-out-every-sad-moment-from-your-life campaign; I don’t think that striving to have a happier life means that you should be striving to wipe out all unhappiness from your life or to ignore any cause for unhappiness to live in a cheery stupor.

I agree with all those arguments about the significance of unhappiness. In fact, because of my happiness project, I try to pay a lot more attention to unhappy feelings. It’s tempting to try to tune them out, because they’re unpleasant, but unhappiness is an important cue. (As always, I consider depression to be a grave condition, separate from the happiness/unhappiness distinction.)

An extremely minor example of this: how I gave up fake food. For a long time, I ate a lot of fake food – things like granola bars, fat-free cookies, single-servings packages of sugary cereals, etc. I’d get hungry when I was running around, and instead of getting some real food to eat, I’d get fake food. Fake food was easy, it was cheap, it was fast, and it felt like a treat. I did this for years. Because of my happiness project, however, I started looking for places in my life where I felt bad (that’s one prong of the First Splendid Truth), and I realized that eating fake food was a source of bad feeling for me. Eating so much junk food instead of healthy food made me feel guilty and out of control. So I gave it up – cold turkey, because I’m an abstainer not a moderator. And it makes me very happy to be free from that small, but relentless, shot of twice-daily guilt.

Feeling bad is a sign that it’s time for action. Change is often painful; unpleasant, disruptive; exhausting; scary. Unhappiness can act as the goad to get you to push through those barriers. It can push you to switch jobs, get out of a relationship, move, change your habits, change your behavior, change the world. You can start meditating, start running, start a non-profit, start a garden. Everyone’s happiness project is unique, and the approach that you take to address your unhappiness is unique.

I’m saying that unhappiness is a clue to a way to be happier; does that mean that I believe that the goal of life is to eliminate all unhappiness? No. But it is a goal to give up needless unhappiness, or foolish unhappiness, or lazy unhappiness? Yup.

Some people describe a pleasure, or a sense of purposefulness, in feeling sad. I guess I just don’t get that. What do you think? Have you experienced a situation where feeling unhappy was an important catalyst to help you change? And is there a redeeming quality for unhappiness that I’m not appreciating?

* Groups for people doing their own happiness projects are forming! I saw this link to the one in Gainesville, Florida, and I heard that the Greater L.A. group already has 31 members -- zoikes. I can't wait to hear more about these groups.

* If you'd like to start a group yourself, for people doing happiness projects, click here for a starter kit.