My ruminations on American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos

I finished reading this two days ago but the darkening days drain my reserves and I could not rally the energy to write about it. I’ve rallied some energy but my body still craves hibernation so lets get to it.

This book  follows Zeke, a man who has been interviewing people on what makes them unhappy? He tries to discover if there is some sort of trend for the American malaise despite our relative abundance. Zeke himself isn’t exactly roses and Turkish delight. His mother is dying and with her death, his two nieces who he loves dearly are willed to their aunt(his almost sister in-law) unless he can get married before her death.

The book itself is engaging, but not deep enough in terms of emotions. I like a book where I can submerge myself in the character’s emotional depths. In this book you get a little wet but only about waist deep, you certainly don’t emerge gasping for air when the real world clicks back in place. In fact this book encouraged me to stay grounded in the world, because I was considering Zeke and his question. “What are you so unhappy?”

This is obviously a leading question. I better question would be” Do you feel unhappy?” even this is a little leading, but one significant difference is replacing the word “are” with “feel.” I think this is one of the reasons a lot of people feel unhappy because they overindentify with the emotion. They ARE unhappy. They don’t realize, in fact they are experiencing an emotion, rather than being it. I think simply changing our patterned way of speaking would encourage a lot of us to shift our perspectives and not believe they are unhappy. But rather remember it’s a feeling and like a weather system it will work it’s way through.

Perhaps an even better question to pose would be “Do you feel sad?” Because unhappiness has a much greater negative connotation than sad. The word unhappy points to the fact that you do not feel happy. You in fact feel the opposite of happy. Whereas sad, doesn’t point so rudely to what you are supposedly missing. I say supposedly because though I value happiness I think sometimes people can over value it. I know when I can make myself feel more down by thinking, well I shouldn’t be down, I ought to be happy. But why is that? There is no reason I should be anything never mind happy.When we put pressure on ourselves to feel anything, including happy, it certainly does not increase that desired emotion. We begin to feel resentful and boxed in.

That being said, I do think we have a certain choice in our happiness and that comes from how we view things. We are only victims of our lives and our circumstances when we give our power away. When we act like we are helpless. I’m not saying this to put down anyone who has felt helpless, but just as a reminder we have agency. It feels awful when you have thoughts that you are helpless that you are spinning your wheels in the rut of your own making, but because you made the rut you can also dig out of it.  You can shift gears and shift you mind frame. You don’t need to fixate on how your boss made some passive aggressive comment to you, or how you have pimples cropping up on your face like pizza and oozing like mozzarella, yes those things suck. And if you can make steps to amend them(talk to your boss), eat better, whatever. Go for it. But the more we tell ourselves these stories, the more we dig down deep in that rut and we’re not going to find emeralds or titanium down there, we are going to go more and more inward and miss out on what there is that is good in our life.

I think a project that would change people, would be to compile answers of what there is in our lives we are grateful for. I’m not bury deep all those shitty things in our lives, I’m just saying let’s work against our innate bias for threats(aka things we perceive as threats be they harsh words or traffic) and recognize what is already going right. Take a moment and feel content about something in your life. Maybe you have a soft kitty to pet, maybe your lover did the dishes, maybe you really like your job. Whatever it is, pause and breathe it in.

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