Happiness Comes from the Shadows

Yesterday my coworkers and I were discussing Swedish thrillers and horror movies. “Yeah,” one of them said. “Sure, it’s one of the happiest places on earth. But what’s really behind all that happiness?”

We each had our hypotheses. Mine was that alongside that highly developed happiness, there is also a highly developed id.

But then, like the introvert I am, I had an hour to myself in the stacks, and I revised my ideas. And I don’t think it’s Freudian at all.

I think possibly one reason the Swedes rank higher on happiness measures is that they are darker.

Or maybe not darker, exactly. But they allow their darkness. 

Because denial and suppression may keep us looking fine on the outside, but I can guarantee you that is not the road to happiness. In my case, it was the road to marrying the wrong partner for the wrong reason (a green card) and then standing by that denial-based decision for ten years. But that’s another story.

Ahem.

Point is, I am happier now than I have ever been at any previous point in my life. And I chalk that up to learning to be okay with telling people that I’m estranged from my parents and still grieving for the people they couldn’t be, that I survived abuse and am still healing, that I survived assaults and am still angry, that I’m an ex-Mormon but miss having faith, and that I’m an overall complicated person who can feel downright nasty things sometimes. I’ve even driven the metaphorical car off the cliff a few times.

I’m not afraid of any of that because none of it is a secret–from myself or anyone else. I don’t revel in my nasty bits, but they’re there just the same, and I have to be honest about them. I do believe that’s why I am a basically happy person.

Maybe one of the reasons my own country ranks so poorly on happiness is because most Americans ascribe to the Disney version of mental health. We don’t believe we’re happy unless that’s all we feel, all of the time. Every other feeling–our jealousy over a coworker’s sexy new shoes, our surge of rage at the man on the bus who draped his elbow over our seat, our sudden urge to murder the neighbors in their sleep because they’ve thrown one too many parties–is regarded as an obstacle. A challenge to our ultimate goal of being good, happy people.

Of course we’re miserable. If we’re hell-bent on controlling our every thought and feeling, we might as well imagine we have the power to control which way the wind blows.

Because we don’t.

In the current issue of Psychology Today, there’s a lovely article about our “wicked thoughts.” What matters, the author argues, isn’t that we have them, but what we choose to do with them. Unsurprisingly, acting them out isn’t recommended.

But neither is pretending we didn’t just think that.

So maybe the Swedes are onto something. Maybe imagining the horrible places such thoughts would take us is the best way to handle them. It demystifies them while at the same time reinforcing more adaptive behavior. See, Brain. That’s why we don’t do that.

Or you could always try my strategy. I think my horrible thoughts and feelings are jokes that my brain plays on me. Just to see if I’m paying attention. Whenever I imagine planting my fist in a man’s nose, I laugh. “Good one, Brain,” I think. “Nice try. But no.”

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