Reflections on Joy From an ‘Unhappy’ Person

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Joy and happiness. What even are they? I can no longer identify how they feel. I am sure I felt these things when I was younger but now I am no longer sure. Is it that warm and fuzzy feeling you get between your heart and your stomach?

I don’t think I am a cold, withered human that can no longer feel things. I can feel unhappiness but the other side of the coin eludes me. I remember feeling more when I was younger. But the memory is distant and the feeling escapes me. To me, happiness has just been replaced with the feeling of when you are not unhappy. But I know logically that this does not accurately describe the emotion.

When people ask “what do you want from life?” and people reply that they just want to be happy, that is the strangest answer to me. Is happiness like a drug that I haven’t taken in the longest time? Is everybody just chasing that high?

Happiness has changed over time. Today when we speak of happiness it is more akin to cheerfulness and pleasure. Those who have the most bubbly and cheerful personalities, have the biggest smiles, the most money and things are the are our happiest bunch, right? This is our modern standard, our pinnacle that we strive for. What the Greeks called hedonic happiness.

I am the opposite of bubbly and I’m broke, but I do have a whole bunch of things. Maybe if I acted cheerfully and made some money I could finally be “happy”?

My psychiatrist prescribed me another pill, I take two types now. One helps me stay in our shared reality the other helps me to sleep. They help me function normally but they certainly don’t bring me joy. Before I took them negative emotions ruled my life. They have since bought this under control but I feel any positive emotion has been blunted as well. The yin and yang of psychotropic medication.

Before I started the medication journey I was extremely isolated. From 18 to about 29 I seldom left the house. Jobless and friendless. Stuck in a state of mental anguish. A situation that eventually led to a complete mental breakdown. My rock bottom.

After a year of building myself back up and being clear in mind, I came to a world-shattering conclusion. I am never going to be happy. At least not in the way it is thought of today. I had two choices, admit defeat or reframe the game.

I no longer chase the current western ideal of happiness. The cheers, smiles and money. The pressure of the modern-day “pursuit of happiness” takes so many victims. I now try and build my life around the other type of happiness the Greeks identified. Eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia is happiness more aligned with purpose and living well. To me, that means finding work that challenges you, being of service to others and having good interpersonal relationships.

The Japanese call it Ikigai, a reason for being. Having your mission, your passion and your vocation intersecting into one. Working hard on your craft isn’t to be avoided it is to be embraced. Having a useful skill gives you a deep sense of purpose and with that comes lasting happiness.

Since focusing on eudaimonia I started law school and volunteer in my local community. I want to help underprivileged people gain access to justice. I am still working on my social life but I have come a long way in a short space of time. I went from being socially isolated for 10 years to working towards a brighter future.

At the ripe old age of 30 the door in my mind where gratitude lives has been unlocked. Before that, I do not recall feeling grateful once in my life. I just didn’t have access to it. That makes me sound like a terrible person and perhaps I am but I thought gratitude was the feeling I got when my mum bought me a Gameboy for my birthday when I was 11. The first time I felt real gratitude was when I wrote an article about a boy who lives in Iran, he is gay and struggles deeply with discrimination. Being gay myself and having a family that loves me regardless of this fact is something so many go without. Then it struck me like a ton of bricks. My god am I lucky! Nagame meet gratitude, gratitude meet Nagame. We are still feeling each other out but the relationship is going great.

I am still not a cheery person, I don’t go around smiling all the time. But you know what, maybe some of us are just not built that way. We idealise a cheerful person. Stating it on every job application as necessary criteria, “Applicants must have an energetic and bubbly personality”. But that is just not me. It is not a lot of us.

But does that mean we are not happy? Not necessarily. Happiness and joy in a typical western sense still elude me but I am busy trying to build a eudaimonic sense of well-being. I am grateful as much as possible with a life waiting to be cultivated. At the end of the day maybe I am not such an unhappy person after all.

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