Does Happiness Sound Boring to You?
I came across a Tolstoy quote in a book that I’m reading right now (Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology), and the quote bothered me. It bothered me because it’s one of those things that sound clever on its surface, but is clearly inaccurate when you start breaking the idea down.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” -Leo Tolstoy
Huh. Spoiler alert: I think that’s total horse poop!
At first blush one might think “Yes, that sounds reasonable. It validates my own belief that my struggles and pain are what make me unique and my story interesting. And, I do believe that happy people could only be happy because they’re one-dimensional vanilla ice cream cones who aren’t paying attention to the hardships of really real reality.”
I mean, everyone has the right to choose their own opinions, but that sounds like a really poor choice of belief to maintenance and walk around with. So let's unpack what Tolstoy said a little bit.
First, the words “happy” and “unhappy” he used are such broad categories—they're easy to conceptualize, but it's not particularly meaningful the way he's used them.
If 20,000 people are unhappy because they’ve been displaced from their homes due to a natural disaster, that unhappiness isn’t particularly unique, is it? There are 20,000 people experiencing unhappiness in response to that event.
If 20,000 people at a Paul McCartney concert are experiencing happiness from watching a performer that they love, their happiness isn’t particularly unique, either, is it? There are 20,000 people experiencing happiness in response to that event.
You could say “well, each person in the natural disaster is unhappy for their own unique version of what they lost.” Yeah, and you could also say “well, each person at the Paul McCartney concert is happy because of their own unique version of what Paul McCartney means to them.”
See? You’d be correct either way. Depending on how you slice it, our happiness or unhappiness are equally unique or common.
Believing that our unhappiness is what makes us interesting sounds like a great way to bring more unhappiness into our experiences. We hold on to things that we think are valuable, and if we see our experiences of unhappiness as part of our identity, they'll become meaningful and we'll hold on to them. Then that valued unhappiness stands to influence our future choices, which are then very likely to generate more unhappy experiences, which then give our preexisting unhappiness company to sit around with and validate themselves to each other.
On the flip side, if we think that happiness is where it’s at and we’re not currently experiencing it, it’s pretty likely that’ll we’ll feel unhappy because we’re not happy. And again we find ourselves with more of what we never wanted in the first place.
They're both ugly feedback loops of unfulfilling, self-fulfilling prophecies. And it's a great way to be miserable (which I know because I have extensive experience exploring that little perceptual boo-boo).
Well, what makes us interesting then?
When we look at people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, or Nelson Mandela, are they interesting and inspiring to us because they had crappy things happen to them? Or is it because of how they rose up and responded to those difficult experiences and circumstances?
So, Mr. Tolstoy, I have to disagree with you here. I believe that it’s our preferences, our choices, and how we choose to define ourselves in relation to our experiences that show our character, our mettle, and our uniqueness.
We all have the ability to choose how we’re going to define the things that happen to us. That means that both unhappiness and happiness are choices. I don't mean to offend anyone in saying that or dismiss the painful things we’ve all experienced, and I'm not saying that life is all rainbows and puppies covered in buttercream frosting running through fields of colorful balloons while farting out winning lottery tickets—because it’s not.
Life is really hard sometimes. I've experienced my own really difficult things in life, and it’s been extremely difficult to "crack the code" of happiness, but just because something is hard, that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing, or that it’s impossible, or that we’re “not meant to have it.” And just because something sounds clever (like Tolstoy's quote), that doesn’t mean that it’s accurate.
I’ll leave you with a great quote from John F. Kennedy: