10 December 2008


Almost all my adult life, I've mused on the question of whether people who behave badly toward other people, or who make what these days are called "bad choices" actually are unhappier than other people.  My mother firmly believes that people who are mean or unkind, or who behave cruelly to others without caring, are actually sadder than people who do not -- that is, that they carry a sadness they are somehow aware of, and it sort of niggles at them and makes them unhappy, even if they think unhappy is "the way I am," or even if they can't identify the source of the niggling/sorrow.  But I'm not sure that's true. I'm not saying I believe it's not true, but I've known a lot of people who behaved badly, or rudely, or stupidly, towards others, and they don't seem sadder than anybody else.  In fact, sometimes they seem happier - perhaps because they've managed to build up such a successful carapace that they don't notice how they're acting.

A more difficult question, though, is what happens to people who make unwise choices.  I think here, for example, of people who don't take chances.  Now, those people certainly have smaller lives than people who do take chances, which seems sad.  But a part of me is inclined to say that those people are in fact perhaps happier than those who take chances.  If you think, "Well, I could go to the city, or I could stay here on the farm," and you choose to stay on the farm because it's familiar and safe, aren't you happier?  You've stayed somewhere familiar and safe, and you've never run the risk of encountering sorrow in the city.  Sure, your life is empty of what you might have found in the city, but if you think what you have is good, are you really emptier because of what you've possibly missed?

And of course I wonder this most of all with relationship choices.  My best friend told me once that she believed many, if not most, people who were in relationships were in unhappy relationships, or were unhappy in their relationships:  I took this to mean that they had festering issues, or that they'd chosen someone they had later come to dislike, but stayed with them out of fear.  But there are also frequent instances of someone taking the first person they can find, even if that person is not what they would have wanted, and I had a therapist once who told me a study had determined that most people simply end up with someone who lived near them:  what people seem to use as the most deciding factor is propinquity.  I knew someone once who told me that for the last two years he'd been with his ex-girlfriend he'd been angry. And my ex-boyfriend J. told me earlier this year that he was moving in with the woman he'd been seeing for x number of years, and that he supposed they'd become engaged shortly after and then get married, although he "wasn't looking forward to the marriage."  In both of these latter cases, I'd say the relationship (or any future relationships, in case A) were going to be unhappy.  If you aren't looking forward to getting married (and, well, the structure of J's remark suggested to me that he retained serious issues with intimacy), then I don't think your marriage will be particularly happy (although we should cut some slack for the possibility that after you get into it you find you love it).  If you stay in a relationship angry for two years, that suggests you have some difficulty articulating your emotions, not to mention lack the courage to exit a bad relationship, and that suggests you're going to have relationships full of pent-up rage and sorrow, which would seem to suggest you would be unhappy in them (although we should cut some slack for the possibility that you might meet someone you'll be less angry with).

But...what if that's not true?  What if people find some equilibrium, as we all do, and that equilibrium is simply lower?  J. is unhappy to get married, but what if he accepts that getting married is something you do, and he does it, and that unhappiness gets balanced against other things, and gets balanced out?  I would say, "Get yourself some therapy to figure out why you don't want to get married, deal with your problem, and then you'll be happy," but maybe I'd be wrong.  What if Case A simply goes through life ignoring his rage - or dissatisfaction - so that it becomes a kind of dull background that he lives with?  Isn't he then happy?  If your unhappiness is ignored, or if you think of it as something that is your lot, aren't you then happy?  What if all those people who opt for the safe relationship over the potentially fabulous one, and thus never know how fabulous their lives might have been, are happy in their safety? - After all, they'll never know what they're missing.

Most people aren't risk-takers; my therapist told me that, too.  Yet most people are happy.  Are they less happy than risk-takers?  We're all encouraged to become cultured, and intellectually rich, yet the fact is that if you do become cultured and intellectually rich you seriously decrease your circle of possible friends.  This would seem to suggest that the unenlightened are in fact better off than the enlightened.  People who stand up for themselves in relationships, and people who don't want to get married and thus don't, end up alone.  That would seem to suggest that people who keep their mouths shut or accept fundamentally sucky things are happier than those who don't (bear in mind here that I'm not talking about accepting stuff you don't like about your partner and learning to live with it; everyone does and ought to do that.  But marrying someone when you're reluctant to get married strikes me as potentially much more major than accepting your partner's ugly jumpers or hacking cough).

I guess I'm inclined to believe that people who lead limited lives, or repressed lives, are unhappy and know it.  But I believe that because, as a person who doesn't lead a limited or repressed life, and a person who is alone and unhappy, it's in my interest to believe other people are more unhappy than I.  You know, the English complain and whine all the time to each other, but never to the authorities, and I find that unfathomable.  If you don't like a situation, do something to change it in some active way (and if that doesn't work you've earned the right to whinge).  But they certainly like moaning to each other; are they less happy than I, who try to change situations, can't change them, and am angry about it?

Perhaps you have to take the measure of yourself.  Perhaps J. knows he doesn't want to get married, but also knows he doesn't want to be alone, so he accepts that he'll be unhappy in a tiny way but the result will balance it out.  Perhaps Case A knows it would be better if he spoke his anger, but it's more important to him to be with the person, or he also knows he's not the sort of person who can risk speaking negative emotions, so he accepts the unhappiness for the greater contentment.

I was watching Pushing Daisies tonight, and one of the characters said, "You no good to somebody else unless you're good being with just you," and I thought what wise advice that was, and how true (inner resources making the success of the outward-directed person).  But thinking it over it seemed to me that people who are no good at being with just themselves are always with someone else; they're never alone.  So one conclusion would be, They're less lonely. 

I don't know.

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