In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner travels around the world in search of the secrets of happiness. Everywhere he goes, he asks the people he meets if they are happy. When he asked this question in Iceland, one person’s reply was, “Yes, but I cherish my melancholia.”
Another Icelander agreed. “You nurture your little melancholia, and it’s like a buzz that makes you feel alive. You snap yourself a little bit, and you feel this relief of how fragile life is and how tremendously fragile you are.”
Weiner asked, “So you can have this melancholia and still be happy?”
“Absolutely!” was the reply.
Modern social science confirms what the [second Icelander] says. The psychologist Norman Bradburn, in his book The Structure of Psychological Well Being, describes how happiness and unhappiness are not opposites, as we often think. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are different coins. It is possible, in other words, for a happy person to also suffer from bouts of unhappiness, and for unhappy people to experience great moments of joy. And here in Iceland, it seems, it is even possible to be happy and sad at the same time.
This is a partial answer to a question I’ve been asking these past two months: What does it mean to be a happy person? This piece of the puzzle suggests that one can be a happy person and still feel sad sometimes, and that one can be an unhappy person and still feel happy sometimes. I wonder, which am I? Happy with bouts of sadness, or unhappy with bouts of joy?
Another piece of the puzzle, also from Weiner’s book:
Martin Seligman, founder of the positive-psychology movement, discovered that happy people remember more good events in their lives than actually occurred. Depressed people remembered the past accurately.
I have a suspicion I’m one of the people who remembers her life accurately. But I’m not certain that “depressed” is the opposite of “happy”. Gretchen Rubin certainly doesn’t think so, and says so explicitly in The Happiness Project. “I came to another important conclusion about defining happiness: that the opposite of happiness is unhappiness, not depression. Depression, a grave condition that deserves urgent attention, occupies its own category apart from happiness and unhappiness.”
Is Seligman using a different definition of “depressed”, or is it Weiner’s word, and I can substitute “unhappy” and the basic claim is still the same? I suppose to some degree it’s irrelevant. My aim is to feel happier, so doing things that happy people do is working towards that aim, regardless of what all of those unhappy or depressed people do.
I’m not sure if I prefer to delude myself about my life in the interest of feeling happier, but I could certainly try to place more emphasis on the happy things and less on the unhappy things. Yet another argument for a gratitude practice of some sort. And also an argument for reframing my experience of unhappy events. I’m getting ready to read Man’s Search for Meaning, in which Viktor Frankl talks about logotherapy, which involves changing one’s attitudes about one’s life experiences. Maybe I can get some more ideas from Frankl about how to embrace my melancholia as they do in Iceland.