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Self-Knowledge • Fulfilment

Why We Deny Ourselves the Chance of Happiness

Happiness sounds like such an obviously desirable quality, the idea that a person might willingly turn it down makes – on the surface at least – no sense at all. Why would anyone deny themselves life’s supreme end, the goal which to which everything else points, the natural objective of all our endeavours?

Yet faced with the possibility of contentment, many of us do appear to manifest a curious preference for despondency. Whatever the opportunities for fulfilment, we stay distinctly loyal to caution, suspicion and fear. 

Painting of rosebushes in a garden in Luxembourg.
Albert Marquet, The Luxembourg Garden, 1923

We might identify six reasons why – in the end – happiness may simply prove too much of a burden to bear:

1. The Association between Worry and Safety

We may refuse happiness because we were once hugely innocent, and paid a high price for our credulity. When we were vulnerable and naive, when we could not muster strength for a fight, a blow came for us out of the darkness whose pain and surprise reverberates to this day. The relationship between being terrified and being safe now seems ironclad. It is only by being permanently primed for attack, ceaselessly on the look out for enemies, aggressively alert to any signs of danger, that we feel we can be protected from further unwelcome surprises. The price of safety is continual circumspection. 

This stance is hard shake off because the hypervigilant person is typically unconsciously and unfairly generalising outwards from a particular traumatic incident that they have not fully remembered or engaged with. Everything feels excessively dangerous when the exact things that were once unsettling have not been maturely understood. We remain constantly with our knife at the ready when the singular injustice and malice that once befell us has proved too painful to explore.

2. A Fear of Angering the Gods

For most of our time on the planet, humans have operated with a background sense of a connection between being embracing happiness – and angering someone, a divine figure like Zeus, Thor, Kali or Coyote who wouldn’t appreciate a mere human usurping their place at the summit of contentment. 

We might not believe in gods any longer but we are liable still dimly to associate triumph with risk – though for reasons rather closer to home. There are fragile, unhappy parents who – despite their stated interests in their children’s well-being – cannot in reality bear to see them win, are unendurably threatened by their victories and thereby bring out in them a desire to make loyal offerings of failure, to sacrifice their potential on the altar of their parents’ insecurities; to privilege closeness to them over an exploration of their own talents. There are parents who leave their children no way out of an asphyxiating dichotomy: succeed or stay close to me; win the world or keep me. 

No surprise then that some of us chose to mess up important exams, decide (against the evidence of the mirror) that we are ugly, become impotent or fail to flourish in line with our possibilities. No wonder if we might unconsciously opt for misery when the price of happiness seems to be to lose the love of those who placed us on the earth.

3. A Fear of Excess

One of the lessons that all good parents teach their children is how to come down safely from the heights of excitement: how to descend from jubilation to serenity. At the birthday party or the trampoline session, the good parent watches a head of euphoric steam build up and then looks out for ways in which it can be safely and gradually dissipated. Warnings are given, sympathetic but definitive rules are proposed, boundaries are enforced.

The child may kick against the limits, but they welcome them too: it’s in the end no fun to be allowed to do whatever one pleases. In time, the child learns to turn the faucet of jubilation on and off by themselves and so grows unfrightened of their own exuberance, knowing it won’t threaten the return of levelheadedness and sobriety. 

But offspring without such an induction may enter adulthood with greater doubts: unsure how to be pleased with themselves without becoming permanently egomaniacal, how to feel potent without turning monstrous, how to be proud of their accomplishments without boasting. And because they can’t imagine a way down, they may prefer never to look for a way up. They grow meek because – beneath a quiet, asexual, timid exterior – they can’t picture how to be happy without succumbing to hubris. 

4. A Terror of Hope

As prisoners attest, the real enemy of endurance is hope. If a promise of early release were to appear, and then – somehow – vanish, the return to the cell would be close to impossible to bear. A letdown is infinitely harder than static misery. We can (almost) take a death sentence; what is properly unthinkable is a violated reprieve. That is why we may tell the suitor that we cannot make dinner, the investor that we have no interest in their money, the prospective friend that we don’t play tennis; we want what they offer too much to ever risk ever having to rebuild our lives if it were denied to us. We prefer the protection of sadness to the agony of aspiration.

5. A Sense of Unworthiness

A precondition of being able to to enjoy the world outside us is a sense that we are deserving people inside us. For some of us, lacking the right sort of early experiences, happiness can feel as unmerited as it is alien. Were it to knock at our door too insistently, we might have to get tougher on its impudence. We might actively have to turn away a kind lover, we will guarantee that a long-awaited holiday won’t be peaceful, we might have to take assiduous steps to blow up a friendship, we might need to make actively certain that our colleagues won’t continue to respect us. Some people might call it self-sabotage. From the inside, it just feels like a sensible way to make sure we won’t have to be taunted any further by opportunities we don’t feel good enough for.

6. A Fear of Regret

We may continue to be miserable as an alternative to acknowledging that we have suffered more or less needlessly for most of our lives; because it is too galling to accept that we might have squandered our best years in avoidable neuroses. We declare happiness silly to defend ourselves against a yet more terrifying notion: that it’s our decades-long gloom that has been daft and unwarranted. We might, to make our misery seem more necessary, lean on the romantic idea of a link between sadness and depth – and happiness and superficiality. We might imply that we are too profound to laugh; that we are too clever and sensitive for joy. But we would only be doing so to run away from an infinitely more challenging idea: that to know how to giggle like a child may be one of the most serious accomplishments of any adult life.

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