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Self-Knowledge: Mood


Our Right to be Miserable

The official religion of modernity is happiness. It sounds pleasant but being asked to smile is an extremely coercive requirement. There is a freedom that our age seems subtly yet horribly keen to deny us: the freedom to be miserable.

The child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott developed a particular suspicion of the sort of people who, whenever they see a baby, try to make it smile with special vigour. They make funny faces, try peekaboo, jiggle it up and down, tickle its toes – and won’t stop until baby finally lets out some laughs. This kind of jolly person is different from a happy person; a happy person smiles because they feel like it, a jollying person smiles because they are compelled to, because there is all sorts of unprocessed grief inside them from which they are manically in flight. If they stopped laughing for a moment, they might have to realise everything regrettable that they haven’t until now been able to face; all the emotions they haven’t dared to accept in themselves, the anger against someone who let them down, the rage against something or someone they were supposed to love, the guilt about the error they made. 

It is unnatural for anyone to remain untroubled and unsad for longer than fifteen minutes. There is always something sombre on the horizon. That is why the notion of being not just occasionally very happy but fundamentally and long-term jolly is such a peturbing possibility, built upon a denial of reality. Even babies have lots to feel sad about. They’ve just left the womb, the most comfortable and intuitively nourishing place on earth, they’re having to discover all the disappointments of trying to feed and keep one’s body comfortable. They have so much to learn. They may even be getting the first intimations of mortality. Why would such a complicated creature ever feel like doing more than let out a very occasional giggle?

Unfortunately, modern society is like a giant jollying person. It wants to pick us up and play peekaboo with us constantly. Television, advertising, parties, friends, the media – all conspire to suggest that doing great and feeling chatty, well-adjusted, optimistic and breezy might in some way be normal.

We should be allowed to recognise that life is a hospice, not a hospital, that we are doomed and ailing; that anxiety follows us at every turn, that we are immensely fragile and always on the cusp of some new disappointing realisation. We should never have to tell anyone that we are ‘doing well.’ The automatic assumption should be that of course we are in some kind of crisis: financial, romantic, reputational, existential – because that is what we humans are like. We should stamp out the suggestion from billboards that we could ever be something lighter and sunnier. Even on holiday, of course we will be miserable; even when we’ve done ‘well’ in aspects of our lives, we’ll be at wits end most of the time. Of course we hate ourselves and wish we’d done most things differently. 


We need a society ready to meet us on our own terms – not one that is trying to get us to laugh sentimentally. We know in our hearts, and at 4am when we wake up in a panic, what life is really like, the despairing, anxious, always unsettled, always fretful and always questioning business it is. The next stage of our evolution will be to take what we know of ourselves and build a society around it, a society that has the courage to accept its true psychological complexity.

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