Don’t Worry, Be (Un)Happy

Photography by: Gary Taxali
Don’t Worry, Be (Un)Happy

When it’s more than unhappiness Let’s be clear: There is a difference between unhappiness and depression. “There is everyday unhappiness that comes from specific events—you lose your job, you don’t get a promotion, somebody you care about rejects you—but they don’t send most people into what we would diagnose as depression, where you can’t get out of bed or do the things you need to do,” says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale University. Nolen-Hoeksema has written several books on rumination, which is essentially overthinking one’s problems to the point of cognitive exhaustion; in her research, she’s found that there’s a link between ruminating and depression. “Ruminators focus not only on their problems, but also on how their problems make them feel, which interferes with problem-solving and actually doing something about it,” she says. But ignoring one’s problems isn’t the solution, Nolen-Hoeksema says: “There are mountains of research that show when you suppress unwanted thoughts, they bounce back with more force, which can also lead to health problems.” While many studies show that ruminating about the negative aspects of life can have a harmful effect on health, some researchers found that “constructive negativity,” or focusing on a disturbing event in a structured way (say, by writing in a journal about it), can improve your health. In fact, Nolen-Hoeksema’s research shows the merits of what she calls “helpful self-reflection.” “It’s helpful when you’re thinking about an incident that happened yesterday, but you’re focusing on the actual specifics of the situation rather than concentrating too much on how it made you feel or how it even happened or other abstract ‘why’ questions,” she explains. In other words, it is productive when it’s selfreflection that leads to “what’s one thing I can do about this?” problemsolving rather than going around in circles and rehashing your worries.

The upside of pessimism The narrative of the chronic worrier isn’t new to Norem. She coined a term I’ve come to cling to: defensive pessimism. Essentially, it’s worst-case-scenario thinking at its most strategic and least ruminative. Defensive pessimists anticipate every possible negative outcome, then break down the situation at hand in very small, manageable ways so as to prevent them from happening. Unfortunately, says Norem, defensive pessimists earn a bad social rap. They are the people who others might find unnecessarily upset or unhappy. “But people using this strategy don’t primarily think of themselves as unhappy or happy, that’s not how they’re viewing their life,” she says. They’re willing to tolerate the anxiety and unhappiness that comes with thinking the worst, says Norem. Kaye, a 33-year-old architect in Baltimore, identifies herself as a defensive pessimist. She routinely writes down “what if” lists that have helped her prepare for big decisions like buying a house and relocating for a job. She admits to getting a lot of flak from her friends and family for being too much of a glass-half-empty person. But, she says, “to me, expecting the worst and hoping for the best aren’t mutually exclusive.” 

Rebel against “happy-ology” Look, who wants to be unhappy? I don’t. Even as I confess my pursuitof- happiness fatigue, I recognize that if achieving happiness was really as simple as rearranging my furniture or getting married, then I’d recommit to having my apartment in disarray and I’d sign up on match.com. But I know that it’s not that easy. We’ve all heard the adage about happiness coming from inside. This is precisely the issue for me. I know this. And I’ve given up on doing things to make myself happy, which isn’t to say that I’ve given up on being happy. In fact, I am striving to embrace my unhappiness in a way that doesn’t feel like throw-my-hands-up resignation. Rather, I like to look at it like riding the ebbs and flows, which happiness experts say does actually make you happier. I’m not pumping myself up with happy-making expectations that might prove vulnerable to any sharp poke from one of life’s many thorny situations. When I’m engaging in my life simply for engagement’s sake, I feel more resilient, more level to the ground. Call it neutral. Call it equanimity. I just prefer not to call it happiness.