Given how much we all long to be happy, we
might presume that accepting the possibility of happiness in our lives would be an uncomplicated,
serene and automatic process. But for many of us, however theoretically attached we might
be to the notion of being happy, the possibility of actually being so is liable to trigger
deep ambivalence and fear. We would – it appears – often prefer to be worried and
sad rather than attempt take on the risks surreptitiously connected in our minds with
positive moods. We may – however paradoxical it sounds – be nothing less than afraid
to be happy. As ever, our fear has a history that begins in childhood, where one of the
following is likely to have occurred. Someone we deeply loved, and perhaps admired too,
was unhappy. Their sorrow moved us profoundly and led us to identify with them so that our
caution around contentment continues to function as a secret tribute to them. To be happy would,
in a way that would pain us profoundly, mean being disloyal. However much they might on
the surface have encouraged us to venture out and seize opportunities for joy, an important
part of us wishes to stay with them under the canopy of grief. So without knowing we’re
doing this, we ensure that we will always have a modest career because they never had
educational possibilities or we turn down sexual opportunities because they were sexually
neglected. Alternatively, someone we were close to might have been jealous of us and
led us to want to downplay our achievements and hide our contentment – in order to feel
safe from their envy and rage. We learnt to associate gloom with safety and joy with risk.
More generally, we may have lacked any plausible role models for happiness. We may have grown
up in an environment where being anxious and panicky was the default state, where it seemed
natural to picture the plane crashing, the police showing up, the business collapsing
and the mole morphing into cancer. We may be intellectually aware that there could be
other ways to interpret the future, but equanimity doesn’t feel like what our tribe does. To
this resistance, we might have added a layer of intellectual superiority: happiness seems
for the little people, the leading symptom of understanding the world intelligently must
be sadness. All such positions contribute to a psyche where the onset of happiness is
a cause for grave and glaring alarm. When we are finally on holiday, or in love or surrounded
by friends or free of financial pressure, we panic. Our senses have been jammed for
so long in fear mode, they are filled with dread when the alarm stops wailing. To return
to a more balanced state, we’re liable systematically to sabotage the conditions of contentment.
We start working on holiday and soon uncover a cause for concern at the office; within
hours, we may be protesting that we need to return home. Or else we do our utmost to convince
a new lover that we’re not worth it, by seldom calling them or (if they really don’t
get the message) having an affair. It feels so much more normal to be abandoned. In order
to acclimatise ourselves to joy, we need to return to the past and unpick how we learnt
to use anxiety as a defensive strategy to protect us against other threats we were too
young and too easily overwhelmed to answer. The manic worrier worries, as it were, about
‘everything’ because they are unable to be appropriately concerned with, and in mourning
for, one or two big things from long ago. The anxiety that belonged to one particular
distant time and place has been redistributed and subdivided across hundreds of ever shifting
topics in the present (from workplace to reputation, money to household tasks), because its true
source and origins remain unknown to the sufferer. We are using the flotsam and jetsam of everyday
worries as a proxy for an unmasterable trauma: shame; humiliation; a sense we don’t matter
to our caregivers; neglect or abuse. We should not sarcastically point out to worriers that
they need ‘something else to worry about’, we should realise that something terrifying
that they have buried deep in their unconscious is lending a continuous sense of dread to
their fragile present. We manic worriers need not sarcasm but supportive and intelligent
company to give us the love we need to dare to look back at the past – and the insight
with which to try to do so. Our dread is a symptom of an ancient sorrow, a sign that
we keep not finding anything in the outer world that answers to the horror of the inner
one. Needless to say, it isn’t the case that there is never anything to worry about
in the present, just that there is a lot less than the manic worrier tends to believe. Furthermore,
what there is to worry about can be coped with with far more resilience than the manic
worrier can imagine, for they are operating with what is essentially a child’s sense
of their own powers and capacity for survival. Manic worriers should gradually come to exchange
their feelings of dread for the future for a patient understanding and mourning for an
unfairly traumatic and as yet insufficiently explored past. There is nothing greedy or
stupid about happiness. The ability to take appropriate satisfaction from the good times
is a profound psychological achievement: it is a mark of deep seriousness to be able to
giggle, have a pillow fight with a child, delight in a fig, sunbathe, sometimes knock
off work early to have an ice cream and appreciate a daffodil. Sorrow is obvious; there is always
a richness of reasons to despair. Fear is safe as well; if we are waiting for the enemy
with sword in hand, we may gain a vital few seconds were the blow to come. But the trulycourageous and heroically defiant move would be to dare to put down
our weapon, lessen our preparations for catastrophe, resist the terrors ingrained in us over decades
and once in a while believe that, astonishingly, for a time, there might truly be nothing to
worry about. Our Emotional Barometer is a tool that can help us to more clearly explain our moods. Click the link on screen now to find out more.