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  • Brendan Stec

I Always Want to Be Happier

"Had Prozac been available last century, Baudelaire’s “spleen,” Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many other poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced.…" – Nassim Taleb


The Darkness Inside of Us

Being unhappy isn't fun, but it can be powerful.

Do you think Martin Luther King was happy to merely follow his father's footsteps as a preacher? He wasn't. Before leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, when he was only a pastor at Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church, he couldn't help but feel he had to build and lead something bigger than himself. He just wasn't quite comfortable with remaining a quiet minister. And he certainly was unhappy with the status quo, the way black Americans were treated at that time.

The unhappiness was a signal something wasn't quite right and then crucially, it was a motivator, impelling him to break through the numerous barriers that were inevitably cast in his way as he fought for equal civil rights. (1)

When we're hit with anxiety, misery, or anger, it's natural to feel a tendency to bury the feelings. Let's pour a glass of wine, fire up the Netflix and hope the ensuing flood of dopamine will put off the emotions for another day.

But these aren't emotions that should be ignored or numbed. As an underrated source of power, motivation, or even creative inspiration, they should be embraced, or at the very least, understood.

Reflect on the momentous achievements of those we look up to. How often did they emerge from a kind of dissatisfaction, frustration or rejection?

Robert Greene's The 48 Laws of Power is so intoxicating and relatable because Greene himself wrote it while severely frustrated and disenchanted with his own career; he could not stand the back-stabbing, cutthroat environment of screenwriting and decided to write a book instead. And many of us are familiar with the fact that Michael Jordan didn't initially make his high school varsity basketball team. He initially locked himself in his room and cried, but the rejection spurred an unprecedented transformation in the young player, who returned the next year as the varsity team's star player.

By contrast, can you imagine if you had gotten everything you wanted in high school? If you always had the best-looking cheerleader or starting quarterback at your beck and call? If you only got by on your popularity or your parents' social stature? Where would that have gotten you? At best you would've gotten a Springsteen song written about your high school "glory days."

I Always Want to Be Happier

Sure, no one wants to be constantly unhappy, clinically depressed, or have some other pathological mental illness. I'm not arguing those unfortunate diseases shouldn't be addressed and managed effectively.

But at the same time, we'll never be able to eradicate every ounce of unhappiness from our brain. As much as some would believe, no amount of psilocybin, meditation, or essential oils can do so. Nor should we want them to. Pain, sometimes manifesting as anxiety, or frustration, or anger, is the signal that encourages us to consider paths that are healthier and more fulfilling.

Do we want to numb the unpleasant moods and emotions that make us uncomfortable, or do we want to leverage them to make us better at what we do?

We need to change to survive, and sometimes we need to be unhappy to change.

Or, as the poet Ovid wrote, "difficulty is what wakes up the genius."



(1) The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene (pp. 356–378)

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