Passing under the Barnes & Noble sign I immediately hang right, walking by the coffeeshop with the infuriating lack of electrical outlets and awkwardly small tables nobody could have ever intended to bear books or support normal conversation. I glance at the atlases (Google Maps, anyone?) and photography books as I make my way by. Past the volumes on basket weaving and the smallish romance paperbacks with the mildly uncomfortable covers and steamy stories; I speed up here, not wanting to be perceived as regarding either. I pass the cookbooks and how-to’s, and pause in the next isle. In my aimlessness, my wandering feet led me right to my least favorite side of the bookstore-

the self-helps.

“Feeling sad? Well, stop! You can be happy just like everyone else if you read my book!”

“Want to be happy THIS year? Let me show you the 12 steps how!”

“With these 8 principles you can be on your way to a better you!!”

I won’t tell you self-helps can’t have good advice. A lot probably have great advice, actually. Positive thinking is a practice – a skill, even – and one you can always learn more about by reading. But I still shudder a little when I walk through this isle. Everything’s happy. A little too happy. It doesn’t feel real. Happiness oozes from this place the way a sickly-sweet sap oozes from plants in a rainforest. Glancing around leaves a taste in the mouth like water left in a bottle too long – you know it’s good and should be refreshing, but there’s a slight taint of plastic that makes you cringe.

The book covers convey their intended message loud and clear. See these perfect people, with their perfect hair, perfect clothes, and perfect smiles? They’re happy. You don’t look like this, so you’re not happy. You don’t feel like these pictures right now, so you’re not happy. But you could be if this book was on your shelf!

Ah, happiness. Something we all want, don’t think we have, and know everyone else does.

The pursuit of happiness has become synonymous with The American Dream. Everyone dreams of being happy, right? Age doesn’t even play a factor – young girls dream of happily-ever-after with their prince charming, young men dream of happily adventurous lives full of accomplishment and affirmation, and adults dream of happy lives away from work and the madness of the day-to-day.

I guess somewhere along the line we decided the less sunny sides of human emotion suited us better swept under a rug rather than occupying their deserved spaces in our hearts, minds, relationships, and conversations. Our instinct tells us we need to feel great, while feeling less is indicative of being less.

Need examples? Depression is a disease treatable by medicine; and while psychological medication is wonderful science and incredibly necessary, one would be ignorant to detach that awareness from the reality of the over-prescribed and over-medicated (“Kevin” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis begs mention here) society we live in. If someone is sad, instinct tells you to make them better because sadness (a dull and generic word we attribute to any unhappy-ish feeling) means they’re broken and need fixing. The powerful grieving of one is met with compassion and humanity from another for a time, but if the grieving takes longer than the other deems necessary or convenient the sympathy turns to frustration and eventual distancing.

I mean, so what? Why is any of this a problem? Nobody wants to feel sad, so we try not to.

As Hannah Jacobs said in the wonderfully appropriate and desperately needed video above, “the world is full of folly and greed, it is rare to find inner peace, it is hard to live comfortably with those we love, it is very unusual to have a career that’s both financially rewarding and morally uplifting, and many decent people have a very hard time… often sadness just makes a lot of sense.”

Paraphrased: “If we’re honest, life is really, really hard most of the time.”

So why is avoiding sadness a problem, you ask? The moment we disallow ourselves the experience of exploring the deep and rich world of “unhappy” emotions we rob ourselves of the ability to truly relate to and come alongside someone else exploring that world alone. And whether we like it or not, we’ve all been that explorer at one point or another. We all slosh through the muddy mires of sadness and despair, even if only on the subconscious level while we medicate with drugs, sex, materials, etc. We all need to struggle, and we all do.

If we’re honest, life is really, really hard most of the time.

If you can’t accept unhappiness as a truly legitimate and constructive state of mind for yourself then you’ve inherently (if unconsciously) made that same decision for everyone around you. All of a sudden their sadness becomes inappropriate – a hurdle to be leaped, limped, or drug over as quickly as possible. Since you can’t understand what they’re feeling, you think it’s weird or needs to change. While you think you’re helping by keeping yourself and those around you from being hurt, you’re actually being deeply wounding.

By engaging in this “negativity avoidance” we lose the ability to heal from our struggles, as we’re now just getting past them. We’ve also completely lost awareness of the beauty of words. The word “sadness” is like this limp, bland mush we eat whose consistency and lack of commitment to any kind of taste we can’t stand but still choose to ingest because we’re lazy. We’ve become lazy with our words. If you’re not a writer or speaker this may not sound like a big deal, but we all use words to express ourselves – in our relationships, jobs, and passing moments of contact with strangers. In all of these arenas we’ve lost the chance to communicate how we’re truly feeling, and we’ve only ourselves to blame for not feeling understood.

"My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways — and that’s okay, and we just need to go easy with one another, knowing that we’re all these incredibly fragile beings." - Alain de Botton

We’ve made connecting over pain and suffering much more difficult than it already is (and it’s already pretty freaking tough). We can’t understand the depth of what we’re feeling, and we can’t let anyone else in.

So. Let’s fix this. I’ll agree to be more honest with myself about how I feel if you will too, and if we can share in those feelings together. Like the video pointed out, life sucks sometimes. There’s no point in everyone struggling through it alone when we can share burdens, when we can experience the joy of connection on a level you never thought possible, When you can feel total acceptance – total because you’ve been taken in and loved despite your sometimes-sticky feelings.

“I feel ______”

melancholy – a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause

forlorn  – pitifully sad and abandoned or lonely

despondent  – in low spirits from loss of hope or courage

sullen  – bad-tempered and sulky; gloomy

somber  – extremely serious; grave

bleak  – cold and forbidding

diminished  – made to seem less impressive or valuable

repugnant – extremely distasteful; unacceptable

anguish – severe emotional pain or distress

mono no aware (Japanese) – sadness or sensitivity regarding the passage of time and the transience of life; becoming aware that everything must end

dépit (French) – itching irritation or fury (on a small scale) occurring due to disappointment (not winning a prize, getting rejected in love)

koev halev (Hebrew) – empathy at another’s pain to the point of causing yourself physical pain

hi fun kou gai (Japanese) – righteous, miserable anger at a terrible situation that cannot be changed

lebensmüde (German) – “life-tired”; engaging in risky activities with a flippant attitude toward one’s own safety – a deep, physical state of uncaring

mutterseelinallein (German) – feeling utter and total abandonment from loved ones, literally translated your mother’s soul has left you

natsukashii (Japanese) – evocative longing for something past; remembering something that will never come again

tante (Chinese) – heightened nervousness or perpetual anxiety; state of worry so intense you can feel your own heartbeat

weltschmerz (German) – depression rooted in believing your problems are caused by the world in its unfairness and cruelty

Here’s a list of feeling words, lots of counselors use this or one like it.


Joe Miller is an auditor for a large company, club ultimate frisbee player, and writer for his blog. But in the night his true identity emerges as he reveals himself to be a chronic sleeper.

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