when happiness is work

One of the odd roles I’ve taken on in a lot of my friendships and other relationships has been “the happy one.”

The first time someone told me that I was the “happy one” in our particular group of friends, I was…well, let’s say “confused,” rather than “offended,” because it sounds nicer. It wasn’t that being happy is a bad thing–it’s obviously not, and the work I’ve been doing on my happiness project is part of my effort to move toward the whole happiness thing–but that I’ve just never thought of myself as an especially happy person. I didn’t (and often still don’t) think of myself as unhappy, either, just not super happy.

At the time, I asked my friend what she meant by that, and she shrugged. “You look on the bright side of things,” she said. “You find good things in people. You smile a lot. You just come off as a happy person.”

Okay. All fairly true things–I will totally admit to being the sort of warm and fuzzy person who hopes that the person tailgating me on the highway is speeding to deliver a baby and not just being a dick, I have one of those weird smiles that seems to prompt people to talk to me and tell me about their feelings (basically the opposite of resting bitch face. Resting therapist face?), I don’t like cutting people off when what they’re saying seems important. But does that really make me seem like a happy person?

Apparently yes, because over the course of the next several years, more people in various walks of life–coworkers, friends, clients, relatives–commented on my positivity, my bright mood, my smile, my idealism, all that jazz. Meanwhile, there I am, looking around in confusion, because my head feels like a jumble of depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and brain fog, and all the happiness that everyone else seems to see coming off me just doesn’t feel visible to me. In fact, I usually feel like I have to force it to show up.

Spending most of my working years in various “helping” fields, from childcare to higher education to mental health, means that I’ve rather inadvertently put myself in professions that require me to be more emotionally “on” than, say…I don’t know, working in accounting or something (sorry, accountants. I just assume that spreadsheets don’t bring that many feelings to the game). For most of my day, whatever my actual mood might be, I needed to be plugged in to the feelings of the people around me to offer support, advice, problem-solving, insight, etc. I’ve been lucky to work at places where I can be a little more “off” when not interacting with whoever the client base happened to be (students, campers, mental health clients, etc), but it still involves a significant amount of emotional labor on a day to day level that can get incredibly draining, especially when the positive emotions you’re expected to display might not be entirely reflective of your genuine feelings. But when people start taking your manufactured happiness as real, they start to expect it, and then you start to assume that you have to project that happiness at all times.

Being and looking happy, then, turns into a job. This is a problem that other women have talked about all over the internet and I won’t repeat their very good points, mostly because this is more about my personal experience than about my feminism, but then, it can be hard to separate the two. Would I be feeling so nervous about not feeling the happiness I project if gender norms didn’t expect me to be smiling and cheerful to every person I meet? I don’t know.

The big question I’ve always had for myself, though, is whether there’s a difference in my mood when I’m not making the effort to act positive compared to when I am. There is something to be said for the “fake it till you make it” effect, and I found that out the hard way over the past few weeks.

I haven’t been shy on this blog about my struggles with chronic pain and depression. Living with chronic physical and mental health issues isn’t a walk in the park, but they’re my everyday existence, and I find myself generally able, for the most part, take a bunch of meds, put some product in my hair, smack a smile onto my face (HELLO HAPPINESS IT’S SHELLY HOW ARE YOU TODAY) and get out the door. But that’s the thing about chronic issues–they’re chronic. You get used to them. You know what to expect, you know what they feel like, you get a feel for your bodies aches and pains and occasional-oh-hey-it-feels-like-there’s-acid-on-my-skin moments. But when you get something else on top of your usual chronic illness (for example, the ass-kicker of a flu I came down with two and a half weeks ago and am still getting over), all bets are off. The things that usually work stop working. All the energy you’ve saved up to get you over the hump of compensating for crummy joints or nerves or serotonin receptors is suddenly gone, and the spoons you’re used to having to get through your day promptly disappear.

Over the last two weeks, all of the positive energy I usually try to summon up to project my happy attitude–to be “the happy one”–went out the window. No more Shelly happy face. I was stuffy and cranky and sleepless and exhausted; I was coughing constantly and couldn’t breathe through my nose (my nose! the only part of my body that I can usually rely on to work! wtf??), I was, in conclusion, a mess. I meandered from my bed to my couch to my bathtub, I slept constantly, I mustered a few smiles for my nephews and family but overall didn’t really even try to be sociable during our Passover seders with my in-laws. I was cranky toward my husband and often asked to just be left alone, and didn’t take much of time to ask how he was doing (except for the occasional thank-you for the many, many sweet things that he did for me while I was being a brat toward him).

It sucked.

But now that I’m finally on the mend and had a bit of my spark back yesterday and today, I’ve started to realize that what sucked about it wasn’t that I felt like crap, but that I was wallowing in feeling like crap. Don’t get me wrong, the flu is miserable, and I think everyone’s entitled to a few “woe is me” days through the worst of it. And in all honesty, throwing a crappy flu on top of an already messed-up body should probably earn me a few extra days. I didn’t bother with any of the usual self-care I took on even on my worst fibro flare days, and losing that probably made things worse. I took baths, but spent them just staring at the wall instead of lighting something that smelled nice and putting on an audiobook or some music. I put the same pajamas on again and again. I didn’t brush my teeth. I didn’t eat and barely drank any water. It felt a lot more like a bad depressive episode than a physical illness, and I think that my total lack of attempt to do anything to take care of myself because I was just in such a bad mood could have very nearly turned it into one.

It’s still strange to think of myself as the “happy one,” as I continue to struggle with the same health issues (both physical and mental), but the past few weeks gave me some insight into just how much I miss that positivity, mostly manufactured or not, when it’s not there. I don’t know if the positive attitude and forward-focused mindset I project are becoming parts of my personality that I like more than I resent, but my time spent feeling miserable and sorry for myself certainly didn’t help me with my healing process.

When we’re kids, no one really tells us that happiness can feel like work, and that sometimes you have to make your own, and that sometimes it sort of feels forced. But I think that I’ll take a little bit of manufactured happiness over my self-sustained misery bubble any day.

It might be faking it until I make it, but I think the faking it helps.

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One thought on “when happiness is work

  1. Yeah, I have a resting therapist face too. Probably doesn’t help that I am one. 😛 It can definitely be exhausting when it somehow becomes the way people identify you. But hey, if it really is part of your personality, then more power to you! And since our brains read the language of our behaviour more than our words, then maybe there is something to the whole ‘fake it til you make it’ thing after all.

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