The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.


The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

I’ve had a couple of busy weeks at work, both jobs, and I’ve enjoyed it mostly, even though some of it was stressful. But waking up this morning I felt the full weight of the default depression land on me like a big slobbery dog who’s pleased you’re back. All the petty concerns I’d put on hold while I was rushed off my feet came back and had a pity party in my head. My teaching job is currently in some jeopardy as they are moving premises and it’s going to be a lot harder to get to work; I’ve resolved that the first near miss as a car clips my bicycle signals me quitting. I love teaching, I really do; it’s one of my talents and in many ways, I am wasted where I work. If you’ve seen Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, it’ll give you a clue about my style of teaching; but it also means that even had I the correct bits of paper, I’d be sacked in a week in a state school. So I am on the sharp look out for a new job, one that is year round, and which doesn’t have the substantial drawbacks of my current one (of which I will not speak here)

But my return to sullen misery has woken me up to something that slumbers much of the time. That’s the realisation that even changing jobs, changing homes or whatever significant life change I might sometimes crave is only a distraction from my real work in this world. Six months into a new job, or a new location, and the same old issues come creeping back, like rats who realise the ship was not sinking after all.

That’s a bit of a scary realisation. It means that anything I pursue, success, fame, wealth, whatever holds no power to change anything internally. If I become a NYT’s bestseller, nothing changes. If I get the job that seems to fit every talent or skill, nothing changes. Oh for sure my mood might alter and improve, I might even be happy for a while. But nothing deeper changes.

You see, any real change has to come from within, not from anything external to me. I’ve never been someone who found retail therapy anything other than a disappointment, and while I have certainly chased success as willingly as any writer, I’ve started to grasp the fact that such success does not and cannot make me anything other than momentarily happy. I can see now that my lifelong pro-wrestling match with the Black Dog has saved me some expensive mistakes.

Chasing things because you believe that they may make you happy is a futile exercise, and one that frankly underpins the whole economy of the prosperous West. It is endless and caustic to the human soul, because it is tantalising and drives you on to seek more and more and more to less and less satisfaction, and eventual bitterness.

What then can bring peace to the troubled soul? What can tame the Black Dog and make it an ally and not an enemy?

Well, my current theory is that it is meaning that brings peace. It’s certainly how people survive the kind of catastrophic experiences that send many over the edge and down into insanity.

It’s only a theory but is one borne out by such luminaries as Viktor Frankl, and also by personal experience. I can accept and even value my own sufferings when I realise that they have shaped me to be the person I am now, and the riches of compassion and empathy that have been uncovered within me. They’ve made me a far less selfish person than I would otherwise have been.

Native Americans have a saying, something they speak as a prayer when they enter the sacred space of a sweat lodge. They say, “For all my relations,” as they enter, and by that they do not mean their mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and so on. They mean every one of us humans, and all the animals and trees and plants, right down to the Stone People, the rocks we kick aside and split asunder.

So my prayer today, in honour of all that I have endured as a human and all that I will endure, is that it is done in honour and support of all life, all creation, and that I will find meaning in all.

For all my relations.”


18 thoughts on “The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

  1. Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning” has helped me through being frequently surrounded by a thick fog or my wrestling match with the black dog as you put it. I do think, however, that a change of circumstance, be it a job or location or whatever, can help initiate the change needed from the inside.
    I can only speak for myself, but the change in work I have experienced over the past few weeks has had a tremendously positive effect on my life and this has helped me change to the point at which I can look myself in the mirror without and smile unlike before when all I saw was a failure..

    This is a strong and valuable post.

    Thank you


    • Nice to hear you here again J.
      I am glad that things have been better for you lately, you have never been a failure and I hope I have always made sure you knew that from me.
      Sometimes a change is a respite to get to grips with the deeper issues, and initiate a change inside, but we need to take that as a challenge for more work rather than assume that our troubles are over. I know you know this, but I need to say it for others.


  2. Hi,

    I also live with an underlying current of depression which manifests itself with a growing sense of restlessnes and unease with whatever job or situation I find myself in. Looking back over my life this restlessnes occurs every 4 or 5 years or so.

    From this experience, I agree with J that a change in job, or house or other circumstances can help. But V is also right. The change is only temporary, if pleasant. The underlying condition is masked but not changed.

    J, you may be different from me and different from V. Whether you are or not, enjoy your current hapiness. But, in case you are similar to us, it may also be a good idea to look inward at the issues that caused the underlying unhapiness, and look inward now while not weighed down by depression or unhappines.

    Thank you to both of you. Both posts have made me think.


  3. You are so right about this, and it mirrors my own experience exactly – my pursuit of happiness, excellence, wealth, status etc, led me to first physical, and then mental exhaustion, and the inevitable mental breakdown. This was about 20 years ago now, and I learned a lot about the person I was, and what drove me to behave that way. I went into therapy, cbt, art therapy, and so on, via the NHS, I spent 2 years visiting the specialists at the local hospital for the mentally sick, and managed to avoid getting made an inpatient a few times.

    The journey to healing can take a long time, I still suffer depression, and am classed as clinically depressed at the moment. But I don’t feel bad about this, as people frequently tell me that if they had just lived through ( and living is the important thing here) the last two years I had, they might just be a tad depressed too.

    Bi-Polar disorder runs in my family, I have siblings and aunts etc who have this diagnosed. I haven’t gone as far as to ask for a name for my sporadic plunges into immobilising unhappiness – but one lesson I have learned is to try to be kinder to myself, less judgemental, and just go with the flow a bit more. I am no longer the perfectionist I was, not could anyone call me a control freak, or ‘aggressive’, which I definitely was.

    Learning different ways to live with your Self, takes time, but it can be achieved.

    You have articulated this beautifully, and thanks for sharing it – it will make others think, or realise, they are not alone.



    • Hi Zoe,
      sorry for the delay in replying, I’ve been quite ill since I wrote the article.
      I have begun to suspect that I may have some measure of bipolar in my mental make up too. It’s not something I want to pursue because I don;t want meds.
      Life is sometimes just bloody difficult, whatever we try.
      but we are NOT alone.
      be well and thank you.


  4. This is exactly true. At some point my endeavor shifted from a pursuit of happiness to a pursuit of life purpose.

    Fulfilling my purpose in life and making the changes that align me more toward that purpose, have brought me an underlying happiness.

    Some of those changes were painful, and difficult, and definitely not joyous in the moment. But they were necessary if I meant to stay on the path I’d chosen to walk. And now I’m glad I stayed true to my heart’s calling.

    ‘All my relations’ is an excellent phrase/prayer I learned while doing sweats years ago. Another one I like is Namaste’, which acknowledges the God-force in you that is also the God-force in me.


    • Life purpose and meaning can bring happiness as a side order free on the house, but in the end we do what we must and find what we can.
      Namaste is a prayer/greeting I use too.


  5. Viv, what Zoe said at the end of her comment, “you have articulated this beautifully…it will make others think, or realise, they are no alone” sums up everything I was going to say.
    I’m in the midst of one of my own long walks with the ‘dog’, and your post could have been describing me. Thank you for sharing it. I felt very comforted reading it, learning that I’m not the only one who feels this way.
    I did turn my life upside down last year, and thought I’d changed it into exactly what I wanted. But guess what? Yes, that’s right, the old dissatisfaction, the old yearnings never went away. The things I thought would make me happy, haven’t. I know that happiness comes from within, but knowing the theory and being able to apply it are two different things.
    Thank you for this post, and to Zoe, Aardvark and J’s comments. You’ve helped me feel a whole lot better this afternoon. xx


    • Sam, you have my sympathy. Our lives were turned upside down and inside out four years ago and yes, same thing for us.
      I do hope your dog is not too savage with you this time; I am always here to listen.


  6. Lovely, lovely lovely and I really do agree with you that it doesn’t matter where we go or what we do in life we always take our ‘selves’ with us. I don’t like the phrase ‘finding myself’ much but I think it is as you say, a search for meaning. I would love to turn the Black Dog into an ally rather than have it constantly snapping at my ankles.


    • I’ll keep you posted about my attempts with the Black Dog, Suze. And yes, one of the reasons I’ve never run away for long is that as soon as I stop running, I find the one thing I wanted to escape from is still there!


  7. Thanks. I needed something to share with all those people who think I’m s’posed to be happy. I’m so sick of the striving. The Black Dog is curled up in my heart, slumbering. They act like they would prefere being bitten.


  8. “Like rats that realise the ship was not sinking after all” =me too

    I love the title and I so relate to the line above.
    Okay by now you know that when I am excited by your writing I must bore you with something it reminds me of, in this case 2 things
    (disclaimer :I am not a kid rock or Eddie Murphy fan)

    1) some kid rock song

    I take too many pills
    Trying to kill the pain
    I made a couple dollar bills
    But I still feel the same

    Then for some reason my mind hovers over Black Dog
    and feeling good that I really understand what you are talking about I remember this Eddie Murphy poem from way back

    Kill my landlord

    Kill my landlord
    Kill my landlord

    Two feet stalkin
    Dead of night
    Watch dog barkin
    Do he bite!

    Kill my landlord
    Kill my landlord
    C-I-L-L my landlord

    *From memory*

    Thank you so much for sharing.
    it is amazing how we understand the nature of the rats and the black dog and stood fall prey to them.


    • I think it’s the nature of people who are subject to the creative arts to be also subject to the black dog and all his entourage, Mark.


  9. That is really moving Viv,
    And so very true. I think that just being aware that you can’t chase and then catch happiness might be the most important step towards being happy!
    I’m planning to get my blog up and running again shortly and what I want to focus on is personal growth that includes caring for the entire world, not just ourselves.
    Meaning really is the key.


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