I spent years of my life existing in a near-perpetual state of cheerfulness.
It was easy. All I had to do was surrender completely to alcoholism.
When I drank, I was happy. I was excited, alert and enthusiastic. I was jovial, self-assured and attentive.
When I didn’t drink, I wasn’t. My natural state was serious and reserved. I tended more toward melancholy than joviality.
But alcohol made it so I didn’t have to. It was a magic elixir that transformed into the kind of person I wanted be, instead of the person I was. It served more as liquid personality than liquid courage.
Why was that so appealing to me? First and foremost, it felt good. I drank because I liked the feeling. I liked taking the weight of my heavy existence off my shoulders and feeling light.
But I also drank because I liked being the way our society told me women should be. I liked being bubbly and perky. I liked being fun and cheerful. And people liked me better. There’s no denying it.
Eventually, the consequences of drinking outweighed the benefits and I got sober.
But I still miss the feelings that accompanied my magic elixir. To this day, as I’m approaching seven years sober, I still feel shame on a near-daily basis for not being perky and cheerful like I “should” be.
It’s hard not to feel that way as a woman in modern America.
But today, while reading Martin Seligman’s Flourish, I got a more empowering perspective.
In the book, Dr. Seligman writes, “I detest the word happiness.”
Because “the modern ear immediately hears ‘happy’ to mean buoyant mood, merriment, good cheer, and smiling.” And that’s not what we should be aiming for.
Historically, he writes, happiness “is not closely tied to such hedonics—feeling cheerful or merry is a far cry from what Thomas Jefferson declared we have the right to pursue.” Being in a cheerful mood, he continues, “is the rock-bottom meaning of happiness.” Mood is “the form of happiness that the ancients snobbishly, but rightly, considered vulgar.”
After all, there are “effortless shortcuts” to it. My shortcut of choice was alcohol. He says you can also “masturbate, go shopping, take drugs or watch television” to get there.
But the real problem, as he sees it, is that this narrow-minded “mood view of happiness consigns 50 percent of the world’s population who are ‘low-positive affectives’ to the hell of unhappiness.”
Because in the modern world, that’s the viewpoint: if you’re not cheerful, obviously you’re unhappy.
But Seligman argues that, “even though they lack cheerfulness, this low-mood half may have more engagement and meaning in life than merry people.”
And that’s where my heart started racing.
Cheerfulness isn’t the be-all end-all. Just because I’m not cheerful all the time, just because my resting state isn’t pure joviality, doesn’t mean I’m broken. I’m not less-than, I’m not defective.
This obsession with bubbly, perky happiness is a societal construct. It’s en vogue right now. Maybe it’ll stay that way. Maybe it won’t. The ancients would have scoffed at it, after all.
If you’re like me, if you’re not excited and enthusiastic while you’re cooking dinner, not jovial and lively while you’re cleaning the house, you’re not broken either.
Maybe you lose yourself anytime you read a good book. Maybe you have an unwavering commitment to the causes you care about. Maybe you have more engagement and meaning in life than merry people.
Or maybe you don’t, but you will some day.
50% of us are low-positive affectives, according to Seligman. We don't tend toward cheerful joy. We might be more serious and reserved. We might have other things to contribute to the world besides constant smiling.
The main takeaway is simply that we’re not broken if we’re not cheerful. This is so important for people who have struggled with depression.
I’m committing to being empowered around this. It will take time: I’ll be working against a lifetime of conditioning.
But change begins with awareness. And now that I’m aware of this empowering perspective, I’m embracing it.
And who knows…maybe it’ll even end up making me more cheerful.