on #100happydays

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In case you haven’t heard about it, there’s a lovely project making waves around the internet lately.  It’s called #100HAPPYDAYS.  The premise is simple: every day, for 100 days, you take and post a picture of something that makes you happy.  It can be anything at all – a funny mispelled sign, a comforting bowl of soup, a stray balloon in the sky, a small flower poking its head up optimistically (perhaps too optimistically) through the snow… anything that makes you happy!  I have been participating since Feb. 1st., and I love that it’s such a lovely and relatively easy way to chronicle the small things that make for happy days.

however…

There is something significant that #100HAPPYDAYS misses, at least in my experience, and something at least as significant that it obscures and confuses.  Sure, I really was happy about the comforting and delicious meal I ate the other night, and the picture I snapped of Carlos, last week, as he put away his school books and binder really did mark the happiness I feel when we tackle his course work together, during our weekly tutoring sessions.  They’re all stand-ins, though, and the pictures I take often feel like staged momentos of the object of experience, and not as accurate expressions of what it meant to feel happy in that moment.  Those may be practical issues (perhaps I’m just a bad photographer, for example), but I have deeper concerns: first, I’m seriously starting to question the value of this project of daily chronicling; and second, I think that the underlying implication that we ought to be happy is at least potentially dangerous.

Let me explain.

Last year, around this time, I was still working on getting over a serious romantic breakup.  Losing that relationship (and all of the ones that went with it) had shaken me to my core, and left me scambling to find some sense of stability and personal peace.  For months I tried with all my might to feel happy again.  I willed myself to be happy.  I put on a smiling face and hoped that the matching feelings would follow.  Sometimes they did, but when they didn’t – when the sadness seeped through the cracks in the facade – the result was that I not only felt sad, but I also felt defeated because I hadn’t been strong or resolute enough to keep those feelings at bay.  Know what’s worse than feeling terrible?  Feeling like it’s your own fault, your own personal weakness, that is the cause of your continued sadness.  Taking yourself to be the root cause of your inability to be happy (“everyone else is happy – why can’t I be?”) is a surefire way to feel stuck and helpless, and it makes getting out of that sinkhole a heck of a lot more difficult.

In the most difficult part of my struggling, someone very wise asked me why I was in such a hurry to feel better.  The answer seemed obvious; who wants to feel sad?  It took me a while to fully understand her point, and even longer to appreciate its wisdom; often it’s important to allow ourselves to feel bad simply because that’s the way we feel.  Life sucks sometimes, and while I grant that there are people out there who can face the greatest struggles with patience and inner peace, the reality is that, at times, many of us will struggle, and cry, and hurt, and be truly deeply sad.  It’s important to acknowledge and legitimize those feelings when we have them, and to not simply brush them off.  This doesn’t mean that we always have to dwell on them, or even indulge them, but sometimes, when we feel unhappy, I think we should allow ourselves the time and space to be unhappy for a while until the feeling passes.  We shouldn’t feel a duty to be happy all of the time, as if it’s an obligation we have to those around us, and we should appreciate the cathartic, healing power of a good cry.

I worry that #100HAPPYDAYS may give people the impression that they ought (ethical imperative) to feel happy at least once a day.  I think that that’s a great idea, and I would love to think that we can each find at least one thing to be happy about every day.  But when the website asks, as if in dare, “Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?” I wonder if it isn’t prioritizing the wrong approach to happiness.  I think that the project is wonderful for its goal of reminding us to be mindful of the little things that happen every day that make us happy.  That having been said, I feel as though the project may be more personally fulfilling if the focus was on just being mindful, or appreciative.  I worry that some people may feel crestfallen or defeated if they have a particularly bad day, because the bad gets exacerbated by the frustration of feeling obligated to find a silver lining.  Even if there is a sliver of happiness on those days, archiving that picture as the picture of the day seems so insincere.  I think there’s something fundamentally different about focusing on feeling grateful or appreciative, though, since those are feelings that emphasize that the way we feel is intimately connected to our circumstances and our attitude, and not just the latter.  It’s possible to feel deeply unhappy about one’s current situation but still feel grateful for what one has, for example, and an approach that embraces that kind of reminder seems much more authentic and meaningful than one that makes anyone feel a need to be happy when they aren’t.  (And it seems that Martha Beck agrees!)

Furthermore, I take issue with the way that the project frames the whole undertaking in the cadre of a challenge – especially this sentence:  “71% of people tried to complete this challenge, but failed quoting lack of time as the main reason.  These people simpy did not have time to be happy.”  Seriously?  Could it not be, maybe, that they had time to feel happy but just not to grab a camera, snap a picture, and upload it to social media/email?  The other day, a girl walked into my workplace (a coffee shop) with a jacket that had heart-shaped elbow patches.  I smiled, and then I complimented her on them, because I thought that they were super cute.  They made me happy, but I didn’t take a picture of them because it was not practical or appropriate for me to do so.  I had time to feel happy about them, but that didn’t translate into a photo.  I had several similar encounters and experiences that day, including one that I actually did photograph for the project.  The irony, though, was that by taking out my camera to photograph (awkwardly) the amazing skype conversation that some friends and I were having (as though it were even possible to photograph that intangible experience) I completely detracted from the immersive joy of the conversation.  Suddenly it wasn’t just a great philosophical disucssion – it became a situation I had to interrupt and manipulate (by standing up, moving less-photogenic tabletop items, etc.) in order to take an attractive picture.  I ceased to be a participant engaged in the moment, and became a witness observing it from the outside.  As I write this, one of my kittens is walking back and forth across the keyboard of my computer, and demanding the attention of my hands and arms for petting-purposes (for the record, I am indulging him; these lines took ages to type…).  This moment makes me very happy.  Which is why I’m specifically not reaching for my camera.

I still think that there’s value in the undertaking, which is why I will continue to document my 100 days using the assigned hashtag.  I just think that it’s worth bearing in mind the reasons why such an initiative seems worthwhile, and worth letting them – rather than the challenge itself, or its inherent imperative – dictate our continued involvement.  If my goal in engaging in this project is to remind myself to take time, every day, to look for and to relish small bits of happiness, then my attitude towards the whole project will be importantly different than if my goal is simply to complete it according to the established rules.  The former allows the space for me to forget to post a picture, once in a while, without thereby implying that I’ve failed (since I could still have enjoyed happy moments that day, but just not bothered to document them).  If being happy is about being self-aware and attentive, as well as grateful for the blessings we notice, then I think this is a compromise worth embracing.

What do you think?

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