Late one evening, I found myself reading the blogs before shutting down for the night. I came across a post called Is It Easier To Deal With Divorce When You Made The Choice To Leave?. It caught my attention because the opening line contains a huge factual error (see footnote). That aside, in the article, the author explains her situation by saying:
Unlike many divorcing couples, I had the perfect life and the perfect relationship. I lived in a condo on the beach, had a great career and a kind and patient husband. I had friends, money to spend and security. The only thing that I didn’t have was happiness. I didn’t feel fulfilled by my life, not because my relationship was lacking, but because I didn’t know myself. I didn’t feel that I had been an active participant in creating my life, so I wasn’t able to feel satisfaction in what I had achieved.
During the nine years we were together, I tried everything to remedy my happiness “issue.” Although some changes would bring temporary happiness, it would eventually slip away and I would once again feel empty and sad. Finally, I made the difficult decision to return to my hometown alone and start my life over.
When I talk about focusing on your own happiness, even if that may make you seem selfish, this is not what I mean. Not only did she take a vow for life, presumably before God, that she disregarded for fleeting emotions due to her own personal shortcomings (which is contemptible behavior), the entire thing is an epic fail one simple reason: I firmly believe that she can never be happy on a long-term basis. I also believe it isn’t her fault and, without realizing it, she is acting rationally in her the framework of her irrationality.
Some people, a very small percentage of humanity, will never be happy, regardless of the decisions they make or the achievements they attain. A significant component of how you feel, and thus your personal happiness, is determined by brain chemistry. Each of has a natural balance to which we return; a mean to which we revert. Some folks drew the short stick in life and are cursed with a baseline that makes fulfillment an elusive impossibility; at least on a long-term basis.
If You Are Unhappy Everywhere You Go, The Problem Might Be Staring at You in the Mirror
To read her account of her divorce, this woman’s life was great. Her husband was loving and supportive. Yet, she left him. She got a divorce and moved away from the life she had built with him. The irony? She is the problem and wherever she goes, she is still going to be there. It cannot be solved. I would argue that, were she capable of finding lasting happiness, she had a vastly higher probability of attaining that when surrounded with loving, supportive people.
People like this will always be dissatisfied or discontent on a long-term basis. They will be able to mask it for awhile, ignore for a time, and push it aside for a season. In the end, their malcontentedness will always rear its head as their body returns to its natural stasis. They cut off everyone they know, run after some new career, throw themselves into yet another love affair, stir up another controversy, and desperately hope that they finally wake up fulfilled. They crave the thing William Parrish wished for his birthday guests. They see that other people have it, so they know it is possible. Yet, for them, it is always a fleeting, ephemeral dream that never sticks around long enough to be a permanent fixture.
It is easy to call a person like this selfish. Personally, I think the author was incredibly selfish, ultimately acting against her own long-term rational best interest. (It sounds like her husband may have dodged a proverbial bullet, though. Who wants to be married to someone so fickle?). It’s also a bit unfair because these types of people are desperately trying to reach what the rest of us were blessed with naturally, through no virtue of our own: The ability to be content and fulfilled doing what we love surrounded by people whom we love. If you still ascribe to The Blank Slate theory, you will find that assertion distasteful. Like it or not, sometimes you inherit bad things from your genetics. Naturally restless emotional states are real heritable “facts” just as much as cancer risk profiles, height, or eye color; each of us falls along a continuum or spectrum of probabilistic outcomes that make up the range we call humanity.
What Is the Most Rational Way To Behave If You Are Incapable of Happiness
If you find yourself in the unfortunate and unlucky situation of being one of those people who can never be happy, the best course of action is to do good. You may not be able to enjoy it for yourself, but a sense of duty to the greater civilization means you should go through life creating situations, institutions, and a legacy of bringing other people happiness. Start an after-school reading program for at-risk youth in neighborhoods that struggle with literacy levels; build houses for victims of natural disasters. Do something so your life isn’t a waste.
The other option is to consider the possibility you may suffer from clinical depression and need to see a doctor. I’m not big on pharmaceuticals (though I do love the economics of their business models), but sometimes, for a minority of people, life really is better on Prozac.
A great example is J.K. Rowling. She has made life incalculably more enjoyable for millions upon millions of children and adults through books, movies, and merchandise. Her Harry Potter books are as classic as anything Walt Disney ever produced and will go down in history as one of the best fables ever told. Yet, she sometimes suffers from debilitating depression. That is why she created “The Dementor” characters in the Harry Potter series, which are a metaphor for the sadness and unhappiness that sometimes weighs on her despite all of the great things in her life. Like depression, dementors “feed on the positive emotions, happiness and good memories of human beings, forcing them to relive their worst memories.”
Therein lies the paradox: What might be bad for the individual incapable of lasting happiness, could be good for society as a whole. Unhappy people can become restless.
How many lands were settled, and how many areas discovered, because of folks who felt like they had nothing to lose; who were bored with their lives and wanted to try and find fulfillment? I’m somewhat convinced that it is a macro-level evolutionary advantage that, unfortunately, isn’t particularly great for the individual.
What about the people married to those with a naturally low level of happiness? We’re talking about a small percentage of the population, so the odds aren’t great you will end up in this position (thank goodness) but if you do, and you don’t find out about it until after you’re already married, I’m not sure there is a lot you can do. Just love them, support them, and know that your journey is going to include a lot more dark skies than you had anticipated. If you’re really in love, that is a small price to pay.
The fact we don’t discuss this reality – that people have different brain chemistry and therefore need to adapt different techniques for living if they fall on an extreme end of a spectrum – is a perpetuation of The Blank Slate theory. Not everyone is the same.
Footnote: The author opens her post by saying, “I am divorced as is 50 percent of the population.” The errors are manifold. First, it is not true that 50% of the population, or 1 out of 2 people, have been divorced. The term “population” refers to everyone, including pre-school aged children. If, instead, she had meant to say, “like 50 percent of people who have been married“, that also would have been false. The oft-misquoted half-of-marriages-end-in-divorce statistic is not reality. The figure comes from possible future events projected by sociologists based on a number of socio-economic and family statistics that are expected to eventually manifest if the variables do not change. It has been around for at least a couple of decades and those who don’t bother to read the research now treat it as if it were a fact. In actuality, though the forces underlying the projection remain intact and still point to family issues that need to be addressed with social policy (as evidenced by the rise in unwed mothers, which are a leading indicator of poverty rates and sub-optimal educational attainment), the rate of divorces per 1,000 people in the United States has been on a steady decline since 1981, which is longer than I have been alive. Put more bluntly, every year I’ve been on this planet, the divorce rate per capita has dropped. Much of this has to do with the declining rate of marriage, which needs to be accounted for in the analysis, but we are then going beyond the reason, and scope, of this post. The short version: The 1 out of 2 people being divorced at present is a lie. That is a projection that has not yet borne fruit. It is dangerous to rely on “average” anything because there is no such person when talking about socioeconomics. Specific subgroups, such as those with a college degree, experience far lower rates of divorce than society as a whole. By framing her argument this way, I think the author is attempting to engage in a form of self-justification buffered by the illusion of social proof.