What happens when someone’s unhappiness threatens another’s joy?

Although I will only talk about unhappiness and happiness, my intention is not to imbue you with my unhappy ideas!

Everybody assumes that happiness is one of the most desirable feelings. Happiness! Of course, we all want to be happy! In other words, everybody avoids the state of unhappiness. 

What if we discuss the status of its desirability? Some spaces and positions in our daily life are designed to normalize the desirability of happiness. To avoid unhappiness and to constantly desire happiness – is not ‘just’ an innocent thing. To clarify, I will tell you a story of mine that is not about the persuasion of happiness, but rather about how one’s unhappiness can threaten another person’s joy. In doing so, I dare to release the feelings that are suffocating me in everyday life.

Let me give you an example of unhappiness threatening someone’s joy. Let us imagine a white guy who has a ‘joyful’ life. He does sport twice a week. He either goes to work or to university to study every day. He earns enough money to afford his comfortable lifestyle and can spend his money as he wishes. One day he listens to the news, the other day he escapes the news and only focuses on his efficient way of living. Since none of the negative news affects him directly, he chooses not to look at the news and happenings all around the world. 

What if he starts seeing the injustice happening in Palestine? What if he looks at the history of the Netherlands, not from the perspective of his white gaze? Would this make him unhappy? For example, I have heard many people claiming that when they started looking at the current affairs in the Middle East, it made them upset. And thus, they rather choose not to look at the news and stay as happy as they can and avoid any feelings of discomfort. People who usually avoid unhappiness, also have a tendency to avoid discomfort. The question then, of course, is: is it not his privilege to be happy? Is it not his privilege to choose to ignore the events that happen far away? Once you start seeing the world not only from your own perspective or position – assuming your position is relatively privileged to Black people, people of color, Palestinian people, Afghan people – you find yourself in a world that constantly creates chronic unhappiness for some regions and people, and chronic happiness for others.

Now let me tell you about my experience. I have often found myself nervous and tearful in political, feminist conversations or small talks concerning these subjects. In these moments I feel stuck and consumed by my anger, I can’t help but blame myself for getting all worked up during such conversations. From time to time, I try to drop the subject. In many discussions, people commented that my gaze is not logical enough. I have heard that I am too emotional and too destructive. I encountered those silencing moments that made me feel like “Oh, I’ve said something wrong now”. As I kept ‘complaining’, I kept getting the same answers. I was labelled as the ‘negative, pessimistic person’ in groups. At some point, I even banned myself from complaining in the presence of ‘happy’ and privileged people, because I was afraid of triggering the ‘unhappiness’ for them. It pushed me to hang out with only those who would encounter similar situations and complain with me, those with whom I share a similar background, and those who are not bothered when somebody dares to speak out a truth that was different from theirs.

I want to break through the established bonds between this fragile nature of happiness and its associations.

For instance, I have been asked many times if I am “happy” in the Netherlands. As a student from a ‘third world country’, most people wonder if I appreciate living in a ‘safe’ country. The question ‘are you happy?’ is expected to have a positive answer. But whenever I say the things that I do not appreciate about living in the Netherlands – out of criticism of the institutions, structural racism that a foreign non-European person would encounter – people remain silent or express how sorry they are for my experiences. Even worse, I have been pushed to see the ‘positive realities of the country’ and heard some people telling me “it could have been worse”. Even though I am content with being who I am, people tend to be uncomfortable with someone who complains about the institutions and the country they are residing in. When my displeasures and grievances burst someone else’s bubble of peace and happiness, they react with either panic, ignorance, or aggression at the diminished promise of their happiness.

I must say that, yes, I come from a nation with a dysfunctional government, suffering from an economic inflation, and a totalitarian regime. Yes, I come from a place where you feel that you do not have a future. I come from a place where you face police brutality in every protest now. But why does it bother you if I don’t appreciate living in the Netherlands? Why do you need my happiness to remain happy? Why is my anger labeled ‘bad’, but your happiness is always valued positively? What happens if I start defending unhappiness because I find it more convincing than that which is supposed to bring ‘happiness’? What happens if I do not fit into the happy and optimistic depiction of the world that I am pushed into?

I must say the truth again: I am unhappy in the Netherlands because I come from the ‘not yet developed one’. I am a sorrowful, melancholic, angry person. I am a troublemaker and a stranger. But I won’t give up telling the truth; I won’t hide the truth from you. I will continue to share my unhappiness, but not to depress myself. Instead, I have a real intention: I want to engage with reality critically, by accepting and engaging with my unhappiness I want to show you that the happy world you live in is fictitious. 

I want to break through the established bonds between this fragile nature of happiness and its associations. I intend to kill the joy because I want to engage with reality in a critical way rather than in an appreciative one. Sara Ahmed says: “She kills joy because of what she claims exists. She has to keep making the same claim because she keeps countering the claim that what she says exists does not exist.”1

Even if you say that I only see the negative sides, I know that my experience and feelings are more than negative attitudes. They are real and valid experiences. 

If the world that surrounds you is endowed with the illusionary promises and objects of happiness, and if happiness is normative, then to deny happiness and joy is to deny the sanctions of the surrounding world. “Looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo.”2

How do you live without happiness and contest its promise?

Are you feeling a bit uncomfortable? Sorry, not sorry. Are you asking yourself why I only say negative things? Do you assume I cannot smile? Feelings such as unhappiness and dissatisfaction are considered corrupted by virtue of an over-valuation of (the promises of) happiness and satisfaction. And thus, it can make the people who keep showing discontent seem completely destructive.

However, optimism is not the only doctrine to live your life by. I am not left without an alternative. I do care for myself and others when I break (with) the promise of happiness. When you choose to see what is swept under the rug, when you want to see how the rug itself functions to sustain the promise of happiness, you are taking a position that defends caring for others. Importantly, my desire to do so is not grounded in my happiness. Instead, it is rooted in my anger. It is my anger that keeps me alive because if those feelings can be politically conceptualized instead of disavowed, they can form the center and desire of life.

  1. Ahmed, Sara, Living a Feminist Life (Durham and London: Duke University Press,2015), 252.
  2. Lorde, Audre, The Cancer Journals (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1997), 76.