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Valuing Unhappiness

[ Jan 6, 2014 ] [ by Wendy Dolber ]

Do you value unhappiness?  This can be a challenging question to be sure, but one that can open a pathway to new ways of seeing yourself and others.

This question goes right to heart of why people are unhappy.  No matter what the circumstance - losing a job or a lover or a set of keys.  No matter what the emotion - anger, hatred, frustration, sadness.  No matter what the duration - two minutes, an hour, a day, years, a lifetime.  No one gets unhappy if they don't value it in some way.

The experiment-to-experience transition

In thinking about valuing unhappiness, it's helpful to make a distinction between experimenting with unhappy behavior and experiencing unhappiness. There is a big difference.

I've often thought that tantrums are a great example of how children experiment with unhappy behavior, typically to get what they want.   I want something.  You're not giving it to me.  I am going to show you how unhappy you are making me until you relent.  What value does unhappiness have in this scenario?  It's a modus operandi for getting what the child wants.  If they learn that unhappy behavior works, it accrues value.  Have you ever noticed that when parents don't give in to tantrums and offer the child an alternative, such as asking for what they want - the tantrums often stop?  The behavior became devalued because there was no willing buyer.

In a sense, even as adults, when we get unhappy about not getting what we want, or getting what we don't want, we are engaging in a tantrum.  We may not be saying, I'm going to hold my breath until I get what I want - as adults, we are more sophisticated than that.  Our unhappiness is wrapped in judgment and sold as the status quo.   You shouldn't be that way.  Anyone would agree with me.  There must be something wrong with you.  I'm sure everyone thinks so.  I can't understand that despicable behavior.  Can you?

 What is more, we've moved from the experiment of unhappiness as a modus operandi to the experience of unhappiness as a given.  In both situations, we are valuing unhappiness, but chances are, in the latter case, we've lost sight of the modus operandi - we are simply reacting according to our beliefs and judgments. 

There is nothing wrong with experimentation surely.  It is the way we learn.  But is it worth feeling bad to learn over and over again that unhappiness seems to get others’ attention?  Perhaps we can try another experiment – letting our happiness be our modus operandi. 

What does valuing unhappiness look like?

You can always know whether you are valuing unhappiness in the moment by asking yourself: What would I be afraid would happen if I wasn’t unhappy about x,y or z?  The answer to that question will be a clue to how unhappiness serves as a modus operandi for you.

I very rarely every hear people talk about unhappiness as a modus operandi unless they are observing unhappiness over time.   Often the observation is in the form of a judgment.  For example, “you think she would have gotten over it by now – it happened years ago!”  Have you ever seen others hanging on to unhappiness long after the episode they believe caused their unhappiness is over?  Have you noticed yourself clinging to feeling bad?  Not wanting to give it up?  Are there things that you have been unhappy about for years and years?  

We think of these things as grudges, but the dynamics are true of any unhappiness, whether it exists for a moment or a decade. Think about one thing right now that you have been vexed about, angry about, sad about, annoyed about for years.  Let's try a little experiment.

First.   If I ask you to sell me your unhappiness, what comes up for you?  Is there something you think you would be giving up?

Second.  Take that answer from above and insert it in this question:

Since I’d like to feel better and not be unhappy right now, and since I don’t want to give up [insert from above], what would I love to do?

Option Method dialogues help uncover the modus operandi behind unhappiness in a very efficient way.  Here’s a dramatization of how a dialogue could be used to help Jane (a fictional person) see how she is valuing anger in a relationship: 

We’ve already established with several questions that Jane is angry because she didn't get invited to her sister's holiday party.  She has expressed that she knows she is holding on to her anger, but doesn’t know how to stop. 

Wendy:  Jane, how about selling me your anger?  Would you be willing to give it up?

Jane:  What do you mean give it up?  Talk to my sister about that.  She's the one who is making me angry!

Wendy:  Assuming you would like to feel better, what would you be afraid you’d be missing if you did give it up?

Jane:  Pauses.  I guess just that I’d have to give up the idea that my sister is an inconsiderate person.

Wendy:  What would you be afraid would happen if you gave up that idea?

Jane: Well, I don’t think it’s that simple, but I guess I’d have to say, She’d keep on doing what’s she doing.

Wendy:  So are you saying that your unhappiness prevents her from being inconsiderate?

Jane:  Well, that sounds funny.  I guess I’d have to say it shows her the impact of her behavior.

Wendy:  What do you mean by the impact of her behavior?

Jane:  It makes me feel bad. 

Wendy:  So by feeling bad you are showing her that she makes you feel bad?

Jane:  Of course not.  Well, I mean . . ..  Oh, what do I mean?  I guess I said that.  Jeez, am I just blaming her?

Wendy:  Are you?

Jane:  I guess I am.  I don’t want to be that way.

Wendy:  So getting back to my original question, if you sold me your unhappiness, what would you want for it?

Jane:  Well, I guess I’d want my sister to be the way I’d like her to be, but now I’m thinking there’s no guarantee that she will be.

Wendy:  So then what is your unhappiness worth to you?  What price makes sense?

Jane:  If there really were such a thing as selling my unhappiness, I’d have to say I couldn’t see myself doing it.  The value that I thought it had really makes no sense to me now.  I’d be selling something that is really worthless. 

Wendy.   Okay, so now that you see that unhappiness is worthless to you in this context, what is of value? 

Jane.  Actually, my sister’s love is what I value.  And my love for her.  That’s what I’d like to focus on.

Wendy:  How will you do that?

Jane:  Well, I think it’s time we had a good talk.  I was so upset with her that I never even asked her why she didn’t invite me.  I never even told her I’d like to come. 

Wendy:  How do you feel now?

Jane:  Excited.  I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Happiness: the ultimate modus operandi

As you can see, valuing unhappiness isn’t something we wear on our sleeves.  We don’t go around with a sign proclaiming: I’m unhappy and I’m proud of it!  There’s no song entitled, “If you’re unhappy and you know it, clap your hands.” No.  In fact, most people would say that they don’t want to be unhappy.  They don’t value it.  It doesn’t get them anywhere.  But underneath the surface of any unhappiness is a belief in its necessity – its inevitability – and yes, its value and usefulness. 

We don’t have to believe in the value of unhappiness for ourselves and anyone else.  We don’t have to see it as our modus operandi.  Unhappiness doesn’t make us understanding, compassionate or loving.  It doesn’t make us help others.  It doesn’t fuel our desires.  It doesn’t achieve our dreams.  In fact, unhappiness stands in the way of everything we hold dear.

Consider this:  Unhappiness is a belief in its own existence and the expression and experience of that belief.  It is often a shared belief handed down generation to generation, in personal and professional relationships, in societal mores and values, touching every aspect of our lives.  When we value our own unhappiness, we are also valuing the unhappiness of others.  Every time someone buys our unhappiness, both sides of the transaction have been shortchanged.   No one is really getting what they want – what is really the modus operandi behind everything we do and everything we want – our happiness.  

Wendy Dolber


True Happiness is not the happiness that is sought but the Happiness that already exists.

[ Bruce Di Marsico ]