The tyranny of trying to be happy is what’s making us so miserable

Should there be a place for sadness, anger and feelings of failure?
  • @arifa_akbar

I have experienced “the first day of the rest of my life”.

It happened at a Sunday afternoon lecture called “How to make your new year’s resolutions stick”. I hadn’t got round to making any, but I went along anyway and was welcomed into a small, packed hall, and seated next to a sombre man reading a book called What’s Your Purpose? There were pan-piped ballads, then a woman floated on stage and began to talk about self-reflection, and the inner journey towards a more realised self that could say no to chocolate cake from the very core of the soul.

I walked out an hour-and-a-half later with a cracking headache. It wasn’t this particular talk – run by a non-profit organisation called Inner Space – the speaker or even the pan pipes that offended me. I’m all for living the examined life. That’s why I was there when I could have been watching Borgen on catch-up TV. But there is such a thing as the over-examined life.

I wonder if, far from improving us, the positive-thinking industry in general, and the annual charade of resolutions in particular, may be breeding a kind of self-transformation anxiety. On top of the rigours of everyday life, we must rise Phoenix-like from the baggy old husk of our 2012 selves in a never-ending quest to change.

Happiness, our speaker said, was a choice. But the flip-side must be that those of us who are miserable have chosen to be so. Self-transformation suggests that we can leave the nasty old versions of ourselves behind in a Stepford-style inner makeover. But where is the place for sadness and anger and feelings of failure in this? These emotions are real and have rights, too, and to deny them makes us less human.

Our speaker stressed the importance of “living in the moment”. This is when the headache set in. It is a meaningless homily. What makes life so gloriously complex is that any present moment encompasses dimensions of our past, our future and our fantasies that ultimately enrich it.

There was no sinister talk of thetans and I wasn’t urged to donate my savings to the cause. But my problem with the self-improvement book, lecture and weekend workshop is its packaging of “insight” and “self-reflection” into a kind of 12-step programme. These are actually life lessons, organically learned; it’s not like signing up to WeightWatchers.

What I decided on that first day of the rest of my life is that I would defy the tyranny of self-transformation in 2013. I wouldn’t change a thing about myself, and if I really had to live in the moment, I’d do so in a splayed position on the sofa, with the remote control in one hand and chocolate cake in the other.

Singledom is to be envied

Ever since Bridget Jones made whingeing an acceptable response to being footloose, singledom has become the lurgy of our age – the burden of the modern independent woman who will insist on putting work before home. So it’s refreshing that BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is devoting this week to what it’s really like to be a maligned singleton. Yesterday, the programme considered which age was best (and worst) to be alone. The upshot was that it was fine at any age, though it’s perceived as odder the older you get.

For someone who has made a great and glorious career out of being single, I feel spoilt for choice when trying to pinpoint the best and worst of times. Some of my married friends insist that it’s highly enviable at any age. Which makes me realise that singledom is wasted on the single. You only know how good you had it when it’s gone.

Twitter: @Arifa_Akbar