Why do I deserve happiness when there are other people in the world who don't have it?
February 22, 2008 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Why do I deserve happiness when there are other people in the world who don't have it? I seriously need to know.

I'm currently reading the book "Eat, Pray, Love" and I just finished the book "Three Cups of Tea." The books are similar and also couldn't be more different. "Three Cups of Tea" is the story of Greg Mortenson, who traveled through Pakistan and Afghanistan creating schools and a better life for the people there and "Eat, Pray, Live" is the story of Elizabeth Gilbert, who traveled through Italy, India and Indonesia to create a better for life for ... herself.

I hated Eat, Pray, Live at first but today I realized why. It wasn't just that her act seemed supremely selfish when you contrast it to the acts of Greg Mortenson, but it was also because I was taught as a child that you thought of yourself last - after everyone else - and I mean, literally everyone else. I think I've been shocked at the audacity of Elizabeth Gilbert's desire for her own happiness - as if that was a horrible thing to want for yourself.

But the thing is, I really, really need some happiness for myself as well. I've had problems with depression my whole life and I've just come through a particularly rough patch that's left me bruised and beat up.

I don't believe you need to leave your home and travel the world, necessarily, to help other people or find your own happiness, but what can I tell myself to convince myself that I really do deserve some happiness? Whenever I start thinking that I do, I think about the people in Iraq, who are probably just happy to make it home from the market alive or other situations where my desire to be happy seems ludicrously indulgent. But my unhappiness doesn't solve those problems and makes me miserable. So what can I say to myself to convince myself that I deserve some happiness?
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (52 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
1) EVERYBODY deserves happiness.

2) Not everything we are taught as children is right.

3) Therapy may help you realize that thoughts such as "I don't deserve to be happy if others aren't" are symptomatic of depression and, well, not true.
posted by callmejay at 6:47 AM on February 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

My sense is the ability to give to others is a subset of one's ability to recognize one's blessings. Maybe happiness isn't the operant term here. Maybe gratitude is what you are looking for. Considering making an alphabetical list of all the things in your life you are grateful for. Don't say there aren't any. Just do it. start with A. Don't forget that M is metafilter.
posted by Xurando at 6:48 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

People deserve to be happy.

Most people are not you.

One people is you.

That people deserves to be happy just like all the others.

Further, you know, or at least can learn, better than anyone else how to make you happy. So it's a huge efficiency gain for you to make yourself happy, so nobody else has to take care of it.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:50 AM on February 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

You know how, when you are in an airplane waiting for takeoff, and the flight attendant shows the movie that explains how, if the cabin loses pressure, the little face cups with oxygen will fall from the overhead compartment?

You have to set up your own oxygen supply first, before taking care of the children.
posted by amtho at 6:54 AM on February 22, 2008 [31 favorites]

Wow. I didn't think I'd have to preview that to avoid repeating someone. It's good advice, though.
posted by Partial Law at 6:57 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Think about the logistics--are you really going to be able to make 6 billion people happy before you can be?

Take care of yourself, and your monkeysphere, and in general be excellent to everyone...but don't sweat all the details. Pick an area in which you do back, and let everyone one else shoulder other parts of the load.
posted by stevis23 at 6:59 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

You deserve happiness because you are genuinely concerned about the welfare of others.

Whether or not this concern brings you happiness or not is secondary. But in my opinion, it is what makes you truly deserve some happiness in this world.
posted by milarepa at 7:02 AM on February 22, 2008

Wanting to do good things for others is a good sentiment, and not one you should give up on. That said, you shouldn't tie that sentiment to your own personal happiness. They're actually two different concepts.

Think of it this way: you want to do good for others. That takes both physical and emotional resources on your part. How do you expect to give to others, if you have nothing within yourself to give? You have a responsibility to look after yourself in both the physical and emotional senses, so that you can be in a position to help others.
posted by LN at 7:06 AM on February 22, 2008

I used to think like this -- that my being happy was somehow immoral because the world was full of suffering. Not sure how I got over it but don't feel that way anymore. Possibly by seeing that well-off people tend to be some of the most unhappy. And a practical realization that my being unhappy wasn't making anyone else happier; on the contrary, I was more productive and, to be sappy, a more powerful force for good, when I wasn't miserable. Not that the world isn't sad and that you shouldn't be depressed about it -- but try not to compound your internally sprung unhappiness with external events.

Also, I barely got through the first thirty pages of Three Cups of Tea before vomiting in my mouth. Be very wary of foreigners who waltz through lands "making life better for the people there" and of foreign-delivered aid to "poor people" in general. It's been a complete and disgusting disillusionment for me -- and absolutely nothing you should idolize or beat yourself up about.
posted by bluenausea at 7:12 AM on February 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you are unhappy, then other people are becoming happy at your expense--how fair is that? They are taking advantage of you.
posted by Melismata at 7:13 AM on February 22, 2008

As P.J. O'Rourke says "...if I can't subtract from the world's sum of misery, do I have to add to it personally?".
posted by biscotti at 7:18 AM on February 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Life is unpleasant for everyone, its just more obvious in the examples you list: those living in poverty, and those living in destabilized countries. Let me ask you this: What is a better happier life? Living a full life in somewhat of a risky place or living your wealthy western life until the doctor tells you you have cancer and you die in 18 months, leaving family and friends in pain and never having to fully realize life. You have no guarantee that things will continue to work out for you. The kid growing up in Baghdad might have a subjectivly better life than most people in this thread. Life has no guarantees.

So the idea that you need to punish yourself to even out the suffering in the world is a faulty. What you should be doing is doing your best to live a positive and ethical life and helping those who you can actually help: your friends and family. Leave the big drama queen moment you have described for us at the door.

Also your condition is ironcially self-defeating. So lets say your loss of happiness (whatever that truly means) equals a rise in hapiness to the hypthetical baghdad kid, then he's just going to feel the guilt you are feeling whens he's as comfortable as you. So what exactly are you hoping to achieve here? Or are you saying that stereotypical poor people dont have the exact same feelings as you when it comes to being priviliedged or lucky?
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:19 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if "deserving" happiness is the best way to think about it. I'd ask yourself, what is achieved by forgoing happiness in your life? Does it make the situation of people in Iraq better if you are not happy? If you are happy, does it make the situation of suffering people in Iraq worse?

In a way, it's a very self-centered idea that martyring ourselves (even emotionally) will make everyone else's life better. People in Iraq who worry about surviving the trip to the market are totally and completely unaffected by whether you allow yourself to be happy. To think that feeling miserable is a moral response to the suffering of others is to buy into a weird mix of low self-esteem and high self-importance: your misery does nothing to alleviate other's suffering.

If the real crux of the question is not about what you "deserve" to feel, but rather whether it's morally or ethically acceptable to take actions that will make yourself happy at the expense of potentially taking actions that will make you less happy but could increase the happiness of others--well, that's a tougher question. First, I'd want to know whether making yourself happy really comes at the expense of doing something to make someone else happy. (If you forgo a nice vacation because other people in the world are suffering, but you don't plan on flying over to Sudan to minister to refugees, it isn't really that your vacation comes at the expense of others in the world who are suffering. See above paragraph: people everywhere are wrapped up in their own lives, and the personal experiences of one person very very rarely have any sort of effect on other's perceptions of their own situation.) Second, if *you* have no right to happiness when others suffer, then what right do people in Iraq or other war-torn countries have to happiness when you aren't happy? That line of thinking, taken to its logical conclusion, would imply that the best world is where no one deserves happiness. That's not a world I want to live in, and I doubt it's the sort of world that you really want either.
posted by iminurmefi at 7:20 AM on February 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

You are making a grand assumption that the people of Iraq are unhappy (or, pick your country). Most other countries have much more extended family relationships than a typical American, and most other people might describe themselves as happy if they have that even if they don't have any material possessions. We grow up in such a culture of excess we assume others must envy it and us, but I don't think that is necessarily true. We are starving for meaningful contact and all the Game Boys in the world won't fill that hole. I suspect that is what you are longing for as well--a meaningful connection. When something or someone matters to you, it increases your happiness. Happiness is something you find along the way while your mind is occupied with something else, doing something else that is fulfilling and rewarding no matter what it is. Find out what that is for you and go do it.
posted by 45moore45 at 7:21 AM on February 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

IANAP (thank god), but your question makes me wonder who, in your life (particularly your early family life) has conditioned you to believe you don't deserve happiness. Your statement about being raised to believe that "literally everyone" comes before you adds to this suspicion for me. I'm reaching here, but do I also smell the influence of religious fundamentalism in the mix?

I actually don't happen to believe that everyone "deserves" to happy as a principle, but assuming you haven't done anything to lose your "Decent Human Being" card, you shouldn't beat yourself (or others, like Elizabeth Gilbert) up for wanting to be happy. Regarding the arguments you've presented: you can rest assured that 1)Those Iraqis who are lucky to get around with being killed are no more (or less) deserving of happiness than you are (some of them are Decent Human Beings, and some of them are total assholes), and 2)Attempts at "earning" happiness according to your standards will be futile. The good news is, "happiness" as such is not a zero-sum game; your being happy does not necessarily take away the happiness of someone else (i.e., there could be a world in which you, I, and all those Iraqis could feel happiness).

IMHO, it's not really a matter of whether you "deserve" to be "happy" (both those terms are pretty elusive anyhow). It's more about the means by which you seek happiness (i.e., that your quest for happiness is not hurting other people or yourself), and what you do with the happiness you find (i.e., that you put your emotional well-being to productive use).

But in practical terms, at its root your problem sounds like the product of some distorted thinking about yourself and others. At the very least, you sound like you don't have much of a feeling of self-worth, and that problem in itself is worth looking into more closely, with a professional. I think therapy and/or medication might lend some insight into your feelings.
posted by Rykey at 7:24 AM on February 22, 2008

You (and many other people) use the word "deserve" in a odd (possibly nonsensical) way. Saying, "I deserver X" is similar to saying "I am liked." You can't just "be liked." You have to be liked by somebody or some people. If I live my life alone on an island, I'm not liked. Unless I'm suggesting that God likes me or I like myself.

I try to avoid sentences like "I'm liked," "cookies taste good" and "hammers are useful." It's much clearer to say "Sally likes me," "Fred thinks cookies taste good," and "Jack uses hammers every day in his carpentry shop (but Joe never builds anything, so hammer's AREN'T useful to him)."

If I say, "Mary deserves a treat" or "Ed deservers to be punished," those statements only make sense in the context of a particular value system. Do homosexuals deserve to go to hell? According to my values, no. According to some other people's values, yes. Simply asking if they deserve damnation -- without connecting the statement to a particular person or person's value system -- is meaningless.

I'm not suggesting that your problem is purely semantic. I'm suggesting that if you work to clarify what you mean, you'll be better able to tackle your problem. I'm sure you have a very real problem, but I doubt it's literally what you state here. Because what you state here, though it's a common-place statement, doesn't really make sense.


Do you mean, "I don't deserve happiness according to most people's value systems?" If so, you're wrong. Most people, as you can see in the small sampling in this thread, think everyone deserves happiness.

Do you mean, "I don't deserve happiness according to God's value system?" If so, I'm not the best person to comment, since I'm not a believer. But if I was one, I'd think twice before making assumptions about God's values.

Do you mean, "I don't deserve happiness according to my value system?" If so, you should examine your value system more closely. What if you had a friend who was similar to you. Would you think "she doesn't deserve happiness"? Who do you think does deserve happiness? Only people who suffer? Only people who have never done anything wrong in their lives? And why is happiness a matter of deserving at all? You see happiness as a reward? Why?

It's fine if you get the problem really clear but can't solve or answer it. ("I guess I'm talking about my own value system. I don't think I deserve happiness. But I'm not sure why...") You may not be able to tackle this problem by yourself. But if you clarify things, your sessions with a professional will be more practical.

Finally, try to stop romanticizing your problems. You're not that important. No one is looking down from the sky and thinking, "Hey! No fair! Anon is happy while people in Iraq are suffering." It's okay for you to be happy, because you're just one of a zillion inconsequential people. Your happiness doesn't affect people in Iraq. Your happiness is not cosmically important enough to do anything other than to ... make you happy.
posted by grumblebee at 7:26 AM on February 22, 2008 [11 favorites]

You are definitely worthy of having happiness in your life. Many people are so selfish that they do not even stop to consider all the pain in the world. They believe they are happy and they do things they think make them continuously happy. These are not truly happy people. These are empty people. The happy person is the person who begins with the same type of questions you are struggling with and then concludes that they cannot help others find happiness unless they themselves can locate it. When you finally do get in a position where you can save someone from a terrible situation, wouldn't you rather have a confident smile on your face for them rather than a weak and scared expression? Which do you think would help them the best? Get up, go do stuff that makes you happy. It is your duty.
posted by mamaraks at 7:26 AM on February 22, 2008

Well, none of us DESERVE anything.


I think it is important for us to appreciate good things. If I am happy it is because I appreciate whatever it is that makes me happy. If I were to be unhappy simply because someone else was unhappy, I am being unappreciative and ungrateful.

And as an appreciative and grateful person I can then go out and be part of something that enables others to be happy as well. As a PART of my gratitude and appreciation.
posted by konolia at 7:30 AM on February 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

On review, what many others before me said. And bluenausea, congrats--I spit my coffee out laughing at your line about "vomiting in your mouth" over Three Cups of Tea.

As P.J. O'Rourke says "...if I can't subtract from the world's sum of misery, do I have to add to it personally?".

FWIW-- P.J. O'Rourke is being totally disingenuous here. Yeah, I know he's just being "funny."
posted by Rykey at 7:34 AM on February 22, 2008

Unlike resources like food or space or air, there is not a limited quantity of happiness in the world. You can be happy without diminishing the happiness of others. As a matter of fact sometimes your happiness can even add to to create happiness in those around you.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:38 AM on February 22, 2008

How can anyone think of someone else when they themselves are a mess? How can you provide everyone around you with the care, understanding, thoughtfulness that you believe they deserve when you yourself are unhappy and miserable? That's the thing about being unhappy or depressed - you turn inward and stew in a level of misery that makes you unable to provide happiness to others or to even think about those around you.

I was taught as a child that you thought of yourself last - after everyone else - and I mean, literally everyone else.

If you honestly believed this and followed it to the letter, you would take care of yourself and make yourself happy. You can't think of someone else when you yourself are unhappy - you can lie to yourself and believe that you can but, in reality, you can't.

Like people said above, you have to put on your own air mask to make sure you don't pass out when you help out those around you. Same thing can be applied to a lot of other areas of life.
posted by Stynxno at 7:45 AM on February 22, 2008

It is far easier to help others attain happiness when you already have the key yourself.
posted by misha at 7:48 AM on February 22, 2008

Suffering and happiness are not mutually exclusive. Everyone needs some happiness. Everyone can have happiness--even if they're poor, even if they're hungry, even if their country is at war. There is happiness available to those people too. Any happiness you feel does not in any way take away from anyone else's potential happiness. If anything, it increases the likelihood of at least a few other people feeling happy, because joy can be contagious. Also, if you never feel good at all, it seems to me you're likely to be one of those people who never gets out of bed. If that's the case, how can you ever do anything to help anyone else have less suffering or more happiness?
posted by lampoil at 7:49 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

You don't mention anything about volunteering, donating to charity or anything in that vein. It might be that you actively helping other people will help you give yourself license to be happy -- I think it's easy to get caught in a spiral of "other people are unhappy, therefore I should be too" and yet never actually do anything. Volunteering at a shelter or giving money to charity does help people, even a little bit, and it might help with your lack of agency. I used to feel the same way, and it wasn't until I started trying to make other lives better that I felt like it was okay to pay attention to myself.

I also think you should look into some therapy. These sound like some deep seated issues that you won't overcome in a few days, and some professional help might be called for.
posted by lilac girl at 7:50 AM on February 22, 2008

I also read Eat, Pray, Love, and I agree with your general assessment of the author as self-involved. But I thought that there were moments she made excellent justifications for her need to be happy.

On her website she responds to the question:

... I did worry a great deal about selfishness. But after three years of despair and depression, I had come to believe that living my life in a state of constant misery was actually a pretty selfish act. Who would be served by a lifetime of my sorrow? How would that enrich the world? Going off for a year and creating a journey to pull myself back together, to rediscover joy, to face down my failings and rebuild my existence, was not only an important thing for my life, but ultimately for the lives of everyone around me. And it’s not just my family and friends who are better off now that I am happy; it’s everyone I encounter. Because the reality is that we human beings are constantly leaking our dispositions upon each other. When I was in such a dark state, everyone I passed on the street had to walk through the shadow of my darkness, whether they knew me or not. I remember once, during my divorce, crying uncontrollably on the subway in New York City. When I look back on that crying young woman, I feel great compassion for what she was going through. But I can also feel pity now, in retrospect, for those poor, weary New York commuters, who had to sit there after their own long days at work, watching this sobbing stranger. I didn’t want to be that person anymore. Saving my own life (through therapy, medication, prayer and – most of all -- travel) was something I did for my own benefit, yes, but I can’t help but think that it was ultimately also a little bit of a community service.
She says somewhere in the book that being unhappy does not do the world any favors. Though harsh, it is somewhat true. For me, 'happiness' has to do with taking care of myself - feeding my dreams, treating myself well, watching for my health. Only by making sure that I am not a mass of crying need can I have anything to offer others. Only by feeling, for the most part, open and content can I find the energy to be interested in the world around me, to learn, to engage, to discuss, to make friends, to try new things, to offer help, to lend support, to start projects. Happiness allows me to make a positive difference in the world. I believe that being unhappy, at times, teaches compassion, which is very very important - can you imagine if human beings had only perfect experiences? They'd be insufferable. I believe unhappiness is also a signal that a time for growth or change or adaptation has arrived, and it's natural to be unhappy when things change or need to change. To me, to be happy is to complete those adaptations, be emotionally in balance, be open to joy and optimistic, and be available to do things that are good for the world and the people around me, rather than being focused on myself and my own unsatisfied needs. Elizabeth Gilbert may have gotten a lot of things wrong, but I think she was right about the fact that you can improve your world more when you are not licking your own wounds.

Also, I haven't read the other book, but some people who engage in lives of service do so for very selfish reasons (working off old guilt, anger at the world, renouncing things others valued) - or simply because it makes them really happy to live according to their beliefs! A smallish example from my own life and choice of career -- sometimes I feel a little critical of myself because I work in arts & culture rather than social services. There is so much need for poverty relief and health care in our own nation, let alone the world, and plenty of nonprofits doing things that yield physical benefit to improve the world's conditions - and yet I am using my career to provide 'food' for the mind and spirit rather than in the service of basic needs. It sometimes seems immoral in the face of all the need that is out there. And yet I'm pretty sure it's what I'm best doing - if I went to work for World Hunger Year, I would feel virtuous and capabale but maybe not quite so passionate and genuine. I believe that not all needs in the world are material. So being happy in my choice of work makes a big difference in the quality of the work I can do; if I were to take a job at a social service charity from someone who could do it with more passion and dedication, I would not be doing something morally superior to what I'm doing now.

At another point in her book, when Gilbert is in the ashram, she decides that she's going to maintain silence for some period of time. She thinks about how everyone will see her as such a spiritually right-on, deeply pure silent person, not needing her voice to ring out to the world. She thinks virtue will result from her silence and everyone will admire her inner strength and peace. And right after that, the ashram asks her to take on the job of being the greeter and orientation person - a job that guarantees she will meet, smile, talk, and be outgoing, all day every day. A perfect use of her real skills and attributes. The irony does not escape her, so at some point, somebody says to her something like "you need to be you. There are already people to be all the other kinds of people in the world. You weren't put on earth to be the best them you can be, you're here to be the best you you can be." Finding what person only you can be, and living like that person, is happiness, and it lets you give the gifts that are uniquely yours to give - not mimic the supposed virtue of someone else, who may be acting out of motives more selfish than we would imagine. Or just acting out of their own happiness because that is authentically who they are.

There was a lot to dislike in the book (especially the obsessions with the exes and the White Mother ending where she swoops in and takes charge of an Indonesian family) but it had some very useful and truthful messages in it, as well.
posted by Miko at 7:53 AM on February 22, 2008 [10 favorites]

No one deserves happiness, just like no one deserves unhappiness. You just are. Most people find it fulfilling to seek happiness, some through self-serving, others through serving others. But it's a choice you make. You don't deserve anything, but you can chose to have whatever you want.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:09 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, none of us DESERVE anything.

I was thinking about this very thing a couple of days ago. The whole idea that we somehow deserve happiness is baffling to me. "Deserve" would seem to imply that we somehow have earned it. In what way? By simply existing? Or by having sufficiently evolved brains which allow us to internally quantify such states as happy or sad?
posted by Thorzdad at 8:21 AM on February 22, 2008

Remember that happiness is not a scarce resource. Your being happy doesn't deprive any one else of their happiness (except possibly your enemies.)

Justice and injustice - what people "deserve" versus what they get, and whether that disparity is appropriate or tolerable - has been one of the central topics of philosophy for as long as humans have been thinking about things. For a modern, readable treatment of this topic, pick up John Rawls' A Theory of Justice.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:21 AM on February 22, 2008

You sound like you have some of the same issues as me. I was raised to think the way you do... that it was "ludicrously indulgent" to want my own happiness... and have been very prone to depression as well.

In my case, the big revelation came when I dated someone who thought that way, too. I loved him more, and wanted his happiness more, than I'd ever allowed myself to love and want things for myself. It was like being forced to look in the mirror without the distorting lens of all the ways I was taught to think about myself... and it was so easy to see the patterns then.

You might start by asking yourself some questions:

1. Where did I get the idea that I don't deserve to be happy?
2. What benefit did that person receive from teaching me that belief?

Maybe you were taught this to make you put up with abnormally bad treatment. Maybe you were taught this so you'd fulfill your parents' dreams instead of your own. Maybe you were taught this so you would never leave someone who was terrified of abandonment, or so you'd never achieve more than someone with a delicate ego. Maybe you were taught this so you'd keep the secrets of and stay within the borders of a dysfunctional family. Maybe you had a parent who was abused themselves and passed on the messages they'd internalized.

Whatever that secret benefit is... it may really help you to find it. Once you realize that there was a concrete reason you were taught to think this way, it's a lot easier to change the thinking.

Being unhappy yourself ripples out to everyone around you. Again, this was something that was so much easier to see when I saw it in my ex than when I was trying to see it in myself. If you sacrifice your own happiness for others, that should make them happy, amirite?

NO. A billion times no. Especially not if they really love you. I'm trying to write a comment and not a novel, so I'll just keep it at that... NO.

This blog may be of interest: The Happiness Project.

Anyway, good luck, and hope some of this helped.
posted by Gianna at 8:24 AM on February 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Who do you prefer to be around - someone who is happy, or someone who is depressed? Which of those people is more likely to make your day brighter? Which is more likely to motivate you?

I doubt that anyone would answer "the depressed person." Why would you rather be that person, then?
posted by desjardins at 8:24 AM on February 22, 2008

Didn't Thomas Jefferson answer this question in 1776? Each and every one of us has an "unalienable right" to "the pursuit of happiness." This is a fundamental individual entitlement existing from birth, a natural human right. I'm not sure how much deeper into the "why" of it all you could go.
posted by chinston at 8:27 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wallowing in one's own unhappiness is a poor substitute for (1) taking responsibility for the one person's happiness you can most directly affect, and (2) as a consequence of, and part of the process of, achieving happiness for yourself, doing actual things that bring happiness to those with whom you come into contact.

It's claiming an unwarranted moral high ground to blame the circumstances of others for your own choice, or predilection, to dwell in unhappiness. That unhappiness certainly doesn't do anything to alleviate the circumstances of starving people in Africa, or lonely people on the street where you live.

I'm not trying to judge anyone who's unhappy-- I am, personally, a huge wallower and a black hole of other people's energy. But I'm philosophically opposed to those aspects of my personality.
posted by ibmcginty at 8:33 AM on February 22, 2008

Some of these responses make me sick.

The task of finding happiness is each individuals right to do as long as it doesn't put a gun to another persons head.

Selfishness in its pure form is good.
posted by zephyr_words at 8:34 AM on February 22, 2008

A wise man once wrote "To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

If you have not found yourself, your happiness, your capacity for love, you arent helping anyone by trying to spread something that you do not understand. Find your own happiness and then share it.
posted by elendil71 at 8:39 AM on February 22, 2008

Serenity. You've got to give it away to keep it.
posted by Roach at 8:40 AM on February 22, 2008

You don't deserve happiness. No-one does. To look at it any other way just seems grossly self-centred to me.

But you do have some ability to make yourself happy, and since happiness is not a finite resource in the world, doing something to increase your own happiness is no bad thing because it does not automatically decrease somebody else's access to happiness.
posted by modernnomad at 8:49 AM on February 22, 2008

Are you religious? Then how about this:

- God made you want happiness.

- Who are you to judge who "deserves" happiness? Or who doesn't?
posted by amtho at 8:55 AM on February 22, 2008

You don't. No one does. But you want it, and that's enough.
posted by electroboy at 8:56 AM on February 22, 2008

I am training to be an EMT. Our training emphasizes, above all else, that when first coming onto a scene we ensure it is safe. Because if it is not safe, we call the police/firefighters/what-have-you and get the hell out of there (well, back off and wait). The idea is that our number one priority must be to maintain our own health and safety, because if we get hurt that is just giving everyone else one more person to take care of, and one less person who can do the caring.

This has been hard for me to wrap my head around, but it does make sense. You should think about things that way. Life requires balance. You shouldn't pursue only yourself for your life, but you need to make sure you are in a good headspace in order to be useful to other people.
posted by schroedinger at 8:59 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Okay — you've been raised to value the happiness of others, right?

Suppose a friend of yours is depressed. Suppose that friend thinks his own happiness doesn't matter, and he's making himself miserable as a result. Think of all the things you'd say and do for that friend, all the lengths you'd go to, to make him happy again.

Now say and do those things for yourself.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:01 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding nebulawindphone - how would you respond if a friend of yours put everyone else first, to her or his own detriment?

Also - does the rule about putting everyone else first apply only to you, or is it supposed to apply to everybody?

If it applies only to you, what do you think about the notion that you are uniquely less deserving of happiness, and of having your own needs met, than everyone else?

If it applies to everyone - how is anyone ever going to become happy, or have their own needs taken care of, if everyone's waiting for everyone else to get taken care of first?

I deeply want happiness for the people I love (and for everyone else, for that matter, but that's more abstract). The people who love me want happiness for me.

I don't know you, but I would give you happiness if I could. If you're accustomed to thinking of others first, could you consider taking really, really good care of yourself as a favor to me?
posted by kristi at 9:30 AM on February 22, 2008

I wonder if you might be interested in some of the teachings of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. I've listened to some audiobooks by her and found them very insightful, particularly regarding the whole realm of compassion, and how one must have compassion for oneself before one can truly have it for others.

Here's a transcription of part of one of the tapes I listened to. I love the phrasing of the title there, "Cultivating unconditional friendliness toward oneself." She touches on how this gets misunderstood as self-indulgence - and I think that's sort of the essence of your question.

It's perfectly fine and noble to aspire to take care of others, and help others be happy, but if you don't take some care of your own self, your own happiness, then there shortly won't be any "you" there to do the caring for others.

In many of her teachings she talks about dealing with and facing suffering and stress. She's known for teaching about a Buddhist practice called "tonglen" where you in fact meditate about taking in the suffering of others and sending out compassion for them. Or, another part of it is, when feeling depression or sadness or pain, you may take time to meditate with it, realize that other people feel the same thing, and maybe set some aspiration like "since I'm feeling this pain anyway, may I experience it so that others do not have to."
posted by dnash at 9:41 AM on February 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

The way your question is stated makes it sound like happiness is in limited supply. It isn't. Your experiencing happiness is not depriving anyone else from doing so. So, be happy - because you can be, and because everyone else in the world can be as well, if they so choose.
posted by Rewind at 9:45 AM on February 22, 2008

...what can I tell myself to convince myself that I really do deserve some happiness? Whenever I start thinking that I do, I think about the people in Iraq...

This sort of construction is one of the classic depressive thought processes that I have struggled with pretty much as long as I can remember (join me in singing along other popular favorites, like "sure, things are okay now but something terrible could happen at any moment and then what?" and "positive thinking sounds great for someone whose life isn't essentially pointless and meaningless like mine is"). First thing you have to accept is that this is a depressive thought process. You depression leads you into this territory. You don't engage in a logical analysis of the injustice of the world and get depresses as a result (though there is of course give and take). Getting away from the belief that "I'm depressed because it is the sensible reaction to the state of the world and the human condition" has been a key ongoing component of managing my depression.

My approach to it has several components First, others have expressed in a variety of ways, I remind myself that my effectiveness as a person promoting good things in the world can only occur if I'm not crippled by depression. I do much more positive work (volunteering and such), and take better care of my finances so I can contribute more to worthy causes, than I did when I wasn't doing anything to manage my depression, for example.

When I find myself dwelling on it, I address the central logic. A thought that has helped me more than abstract conceptions along the lines of "happiness is not a zero sum game" is, if I were suffering a particular adversity, would I want other people to suffer more to "even the score?" Do I think it would be better if more people suffered from depression because I do? When I turn it around like that the illogic of it becomes more real to me.

If I'm in a bad stretch I try to consciously unplug more from media, the news and political/social etc. discussion on the internet. I don't advocate turning your back on the world but the sort of obsessive dwelling of the depressive state helps no one and hurts you. Skip those war, environmental crisis and social collapse threads. Skip the evening news. Switch the radio to easy listening.

One of the real benefits of long-term talking therapy for me was my therapist pushing me to work on cultivating genuine compassion for myself. For me, examining my childhood was a lot more about finding an conception of myself that I could feel compassion for and not judge than about developing some narrative, cause-and-effect understanding about how childhood screwed me up. If it was communicated to you growing up that your happiness didn't matter, take a close look at that and try to feel compassion for a child getting taught a fucked up, false lesson. Is that what you would want to communicate to a child? That they don't deserve to feel happy? Then put yourself back in that picture and remember that you deserve the exact same compassion as that hypothetical child.

Finally, and it maybe seems somewhat paradoxical, I do keep in mind that feeling bad about bad things happening to people is not wrong. It is a sign of compassion. It can be a worthwhile motivator to try to change what you can in your little patch. And it is right to recognize your society's role in the broader problems of the world, and to struggle with the question of how you accept living in relative prosperity when poverty is so commonplace. There is an unusual story by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas that is tough but has affected my thinking about these things in a positive way (don't read it until you're feeling better, though!)

By taking these issues and coming face to face with them outside the context of episodes of more severe depression, I've been better able to separate the two and see that, while they have relations, they are distinct issues that only complicate and obstruct dealing with either when you entangle them.
posted by nanojath at 10:30 AM on February 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

You only get this one life! You are all you have!

That should be enough reason.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:45 AM on February 22, 2008

I've had similiar thoughts in my life. I've always liked to read the words of great teachers- Jesus, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama. A friend pointed out to me that one thing that they all have in common is self-love. They were able to help others because they loved themselves. So I am working really hard on learning to love my self, and the more I work at it, the happier I am. And the people around me reap the benefits of my loving myself and being happy. In that respect, I think being happy is actually a much more selfless act than the alternative.
posted by kamikazegopher at 10:57 AM on February 22, 2008

Happiness is like food. You need it to live. Like food, you can survive for a surprisingly long time on very little of it, but it's a very unhealthy existence. And, like food, you don't need to cram yourself full of happiness all the time. If you are starving, thinking about hungry children in foreign countries won't relieve your hunger pangs or stabilize your blood sugar, and depriving yourself of food won't send food to those children.

There is room for everyone at the Happiness Buffet, even those who don't look like they're able to make it there. It's wonderful if you can fill plates for the people who need help, but really all anyone asks is that you don't waste much, cut in line, or take all the shrimp.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:06 AM on February 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't believe that people necessarily deserve happiness, but I do believe that most people can be happy, and that being happy beats the alternative.

Further, both the authors you're talking about did something that made themselves happy—I'd argue that one of those paths to happiness had a greater net benefit for others, and it sounds like that might be the path that would lead to you being happier too.
posted by klangklangston at 11:19 AM on February 22, 2008

Wow are there some good responses here.

Depression is sneaky. One way it gets its tentacles around us is the create these little scripts that mean we have to stay depressed for some "perfectly good reason":

- Art:"true art comes from suffering so I need to stay depressed or I would have to give up my art"

- Philosophy:"I have a really deep grasp of the bleakness and complexity of the world, and if I stopped being depressed, I would have to give up this wisdom"

- Punishing oneself for acting depressed: "I don't deserve nice things, see how I've screwed things up; I will just sit here and think about that for a while." "It would make me happy to call my friend and catch up, but I haven't done my writing quota for today so I'm not allowed to call; instead I will sit in a dark room and think about how I really should have done that work." And my favorite!!! :"I can't seek therapy because I don't deserve to get better, this is the way my life is supposed to be"

- Solidarity with suffering people worldwide:"it's selfish to seek any level of personal happiness as long as anyone in the world is suffering"

- Bearing witness: "it makes the suffering of others somehow less bleak and pointless if I bear witness to it, so I must continue to sit at my computer and read depressing stories of faraway people's pain, out of obligation to them"


Don't let that script win.

You know, in your heart of hearts, that this is not a rational thing to think. That you should not take any steps to make a life you are happy with? Being happy doesn't mean lolling around in Trumplike luxury, or somehow having everything go your way. It means having a job you're content with, surrounding yourself with people who are good to be with, pursuing some hobby or long-term project, doing enjoyable things on the weekends, etc. You'll still have obligations and still help others, while at the same time being more happy yourself.

If you are thinking that you don't deserve those things, that level of happiness, please reflect -- this is just not rational. You don't need to become completely selfish in order to have those things. You having those things does not prevent others from having that same level of happiness. You giving up those things does not give others that same level of happiness. Although it reflects admirable moral concern, this attitude is also deeply irrational and serves only to make your life worse (and the lives of people who love you -- maybe that is motivation to change it?) while not making anything better. I say this with a big hug and all the love in my heart: snap out of it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:06 PM on February 22, 2008 [8 favorites]

Happiness is so fleeting... If you're lucky enough to see any in your lifetime - you grab hold of it and drink in every moment.

It's not like someone else can have it, you know? If you don't enjoy it, it's just needlessly wasted and gone forever. Happiness is a Domino effect...
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:58 AM on February 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

It is all about perspective, as all the above posts reveal.
The Enlightened perspective knows we are all connected, and that what happens to any of us happens to all of us.
So, be aware of the human condition, and ask yourself what you want for you. You are responsible for your choices only. You are not responsible for the choices others' make. When we create more misery, there are consequences. When we create more joy, there are, likewise,consequences.
To eliminate the misery, create joy for yourself, then bring that forward into your world.
You will never eliminate misery by making yourself more miserable.
posted by Himavat at 8:07 PM on February 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

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