Why Can’t We Be Happy?

There’s been a rise in people devoted to chastising the faux-sad, the depressed for show, the performers of melancholy. These apostles of happiness will have us believe that young people are choosing to be sad because it has become fashionable. That the youngin’ should stop mopping around and get on with their silly lives, or at least perform their sadness in private, away from the safe happy spaces we’ve designed for ourselves.

It’s important to note how sinister and oppressive this pretend-pragmatism is. Some unfortunately vocal people have decided that a swathe of human consciousness be proscribed because, according to their data obtained via advanced analytics, it has become too popular. God forbid that the spirit of the age, the totem of our times, be the grey cloud of sadness or depression. There are names for people who attempt to deny others their happiness—Grinch, killjoy, sourpuss, etc.,—but what do we call these apostles who tell the sad to either be happy or go to hell?

Maybe at another time I would unlook this like I do a lot of things I see on social media, but I’ve had intimate moments with sadness this year that I’m now part of the human subset the apostles are targeting. I’ve watched valuable man-hours drift away while sat on the floor in my room, staring at the ceiling, wishing there was something that could be done to pierce my sadness.

While at the nadir of this sadness, the one thing I was worried about was the possibility of extending it to people around me like it was a contagious disease. I didn’t want pity, didn’t want to have people check on me by the minute. I wanted to find a way back to joy and happiness without the charity of others. Bar a few extreme narcissists, this is how many people respond to their sadness. Sad people are often capable of making other people laugh as a way of masking their pain. At least, for me, the part of my brain that produces comedy is often undisturbed by whatever sadness the rest of my mind is entombed in.

A performance of sadness sounds like something only privileged people can be accused of. People in visible pain are given the permission to be sad in public, while others should be queried and asked to show receipts of their misery. But ironically, we are also the people who say ‘the rich also cry,’ a statement we are always quick to whip out when we need to feel good about our penury while we watch people of means suffer.

We should also question the notion that performed sadness has become fashionable. Or as some people often like to infer: that young creatives now choose sadness because they think it’s hip and popular. Yes there are people who think this way, but hasty generalisation is too common a fallacy to ignore. There are a few things as funny as Nigerians insisting depression is now hip. We’re famous for our head-in-the-sand response to our collective gradual march to socio-economic hell by making a joke out of everything, yet some people think young people performing sadness are the ones who need to gerrarahia.

In Nigeria, happiness is what sells. It is what is fashionable. This isn’t Germany where we all go around with stoic faces. Sadness isn’t suddenly the new sex that advertisers are now using to entice the young because it has become their thing. Joy is still the predominant creative energy. It used to be anger in the time of the one who had death in his pouch. But now, it is joy. ‘Joy, nothing by joy’ like the Star Boy says. Or perhaps, giddy happiness misconstrued as always equivalent to joy.

Rebecca Solnit, in an interview with Krista Tipett of On Being (thanks K), said:

‘Joy is such an interesting term, because we hear constantly about happiness, “Are you happy?” And it’s — emotions are mutable, and this notion that happiness should be a steady state seems destined to make people miserable. And joy is so much more interesting, because I think we’re much more aware that, it’s like the light at sunrise, or the lightning or something that is epiphanies in moments and raptures, and that it’s not supposed to be a steady state, and that’s OK. And I think it’s a word that comes up a lot more in spiritual life than happiness…’

These apostles of happiness act like it’s a bubble that must be protected by militant opposition to all things melancholy. But in the battle of public emotions, happiness is still the victor, sadness the underdog, and Basket Mouth still manages to convince us he’s not in need of a comedic make over. What is being revealed is the frailty of these apostles. Their false conviction in their personal happiness is what is under threat by the perceived deluge of sadness. Rather than bash the young folks daily, perhaps they should go look for epp in the bottle of their choice.

Of course we’re happy—too happy; to suggest otherwise is to force-feed us bobo. The real question is why we’re not more given to contemplation, to melancholy. One of the world’s wisest men once said that it’s better to go to the house of mourning than that of feasting. Maybe if we took that man’s advice, we wouldn’t be where we are today, dancing skelewu into depression while ruled by the one man we shouldn’t have allowed anywhere near the presidency.

Well, now I’m spent and the rant is over. But the question we should ask isn’t why can’t we be happy. The real question is: why are we not sad?


If you survived this piece to the end, you deserve happiness, so join me in listening to Asa.

PS: I missed my weekly post last friday, so this is supposed to make up for that. See you on Friday. Bye.


Featured Image via Flickr by Maryam Abdulghaffar


15 Replies to “Why Can’t We Be Happy?”

  1. I like this post more because I have been reading articles on seasonal depression (SAD) today and skimming through quotes and pictures and my thoughts travelled along those lines, on if I was looking for quotes to share and draw attention to myself and glorify my image of living abroad and how exactly reading such quotes would help me in the end. No help at all.Together with my irritation at being asked the ‘what to do with you’ question yesterday so much because of this prolonged illness that i flipped real bad and had one of those violent episodes of chair stomping, but enough of my autobiography for today. For me to say that sadness is real, would be bland talk that adds nothing. Facts cannot be made realer by the affirmative proclamation. As Ecclesiates 3 says, there is a time for everything. Why can’t we be sad? Why not? If the time is now for us to be sad, let us cease the moment and be sad.We will be happy again.

    1. Yep! Ecclesiastes really got it! The only thing permanent in life is change!
      Love the song : “For everything there is a season.” based on Ecclesiastes.
      And each season has different gifts. Hope you are able to harvest the gifts of the season you are in.

  2. Wow! So much to think about. First, I can totally relate to humor being the armor we wear to cover the vulnerability of naked sadness. My humor is often about the things that make me sad. I’m realizing at this point in my life, it’s not so much a cover up as a light in my darkness that makes it bearable and keeps me able to care about others. And sometimes it’s a gift to others fighting the same battle. I’ve learned that avoiding pain may soften it, but it makes it permanent. Diving deep into it has always been scary, but I’ve been doing that long enough to trust that I won’t disappear down the rabbit hole of despair.
    I have a young family member, very bright, very sensitive, who in her teens has been fighting despair to the point of being hospitalized. I really believe, if I were her age, I’d be the same. We were not subjected nightly to the horrors of the world both close and across the globe when I was young. If you are young, even if you live a life of privilege, if you have empathy for people far away and very different from you, awareness turns life into a boiling cauldron of debilitating helplessness.
    I eventually came to terms with how little I can do, but am committed to doing what I can, though it seems like putting band-aids on cancer and doesn’t feel even slightly heroic. But I figure if everyone does something, things will improve slowly, a little at a time. Evil wins when we feel small and powerless and do nothing.
    Life isn’t about being happy. It’s about becoming able to love even when it hurts. And then we discover joy, which trumps happiness every time.

    1. This:

      Life isn’t about being happy. It’s about becoming able to love even when it hurts. And then we discover joy, which trumps happiness every time.

      And this:

      If you are young, even if you live a life of privilege, if you have empathy for people far away and very different from you, awareness turns life into a boiling cauldron of debilitating helplessness.

      Thank you, Eileen, is all I’m going to say. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for this post, Ife. Just two weeks ago, I felt a wave of sudden sadness while in church. I was teary-eyed and all. I blogged about it on http://www.ayoeagles.wordpress.com
    I was shocked when I read that teenagers are given to depression more than even adults. The second comment also reminded me of Dolly Parton’s To Every Thing. I have become so careful that I think I am even scared of being happy. Maybe we should ask why we can’t be sad instead? Sadness is needed sometimes.

    1. Ayo, part of the beauty of refusing to dismiss sadness is that there’s an inherent hope that joy is on the horizon. Happiness and joy are attainable, and that doesn’t preclude us from acknowledging the sadness of the present. So yeah, joy will come, that much is sure.

  4. “Maybe if we took that man’s advice, we wouldn’t be where we are today, dancing skelewu into depression while ruled by the one man we shouldn’t have allowed anywhere near the presidency.” (sadly) but not. picture this scenario “a man with gun pointed to his head, and asked to choose between two prostitutes who to spend the rest of his life with”. that was what happened when Nigerians (excluding me) went to the pool, they had to make a choice but sadly, they settle for what their cancerous cell can tolerate, but again, this page is not for politics, thats topic for another day. Ife, i believe we are sad in pursuit of happiness and not the reverse but how can an observer tell when we are so religiously and frantically equipped to the point of galloping?. we are sad, but we must not say or show it for the power of life and death lies in the tongue and our countenance; we must not say because what we say determine what we get. its a pity that we don’t learn from the greatest teacher that ever lived and when we attempt to learn, we rather follow doctrine and act so myopic……..am sad and i have been wearing that look on my face for quit a long time now.

    1. I think there’s a difference between hope and blind optimism. That what we say determines what we get doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge our present, no matter how grim it is, and still look up to a future that is good. I agree that we often choose myopia over trying to learn how to be better. ‘The troubles of this present are not comparable to the joy that is to be revealed…’ is a statement that I’ve always loved. That is the kind of hope I’ve always longed for.

  5. I did not realize that some people are being accused of ‘sadness porn’. Where have I been?
    I find the response, don’t worry, be happy, to sadness, a bit inadequate. In other words, a flippant answer may only just brush the surface issue.

    I know someone who’s battled feelings of overwhelming sadness that produce the onset of tears. It is real and not easy to deal with.

    1. Timi, the things I see on the internet…

      Sometimes I wish these people will get to know people better so they can learn a thing or two about empathy. But, again, if you need to become intimate with someone before you can accommodate their humanity, then perhaps we shouldn’t bother with you then.

      I was a little too miffed when I saw the flippancy repeated again and again and covered in a veneer of ‘truth-telling’, but now I’m more sober and a little sorry for those folks.

  6. Ife, you are an absolute delight to read.

    Ah, the Instagram brand of lacquered happiness, in perfectly filtered lighting no less, has given happiness a shiny new definition.

    @ “show receipts of their misery”. People assume that if the outsides seem fine, then the insides must be fine too.

    It’s only possible to be aware of the presence of a thing if one is familiar with its absence. How does one know that they are happy if they haven’t been sad?

    Happiness makes me both giddy and somewhat fearful of the vacuum that it’ll leave when it goes. It’s like an unfaithful lover, visiting when things are good and deserting one when things aren’t so good. Joy on the other hand is like an unshakeable companion, staying through the good and bad times.

    1. It’s only possible to be aware of the presence of a thing if one is familiar with its absence. How does one know that they are happy if they haven’t been sad?

      This is so true. If life is filled with just happiness we wouldn’t recognise it as that. We need the highs and low of life to properly appreciate goodness.

  7. I’m speechless right now. Ifeoluwa, I just discovered your blog and I’m sorry for myself for not discovering this wonderful space earlier. You write so beautifully. You take charge of words and weave them in a way I can’t really explain. I read your post on Zadie Smith and I didn’t drop a comment. But then, I can’t help it this time around. Thank you for having this space. I’ll be coming here often and will rush here whenever I lost my muse or can’t blog. Cheers!


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