Our Privilege to be Unhappy

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Unhappiness is often a privilege.  Like high thread-count sheets and fine wine, only the lucky many among us can afford the sort of unhappiness that many of us “struggle” with.1

I will explain with an example that has to do with “take-home” exams.

Taking up all my time.

I first started taking “take-home” exams when I was in college.  Take-home exams are like regular exams, except that you can work on them at home, and you are allowed an extended period of time–usually 48 or more hours–to complete them.

This extended time can be a blessing or a curse.  You can work on the exam without the usual time pressure.  But you don’t always need all the allowed time.  And if you are not vigilant, the exam can eat up days of your life needlessly.

I was inexperienced with take-home exams, so that is exactly what happened to me.  Since I was allowed a certain period of time to work on my exams, I assumed I needed it.  And I used it up without thought to whether it was necessary.  Like a vacuum sucking up all the air that it can find, my take-home exams tended to suck up all my available time, whether I needed it or not.

A different approach.

By the time I got to law school, I had grown more efficient with how I used my time.  So I approached take-home exams differently.

I allocated my time strategically based upon various factors.   Sometimes, I used almost all the time available to me to work on a take-home exam.  At other times, I worked on the exam for only a few hours irrespective of how much time I was allowed.  Then I moved on to other tasks.  I didn’t allow an exam to take up more of my time than I deemed necessary.  And my grades turned out fine.

I wasn’t doing anything revolutionary.  Most people I know employ similar approaches in their personal and professional lives.  But my different approaches illustrate a point about happiness.  Or rather, they illustrate a point about unhappiness.

Emotional spaces.

Just as certain tasks can suck up as much of our time as we allow them to, unhappiness can suck up as much of our emotional space as we allow it to.

We all have a fixed amount of “emotional space” in which our feelings reside.  It is like a jar that contains our feelings–the happy ones and the unhappy ones.  Our reasons for being happy or unhappy may change.  But for the most part, the levels of happiness and unhappiness in our jars tend to stay the same.

We are familiar with those levels and they feel comfortable to us.  Particularly negative or positive events such as a death, or the birth of a child can alter them temporarily (or sometimes permanently).  But for the most part, significant deviations from them make us uncomfortable.  So we tend to return to levels that are familiar.

This is true even when we find ourselves less unhappy than we are used to feeling.

Searching for unhappiness.

Sometimes, our familiar reasons for being unhappy go away.  Where unhappiness once existed, we feel a void.  The void feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable.  So we unconsciously look for ways to fill it.

We search for reasons to be unhappy.  We suck needless everyday unhappiness into our emotional jars so that we can return to familiar emotional spaces.

People facing extenuating life circumstances such as death, divorce, debilitating illness or the like, have no room in their jars for this sort of everyday unhappiness.  Their jars are full.  Everyday unhappiness is the domain of those whose lives are mundane.

People who don’t have to deal with difficult circumstances are privileged.  Everyday unhappiness is reserved for them.  They have the “privilege to be unhappy.”


But the exercise of a privilege is discretionary.  We can choose to take stock of our emotional space, and allocate it differently.  We can choose to limit the space we assign to unhappiness.  We can choose not to allow needless unhappiness in.

Becoming aware of our feelings is the first step.  In every situation, we can question whether we truly need to be unhappy.  If it ever “feels good” to be unhappy, it may be a sign that we are choosing unhappiness.

Just as we choose to let go of a rock in our hands, we can choose to let go of unhappiness.  We can choose to feel comfortable with the resulting void.  We can choose to fill it with joy.

We can practice living like that.

Changing the mix in our jars.

If we do, we will start to change the mix in our emotional jars.  Unhappiness will be a conscious choice.  We will be unhappy only when we truly have reason to be.  Our emotional spaces will become healthier.  And we will be happier.


1Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are based on the author’s personal experiences.  As far as the author is aware, they have not been researched or proven.

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