((In my freshman year of college, I took a course titled “Literature and Happiness,” and my final assignment was to write a paper discussing the novels that we read in relation to a persuasive topic on happiness. I chose to write about how ‘happiness’ can lead to death, explicitly through suicide. Someone on my Tumblr asked me, recently, about my thoughts on suicide. As such, I felt compelled to share this essay on this personal blog of mine.
Note that several sections have been omitted and or modified as I saw fit, as this was a highly personal essay at the time, and I am not comfortable sharing all the details in their entirety. Further, this essay was by no means an effort to speak of suicide in general but was, instead, my attempt to understand one particular circumstance I have encountered in my life. I also do not know how I feel about all the points I made in here at the time, but I do think there is still some decent food for thought.))
From Happiness to Death: a winding road
In Defining Happiness
‘A happy person can’t commit suicide.’ The people around me are happy, and so will not ever seriously consider taking their own life. In retrospect, my logic seems childish and ignorant. I spoke as if I knew, down to its finite details, what made up the realm of happiness and what resided outside of it, as if /ˈhæp i nɪs/ were a simple sound and not a word with countless meanings, feelings, and interpretations. All my life, I branded family, friends, and even strangers with the label of happiness when I couldn’t even define the word.
Recently, I came to the chilling realization that I know nothing of happiness at all.
A little research shows that a sort of surreal exhilaration is common in the moment before suicide. In her memoir Half in Love, Linda Gray Sexton wrote that for her, “the room circled slowly, then faster and faster, as if I were riding a wild carousel,” (Sexton 7) and she felt “excitement shimmer” (7) inside her. By some definitions, these sensations could be happiness – after all, they are pleasant, and the philosophy of hedonism maintains that pleasure brings happiness. Jeremy Bentham stated that pleasure was “a single sensation” (Nussbaum S82) that only differed in “intensity and duration” (S82).
However, this logic means that an individual’s buildup to suicide can be a happy, pleasant thing – that the times they laugh with friends over bad movies and the time they laugh alone at the thought of their impending death are one and the same. If I pursue this line of thought further, it eventually reads: if the meaning of life is to attain happiness, and pleasure brings happiness, then if some measure of pleasure comes from the intent to die, there is some measure of happiness in dying, and suicide can mean a happy death.
I refuse to believe that someone who takes their own life would die happy. The giddiness they feel at the thought of death is not happiness of any form. In my belief in these two statements, I selfishly reject Bentham’s interpretation of pleasure and happiness. In seeking a different one, however, I found different questions to answer.
I reject the idea that everyone with suicide ideation are innately unhappy. […] However, they must be dissatisfied with some aspect of their lives, or the thought of ending it would never cross their minds. Part of their struggles, I believe, comes from the fact that they don’t know how to define happiness either. A common answer is “security” or “stability” or “comfort,” concepts that choose to be content with “tepid satisfaction” (Wilson 146), which many happiness thinkers reject, also erasing the existence of suffering from the idea of happiness.
I do not believe in a happiness oversaturated with pleasure. Instead, I believe in a happiness in which suffering plays a vital role so intrinsically tied that it cannot be removed. Writers such as David Brooks in “What Suffering Does” and lecturers such as Dr. Jordan McKenzie point out that in looking back, quite often, our happiest times were those in which we suffered most (though, I do note here, the appear to be defining suffering as separate from trauma). Wordsworth maintains that “suffering deepens the personality,” while Keats famously asks, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?” (Wilson 110).
In truth, I believe that each individual is tasked with devising their own definition of happiness. However, distinct definitions often fail to take form when cultural constructs and expectations try and force a single definition upon everyone. This often leads to a loss of self in adolescents as well as a perceived obligation to meet a cultural standard. Oscar Wao, for example, bore the burden that, as “a ‘normal’ Dominican boy raised in a ‘typical’ Dominican family,” he was to be a promiscuous and popular youth, and when he failed to meet this standard, he sank into anxiety and depression. He once heard from a “reliable source that no Dominican male has ever died a virgin” (Diaz 174) and feared that he would break that legacy. Arguably as a conditioned remnant of that expectation, he felt a suffered for a desperate desire for a girlfriend characterized as “the Alpha and the Omega, the DC and the Marvel.” In the narrator’s words, “Homes had it bad; couldn’t so much as see a cute girl without breaking into shakes. Developed crushes out of nothing” (173). This tendency, his countless failed relationships, and his feeling of failure to meet standards eventually drove him to attempt suicide by jumping off a bridge (190).
Often times, individuals are told to quit dreaming, told that their ambitions are unrealistic or unsuitable. Often parents tell adolescents that they’re being childish or that their dreams aren’t ambitious enough. Perhaps it’s not that they are not ambitious enough. Perhaps their ambitions are simply different.
Who are these adults to define the happiness of others? […]
I know parents who would look down on a young woman who dreams of being a mother and homemaker. Their concept of happiness is a rich career and self-sufficient wealth, not tied down by traditional expectations. This is may be their definition, but it might not be hers, yet like so many people, they attempt to force their ideals onto others. The things that such a young woman longs for are no easier than maintaining a career and supporting herself. No one has the right to define happiness for others.
Thus, although I cannot define happiness for other people, I can say with certainty that happiness is not: one simple concept; the expectation or standard that society or a culture sets for you; the complete and utter elimination of suffering in life. In fact, I strongly feel that it is irresponsible to reject suffering as a real and necessary part of happiness, yet it seems that American culture strives to accomplish just that.
I am bicultural. As such, I gravitate towards those with multicultural experiences. As I formerly attended an American foreign school and currently attend an American university, even the multicultural individuals I know are heavily influenced by American culture. Often, this even touches their foundational understanding of happiness, and I truly do believe that the American concept of happiness contributes heavily to some individuals’ desires to take their own life.
America – an unattainable, unnatural happiness
Eric Wilson held a particular disdain for American happiness which he claims is “devoted to predictability and smoothness” (114). This proved true in a recent study from Victoria University of Wellington that demonstrated how, when asked to choose between a linear and nonlinear graph of how their wanted their happiness to develop in the future, Americans chose the predictable and smooth linear graph, unlike the Chinese respondents who chose the erratic future of ups and downs (Aaker and Smith).
However, this unrealistic expectation and hope for the future may, in fact, be damaging to people’s mental health. Prior to the worst of her sinks into depression, Sexton too dreamed of the American happiness. “I would be the mother with the cookies and the wise words and the generous heart; the sane mother upon whom my children could always depend,” she said. “Nothing dramatic. I would lead my life on the plane pine planks of an ordinary proscenium” (Sexton 107). By putting this unattainable vision on a pedestal, Sexton was setting herself up for disappointment and denying herself the capability to have natural periods of unhappiness. She remarks, “Depression began to rule, and it felt as if it were due to the loss of the contented vision Jim and I had shared of our future” (Sexton 108).
The American vision of happiness for teenagers seems to be one of popularity, a good education, and a stable family. For adults it is one of financial security, a rich career, and some sum of material wealth. The overall idealization of American happiness can be traced to a life of comfort and safety, protection from anything that might bring physical or emotional harm to an individual. Many people chase after this ideal failing to see the unattainable and unnatural nature of the dream. “Attempting this,” says Wilson, “you will always be dissatisfied, for you are repressing that rich darkness of the soul” (146)
In addition to this, although western countries such as the United States have a better equipped psychological system than others, the system may arguably be too well-equipped. Some sources show that many psychiatrists may be too quick to prescribe medication to people who may be suffering from ordinary phases of unhappiness, that we may be “translating misery into some sort of chemical imbalance” (Fraser). The Guardian notes how many drugs used in psychiatric treatment were originally developed to treat other, more physical maladies, stating that “instead of developing a drug to fit an abnormality an abnormality was postulated to fit a drug” (Fraser). Although it is true that chronic depression can be caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, the guilt and embarrassment that comes with a feeling of unhappiness as well as the idea that all periods of suffering need treatment is purely a social construct. The article states that this sort of society that prescribes pills for the natural sentiment of unhappiness “reinforces the idea that being sad is not human” (Fraser).
American society dislikes broken things, and Fraser maintains that this eagerness to medicate unhappiness out of people validates the perception that suffering people are broken. People then, not wanting to view their suffering loved ones as broken, often throw out misguided remarks to “be strong” and “get with the program” (Sexton 110). In her paper “Who Is the Happy Warrior”, Nussbaum notes that “Americans are often are embarrassed by deep grief” (S95), which seems to be a manifestation of this construct that sadness is inhuman. She writes about a man who had lost his son and was immediately told about ways he could begin his healing process, as if he would want to get over his grief as quickly as possible. He reacted poorly to such messages (S95).
Although many individuals do not convey intent to take their own life, some do occasionally confide in others their troubles or personal grievances. Often times, in this moment of vulnerability, they are reassured that they are strong enough to get through it all. “Things will get better with time,” they might be told as people spout the clichés that plague the English speaking world. I was once thanked for not saying the same, and that moment lingers with me even now.
Sexton writes, “Today, we live in a time where suicide is still often disdained as an act of cowardice or a lack of moral fortitude” (106) […] I argue that this perception extends from the misguided belief that suffering is unnatural. After my readings, I believe that suicide is an out for people who have no more places to seek solace – people without support and people whose loved ones, misguided in attempts to help fix the broken things faster, dehumanize, belittle, or estrange their suffering. People must come to realize that unhappiness comes from being human. It comes naturally from being alive.
The Right to Unhappiness
This American vision of happiness feels more like a museum exhibit than anything one can experience – too enclosed, too pristine, and too inaccessible. What is worse is that society takes this highly specific vision of a happy life and attempts to use it as a standard of happiness for all people without regard for the diversity of human personalities and richness of character.
Though I have never considered myself suicidal, I do have moments of deep, depressive ruts. In these moments, one of the hardest elements of my suffering is that I feel selfish. After all, there are so many more people with more reasons to be unhappy. I know of others with similar sentiments.
If one has both parents, a stable home, financial stability, and a number of caring friends, they subscribe to and fit the label of American happiness. And yet, not all these individuals are happy. There is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is that they are forced to feel guilty for feeling unhappy with their circumstances. This sort of sentiment only leads them to believe that no one will understand their feelings. This sort of sentiment leads individuals to believe that, not only is their unhappiness unnatural, they do not even possess the right to be unhappy.
Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
In my definition, I stated that suffering, and consequentially unhappiness, are in fact an intrinsic and inseparable part of happiness itself. After all, if “the main goal of life is to maximize happiness” (Brooks) and, as Keats says, “Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression” are necessary parts of life (Wilson 111), then suffering’s participation in the natural process of happiness is inevitable. The true irony is that she suffered from her belief that was not allowed to suffer.
The problem, however, lies not in suffering, but in trying to suffer alone – I know of one individual who knows this very well. After all, his friends flock to him with their troubles and he comforts them in their times of need. He knows of the troubles they go through and, in his mind, many of them go through far more troubles in comparison. Compared to some of them, he has no right to be unhappy. This belief, along with his consideration for them, became a noose around his neck.
“I didn’t want to burden Jim with my negative mood,” Sexton says in terrifying parallel with this individual (109). I advised him to confide in someone closer in proximity to him. He did not believe anyone emotionally strong enough to shoulder his fewer, nonsensical burdens along with their own.
The Dalai Lama once said, “Our feelings of contentment are strongly influenced by our tendency to compare” (22). Many people interpret this statement as a proclamation to be satisfied with what you already have and not lust for more. However, I consider this individual’s torment as an example in which the opposite case stands true as well. The Tao Te Ching tells us, “Success is as dangerous as failure. Hope is as hollow as fear,” and reminds us, “Whether you go up the ladder or down it, your position is shaky” (Mitchell 13).
It seems to me that this individual has fallen into not only the trap of comparison, but also the trap of Bentham’s thinking. He seems to quantify the pain of those around him, as if all the different troubles consist of the same substance, and use the number of burdens others shoulder as excuses to not add his own. However, “the pain of a headache is very different from the pain of losing a loved one to death” (Nussbaum S83), and though he might consider the quality of one pain worse than another, other people might judge this differently. Even if he considers his problems as petty, others might not agree. Unhappiness is not a quantitative process with a single answer like math.
Happiness and Suicide
“Watching the streaking lights of the traffic below. Reviewing his miserable life. Wishing he’d been born in a different body.” (Diaz 190). I know of individuals who experienced suicidal thoughts differently. Some did not think their lives miserable and others did. Some did not wish they had been born in a different body and others did. One individual, at the moment before their attempt, thought back on happy moments ranging from years to mere days ago. There were numerous.
The thought of a person with any happiness taking their life is counterintuitive. After all, we see suicidal people in media all the time – people bullied, people estranged, people with nothing left – and if there is any joy left for them in the world, they take their life once it has been ripped away from them. However, if suffering and happiness are intrinsically tied and suicide is often an escape from suffering, then happiness plays a role in suicide as well.
In his writing, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Eric Wilson writes that “there is a connection among melancholy, beauty, and death,” (Wilson 113), and such a connection between melancholy and death seems clear, direct, and self-evident. However, the road that leads a happy person towards their own death is more obscure, to the point where happiness and thoughts of death seem mutually exclusive.
Yet, in this meandering attempt to come to an understanding of suicidal thoughts, I feel that I have found a connection – every society has some vague concept of happiness, and unfortunately, every society attempts to force people under the same uniform terms. This definition can strangle a person, especially adolescents trying to find their own way. It can trap them into their own desperate denial of unhappiness that, ironically, sinks them into unhappiness itself.
Furthermore, one can experience moments of happiness even on the path down to death. The media’s portrayal of brooding, self-harming youths taking their own lives does exist, but it remains a dangerous stereotype that blinds people to the reality of the problem before them. I believe that some people who take their own lives are not those who have no happiness left in the world but are those who have no one with whom to share their suffering.
I also believe that these are not the only connections, but merely the first fibers of the twisting rope that ties happiness and suicide together.
“My sensibilities did not extend to comprehend how anyone could watch someone else’s extreme difficulties with equanimity and then say, ‘It could have been me,’ with gratitude in her voice. To say that, in such a painful and complex situation, to someone as close as your sister, after everything we had gone through together. To say, ‘I’m so sorry for you.’”
Linda Gray Sexton
A long time has passed now since my first encounter with someone’s intent to die. They are still alive and well. I might even dare to claim, informed this time, that they are happy. However, time feels like it has both passed and not. I cannot tell whether it feels like the event happened too long ago or just yesterday – almost as if I tucked the memory away into a bottle, and if I knock it over or open it, the memory spills, and suddenly I am in that moment again.
Help them. That first thought and instinct still, even now, lingers in my mind. When I was presented with this desire to die, everything happened so fast that I didn’t understand what a precarious position I had been put in, what power and burden had been thrust upon me. It wasn’t until I read about Sexton’s estranged relationship with her sister and the hurt that loved ones’ reactions to her suicidal thoughts had wrought that I realized how many things could have gone wrong – how many things that I could have done wrong.
When all was said and done, I was told that I was trusted.
I wrote this essay because I want to be worthy of this trust. However, as I stated in the beginning, I have many pieces and too many holes remaining in the blank puzzle of my answer. Perhaps I should be grateful that I even have pieces – the fact that I ran headlong into that situation with such reckless abandon and didn’t run us both off a cliff is a miracle in itself.
“But really, what did I want from her so desperately?” Sexton asks in her memoir “Perhaps it was simply that I did not want to be pitied, I wanted to be understood” (98). Even now, I cannot say that I understand suicidal thoughts completely, and of course cases differ from person to person, circumstance to circumstance. However, at the very least I can say that I have tried, and I plan to keep trying. […]
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