Not Unhappy

 A sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely  Unitarian Church of Edmonton, April 27, 2014

Musical Selections (sort of the readings for this service) (Click Titles for links to music videos)

“Get Happy”  Judy Garland

“Don’t Worry Be Happy”  Bobby McFerrin

“Happiness” from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”


North American society is addicted to happiness.  If you have been around the church awhile, you have heard me say this before.  It’s still true.

What do I mean?

We expect to be happy, in fact we are told to expect to be happy and settle for nothing less.  That’s the message we get all the time, a bombardment from every source imaginable.  For a good cause we are asked to buy a raffle ticket that will win us a dream home or a high end car, because that will make us happy. Imagine what you might do, they say. Just imagine!

If we are feeling a bit low, a lot of us – myself sometimes included – practice retail therapy.  We head out for the mall with it’s lights and displays and sounds all designed carefully to make us want to buy stuff- that will make us happy, right?

Check out the magazine racks at the grocery store.  Publications show us the beautiful bodies we can have, because that will make us happy, and the beautiful meals we can cook, and the beautiful homes we can decorate and the beautiful crafts we can make, and the stories promise us 30 ways to have better sex…because that will surely make us happy.

Liquor ads are maybe the best for promising happiness.  Drink a particular brand of vodka offered on TV and you’ll be rich enough to play golf in the Caribbean and spend your afternoons sailing on a yacht with your fine looking lover.  Or the beer ads.  They promise a more working class kind of happiness, dancing and partying with promising sex partners after a couple of pints in a happening place.  Sorry, do we even say ‘happening place’ anymore or am I dating myself?

Dating sites on the web have become a big business selling us on the idea that finding that special someone will make us happy.  Don’t go through life unhappy and alone!  Find that LifeMate, or some Plenty of Fish, or your  Heck there is even Ashley Madison for those simply seeking the passing happy fix of an illicit affair in case the LifeMate thing has gone a bit stale.

And finally there is my favourite: the toy ads. Perfect kids -always a year or two older than the target audience  have an amazing time together playing with inanimate plastic objects.  They look so…so…Happy!

I expect I could spend the rest of my time pulling examples of manufactured and marketed happiness in a bottle.

The fundamentally false premise underlying all of this is that happiness is something external, something to be acquired, purchased, found elsewhere.  If we do the right thing, buy the right product, wear the right clothes are the right weight, consume the right food and drink we will be happy.  Phew.  That was easy!

Of course, it’s not true.  Happiness is not a commodity.  It’s not a thing.  You can’t pack it in one of those damnably unopenable plastic hanger thingies.  It doesn’t work that way.

Happiness is an emotional quality.  It is something that comes from within, something that grows within us and flows through us to all parts of our being.  No external arbiter can decide if we are happy or not, that’s our job alone.  And while friends, loved ones and even all of those activities I mentioned can cheer us out of a low mood sometimes, they don’t bring us happiness.  Rather we allow ourselves to be happy in those situations.  As we try to teach our children, no one can tell you what to feel or how to feel.  Being happy or unhappy is, at least in part, a choice you make.

I say ‘in part’, for I have to acknowledge that there are circumstances, medical, psychological and situational that can hit us pretty hard and steal whatever joy and happiness we may feel or desire.  There are times when we try to let good feelings in, but the blockages are too great to overcome.  That’s tough, and I know many here have been through that – are going through that.  perhaps in times like these the best we can do is not let those pounding messages of “Get Happy” make us feel worse than we do.

The insidious side of “Get Happy”,  is that failure to live in that Grey Goose vodka haze of perfection can push us to feel like failures, can suggest that our lack of yahoo is our own fault.  That’s the part I hate the most.  It demonstrates a terrible lack of compassion that is entirely driven by a desire for profit.  Dollars over humanity?  Well, that’s not a happy bargain.

A second point I wish to make, and have made in the past, is that a state of happiness – especially the exuberant kind – is not permanent nor should it be.  It cannot be sustained.  Feeling really happy is a little like a sprinting.  Sprinting feels marvellous for awhile, but eventually the muscles tire and the oxygen depletes.  You can’t keep up that pace for very long.

It is a simple fact that a healthy emotional life has its share of ups and downs.  Indeed, we need the down moments for rest, for contemplation and to help us appreciate those moments of unbridled happiness.  Life without the less happy times would be like a photograph without contrast, just a blur of bright undefined colour…meaningless.

In an old Peanuts cartoon Linus and Charlie Brown are leaning on a stone wall watching the world go by.  Linus asks Charlie Brown what he wants out of life,  “To be happy?”

“I don’t really expect that,” says our hapless hero, head resting in hand, “…I really don’t. I just don’t want to be unhappy.”

Here is a young man of modest expectations.  Oh I know, some would view him as a depressive.  God knows, poor old Charlie Brown has cause to be depressed and frequently claimed that state of being.  But he also knew how to get the most out of the simple pleasures like his dog, his friends, even his love for baseball, a game at which he was singularly ungifted.  We heard the song Happiness from the musical You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown: “Happiness is finding a pencil, pizza with sausage, telling the time…

So Charlie Brown set his sights wisely on the achievable.  “Not unhappy,”  That might be the best his temperament and abilities will allow.  Arguably, it might be all that life will allow most of us.  So what is ‘not unhappy’, exactly?

Blogger Dani DiPirro writes on happy versus not unhappy:

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how not the same they really were. Being happy is the state when you contain happiness within yourself, when you choose to be at one with the positivity in your life and in the world. Being not unhappy is the state where you’re not necessarily unhappy, but you’re not necessarily happy either. You’re in limbo. And, oddly enough, I think more people are really referring to this state — this “not unhappiness” — when they use the word “happy” (especially when they’ve been asked the generic “Are you happy?” question). To me, happiness is a proactive thing, something you actively and purposefully choose, not an absence of something (such as not possessing unhappiness).

Now I agree with her about our own role in creating claiming our own happiness, but as she goes on to cheerfully advocate choosing happiness as often as possible, well there I differ a little.  She calls not unhappy a ‘state of limbo’.  Back when I was a kid, Limbo was a place where unbaptized babies went when they died.  It wasn’t the terror of Hell, but it wasn’t the angelic-chorus filled joy of Heaven either.  It was kind of neutral, energy efficient, calming and restful.

Is there something wrong with that?  I have always thought that Limbo had its attractions.  It would be a little like an emotional vacation up at a wilderness cabin instead of at an all-inclusive Disneyland resort.  It’s a place of simple instead of wild ecstasy, quiet leisurely conversations, books, walks, not wild rides and purchasing temptations in a place that is like a mall on steroids.  There are times when limbo sounds pretty darn good to me.

Not unhappy.  That’s a condition that can be sustained longer, I think.  I spoke earlier about happiness being a bit like a sprint.  Look at this body.  This is not the body of a sprinter.  Back when I played football sprints were something the fast guys did while I struggled along 5 or 10 yards behind.

I’m not a sprinter.  I’m a distance guy, an endurance athlete.  I find a pace that suits me and I just go and go. It’s a lot like being like having a base that’s the emotional equivalent of not unhappy:  not too high, not too low.  More importantly it is a mood that pleases me as a basic state of being.  I can sustain living at a ‘not unhappy’ level for a long time. On some of my very long bike rides, there will be emotional highs and lows, moments of pure joy and moments of real struggle.  What sustains is the simple rhythm of pedalling and the chance to watch the passing scene.  Crossing the finish line is a nice moment – a burst of happy to be sure with the crowds and the cheers, but the real satisfaction is out on the course, being in a zone that’s not too high nor too low but quietly joy filled.  At the very least it’s a pleasant state of contentment a state of not unhappy.

So what does a sustainable kind of ‘not unhappy’ look like for you?  What activities bring you a sense of contentment?  Hobbies?  Friends? A walk? A book? Work?  Find that place that sustains you and spend as much time there as you can manage.  You might even have to drop some things from your life to do it, but hey! it sounds pretty healthy to me.

I thought about this a bit when I was picking the music today.  Both songs “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Get Happy” had ‘happy’ in the title, but they are very different.  Judy Garland sang that in that big band modern marketing mood urging us all to “Get Happy” – a gospel – like religious song telling us to get ready for the Judgment Day.  Not only are we supposed to make ourselves happy, but we kind of have to do it because God expects our happiness.  Really?  That’s not very good theology.  It’s lively, but also demanding and forced, change your mood or disappoint God.  Yikes!

By contrast our opening song was Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” But recall the melody and the beat.  It’s a laid back reggae tune.  It starts with whistling for heaven’s sake.  To me it sounds like a guy walking down the street, taking it all in, whistling a tune and just – well, being in the moment taking life as it comes.  There is no force, but rather a dream of letting go of stress and anxiety and just finding a nice emotional place to be.  In the time worn cliche of sports, it’s playing within yourself.

To me, Bobby McFerrin is singing about being not unhappy more than grabbing hold of the electric shock of happiness Judy Garland wants.

That’s the difference for me.  I like feeling happy, but I like simply feeling good for long periods.  Like Charlie Brown, I prefer that to the great highs and lows of chasing the happiness dream.