Is it Okay to Not Be Happy?

by Katy on August 25, 2010 · 28 comments

I’ve written a fair amount about happiness. Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project was a huge inspiration to me and I already considered myself a fairly happy person to begin with. But what about when you just want to wallow in an old fashioned bad mood funk?

Is is acceptable to not be happy?

I do worry that the new focus on happiness is placing a unreasonable pressure on women to be happy at all times. Yes women. Not only do we have to do all that we do, but we need to have a smile plastered across our faces while we’re at it.

Doing dishes? Make sure to enjoy the task.

This is bouncing around in my head today because I had a really crappy day at work yesterday. I came home and immediately had to run the kids across town to soccer and martial arts. This wasn’t all that bad, but I was tired and just wanted to put my head down on a pillow. The evening entailed catching up on the latest episodes of Mad Man, but somehow it just didn’t do the trick. I was grumpy, short tempered and it was probably a good idea to give me some elbow room.

I guess what I’m asking is this, is it acceptable to hunker down into a bad mood? Should a person employ all the traditional tricks to stay happy, (sing songs, write gratitude lists, bask in the glow of a perfectly organized closet) or should we accept the mood in order to get through it?

I feel that all emotions need to be experienced in order to move past them. If we bottle up the negative emotions in an effort to be happy at all times, then we’ll eventually implode. Of course, occasional bad moods are an entirely different beast from true depression, which I won’t even attempt to cover in a short quippy column.

I’m feeling better today. I got to sleep in a little bit, and although my house is a revolting mess, I do have a few kid free hours to deal with it. But if I had plastered that smile onto my face yesterday, I would probably still be wallowing in that funk.

Agree, disagree? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Annie Jones August 25, 2010 at 9:29 am

I think it’s not only ok, but imperative, to acknowledge one’s emotions, rather than denying them, holding them in or trying to change them too quickly. That doesn’t mean wallowing in self-pity or lashing out in anger all the time, but rather going with the flow for an hour or two (or a day or two) and then moving on. I think it’s a healthy approach for the average person.


Darci August 25, 2010 at 10:09 am

Totally agree with Annie. Feel your feelings. There’s a difference between having a crap day (or two) and being depressed. You know the difference. Wallow!!! Be a grouchypants!!! And then move on.


Cyndel August 25, 2010 at 9:47 am

I also really enjoyed The Happiness Project, but I don’t in any way think that being happier means you’re never anything else. In fact, I think that having bad days and sad times makes the happy all the better.

I also try not to put too much thought into the way women are supposed to act. There’s so much pressure from so many angles that I would be miserable if I followed it all.


Deborah August 25, 2010 at 10:11 am

Of course there is a difference between happiness and cheerfulness. One can be living a happy life without being constantly cheerful. I took some time to learn that – I was a girl scout, and one of the oaths in the “girl scout law” is to do your best “to be cheerful”. But i think most people recognize that there is a quality called happiness that can be more of an undercurrent to your life and not result in huge silly grins all the time. I have had a lot of soul searching about whether even this kind of happiness was even the goal of life. For example, people will talk about engaging in service because it will make you happy. I have been more inclined to think that we need to be happy enough that we can engage in service, service being the higher goal. We need to have a certain amount of happiness to cultivate compassion, but we might need to have experienced a little suffering as well. But I have thought about it a lot, and decided not to angst about it so much. Happiness is not the only goal of life, but it is definitely a symptom of the right kind of life, and can be one of the qualities we strive for in the context of becoming the people we want to be.


Kathleen McDade August 25, 2010 at 10:19 am

Oh, I agree with you! I take meds for depression, but still fall into a funk sometimes. If I moan and worry about how I can’t get out of the funk, it just makes it worse. If I accept that it just IS and that I will get through it, well, it makes it easier to get through it, I think.


Andrea August 25, 2010 at 10:33 am

If you’re never sad, blue, mad, depressed, cranky, etc., what would be your frame of reference to know when you are happy? Don’t we need to feel the full range of human emotion in order to be fully human? Of course, if down is your default, then something should be done about it (cause you’d be no fun to be around), but those perpetually perky/happy people kinda scare me.


Tracy Balazy August 25, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Well said, Andrea (re: “frame of reference”)!

I agree. I have a close in-law who’s relentlessly cheerful, and is that way even now, as she embarks on a divorce, for which her husband filed. I’ve never seen anyone hide sadness that well, if that’s what she’s doing, but in any case, it just doesn’t seem — I don’t know, normal, healthy, whatever!

I’ve been called a curmudgeon at times, usually when I crack the whip when a project needs to get DONE and no one’s moving on it, but I embrace that title!


Anne Marie @ Married to the Empire August 25, 2010 at 11:09 am

To be happy all the time would be too Stepford Wife-ish. We have an entire arsenal of emotions, none of which are inappropriate to feel, although sometimes actions resulting from said emotions can be wrong.

However, there’s nothing wrong with seeking happiness, or at the very least, doing our best to make life’s unpleasantries more enjoyable. For example, I don’t feel happy when I do the dishes. Actually, I don’t feel much of anything when I do the dishes; I just wash them. But the task is more enjoyable because I listen to audio books while washing up. Sometimes, that winds up making me feel happy, but generally, it’s just a matter of making the task not unpleasant.

Having a good cry is sometimes necessary to one’s well-being. Allowing oneself to feel angry is often justifiable. Wallowing in sadness or lashing out cruelly in anger is not acceptable. But to say that one should feel/be happy at all times is disingenuous and somewhat dangerous, IMO.


Molly On Money August 25, 2010 at 11:25 am

I agree with Deborah. I can get in a funk but still acknowledge that I’m happy- I’m just not particularly cheerful.
I’m in a great place right now and made some changes that I was SURE would solve all my stress. For the most part it did, but it didn’t make me skip around the house signing a lovely song 27/7!


hippierunner August 25, 2010 at 12:23 pm

I think sometimes you need to have some time to wallow in your misery. I had an exhausting and frustrating day yesterday and wanted nothing more than to whine about it for a bit so it would be out of my system. I did just that and then went on with my day in a better mood!


connie August 25, 2010 at 12:31 pm

To be authentic you have to have enough personal courage to allow yourself the gray days. The key is to just remember that they are not permanent, just present. It takes effort for me to be as kind to myself as I would be to a friend. This too will pass…


Tracy Balazy August 25, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Connie, I really liked your whole post!!!


Shannon August 25, 2010 at 2:29 pm

I love that book too. A friend of mine, who herself has been in therapy and on antidepressants for much of her adult life, is fond of saying that all people are entitled to the full range of human emotion. I can’t add anything to that beautiful sentiment. I have another friend, who struggles with depression, is constantly being told by her husband to see her shrink to adjust her medication. That friend has gone through many years of her husband being critically ill, and now a full year of neither of them having a job, with three kids. So when she cries he tells her maybe she needs her meds adjusted. She needs to hear that message—full range of human emotion.


Amanda N August 25, 2010 at 3:00 pm

My husband and I have a shorthand for those days when we are in a funk. We just say, “I’m having an off day.” It doesn’t mean we are not happy with life or that anything in particular is wrong, just that we need a little space and time to be in a funk and know that the other person is not going to question us about what they can do or what is wrong. The next day all is usually right with the world and we had a day to just “have an off day.” Totally acceptable and normal I think.


jody lee August 25, 2010 at 3:41 pm

At home, we call those ‘The Cranks’ – and I agree that it’s totally fine to allow yourself to experience them. I have to admit that I am the type of person who first tries to slap on a smile – sometimes it works – but when it doesn’t, I let myself have a cranky day and go to bed early if possible – because everything is always fine in the morning.


jana @ the empty kitchen August 25, 2010 at 5:09 pm

this is a great question! i think it’s totally acceptable to not be happy sometimes. i find that people who are happy all the time exude some sort of phony quality that i just don’t trust.

repressing any feeling that is not happiness is not being your true, authentic self. that’s a point that gretchen rubin tries to hammer home in her book, especially with her rule “be gretchen”. being yourself affords you the ability to feel and express your entire range of emotions, even if that emotion is unhappiness.


Sharron August 25, 2010 at 5:52 pm

I agree with other folks who’ve commented about experiencing the whole range of human emotion. Instead of “The Happiness Project” I would suggest “The Contentment Project.” Learning the art of contentment allows for one to experience emotions honestly and transparently while still maintaining a sense of grounding. It’s taken me 49 years to get to this point, but I am content. Is my life perfect? No. Am I “happy”? Most of the time. Am I fortunate/blessed/lucky? You betcha! Do I ever feel grumpy or cantankerous? Before my morning coffee for sure. Is life good? Oh, yeah! Thanks for raising this question, Katy!


Kathy M November 5, 2013 at 4:50 am

Contentment is such a wonderful state of being.


Karen August 25, 2010 at 6:42 pm

This is very apropos for me today. I took my son to the airport a few hours ago. This is my baby, who is now 22 and on his way to a neat teaching job in Cairo. Oh my, the roller coaster of feelings today, some of it very blue! But I have no idea how it would be any different, given the circumstances of missing him so much already. So, I gave into a few hours of emotion, whatever it was–sad, confused but also happy for him.

I guess for me, the point is that the emotion should fit the situation. It’s awful when you “have to” be up due to social pressure.


BlindIrishPirate August 25, 2010 at 9:47 pm

I couldn’t agree more. There is a difference between stress/emotion, continual whining, and depression.


Kristen@TheFrugalGirl August 26, 2010 at 2:43 am

I think it’s ok! I’m generally a pretty “up” person, but even I have my down days.


WilliamB August 26, 2010 at 4:00 am

Are you asking is it OK to acknowlege it to yourself, or to let it loose on others?


Katy August 26, 2010 at 8:16 am




Lisa August 26, 2010 at 8:10 am

As my Mom used to say, “There’s a happy medium to everything.” Emotions aren’t constant. They’re fleeting by nature. So I think that it’s more important to be honest with ourselves about whatever emotion we’re experiencing at any given moment while keeping in mind that “this too shall pass”.


Lisa Whipple August 26, 2010 at 10:10 am

Well, there’s “happy” and there’s “not miserable all the dang time.” Everyone gets grumpy, but if you’re finding that you are actively miserable more often than you are not, that indicates that SOMETHING needs to change: scheduling, hours of sleep, priorities, nutritional or exercise habits, job title, brain chemsitry, marital status, whatever.

If your life is generally going satisfactorily, it’s still going to have aspects that are less enjoyable than others. I find that if I approach the tasks that I don’t like but MUST do with an air of misery or anger, it makes me and everyone around me miserable. So, I try to at least aim for not-miserable. It’s not the same as slapping a fake smile across a gaping maw of black despair.


debbie August 26, 2010 at 10:13 am

I’m trying to “step down” and get off antidepression meds because i realized that all they do is draw the curtain on the unhappy things in your life and u don’t end up dealing with them. If i don’t deal with the pain and make changes in my life i don’t have a shot at true happiness. You do have to experience the emotions in order to move past them. You only have one shot at making this gift of life count…thank you to all of u that understand that…not many people in my world do.


Barb @ 1 Sentence Diary August 26, 2010 at 11:47 am

I am *loving* this conversation. So interesting. I have two completely contradictory thoughts:
ONE: I try to follow Gretchen Rubin’s advice to “act how you want to feel.” I find that this very often works for me, though of course it’s not instantaneous.
TWO: When I’m really in a bad mood, sometimes I just need to be in a bad mood. I completely agree with your sentiment that “emotions need to be experienced.”
I still haven’t really figured out how to balance those two things.


MJ August 26, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I have learned (and say) that for me, being ‘happy’ is like a balloon, great while it lasts, that high, giddy feeling, but when it goes, I’m still good if I have contentment, a lot more steady feeling and inclusive of sometimes having a down day…


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