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Why is Happiness Fleeting?

At the weekend, I was listening to James Rhodes’s brilliant new album, ‘Fire on all sides’ – what a masterpiece. To say he has talent is the understatement of the decade.  Almost at the same time, I saw his recent BBC Breakfast interview, which you can watch below, where he discusses happiness and what it means to pursue feeling happy.

Rhodes makes some interesting observations about the state of happiness, but this one statement in particular resonates:  ‘We are not meant to be happy all the time’.  Actually, his thoughts fit like a glove with major schools of spiritual wellbeing, ancient myths and archetypal psychology: Heraclitus to Graves, to Bly and Samuels, to name a few.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Rhodes says more on the pursuit of happiness; his view is that we are not meant to be happy all the time and that the pursuit of happiness at all costs is causing us pain. Wise words indeed.

Ancient wisdom tells us that ‘happiness is a fleeting state, not an arrival at a destination’. What, then, if we think about it in different terms ? How about ‘happiness comes and goes’, just like the tides?

At best, happiness is a fleeting emotion: a sensation to be enjoyed while it is here, however short the visit.  Sadness, happiness’ ugly twin, has the same fleeting visiting pattern. When sadness visits, we have to endure despite wanting rid of it. Jung aptly named sadness  ‘nigredo’, or dark night of the soul. Sadness is a fleeting emotion, too; just like other feelings, it will pass.

More often, sadness teaches – it enables us to grow spiritually and emotionally. How would we appreciate or even know happiness if sadness didn’t exist? If happiness were the permanent condition, or even much wrestled for a sense of balance, where would meaning be found? How would the green shoots of personal growth burst forth?

Carl Jung quote happiness and sadness balance

Jung famously wrote that ‘the word “happy” would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness’. What do you think?

Understanding Sadness in Relation to Happiness

A permanent state of bliss could be likened to the Sisyphus myth (where Sisyphus must roll a stone up a hill, only for it to roll back down again every time he succeeds). It would be meaningless and eventually boring. Could too much happiness be no more than an ecstatic death sentence? It takes a bit of thought to consider sadness from this standpoint.

Self-help books certainly do have their rightful place, but the pursuit of happiness per se is both illogical and a fallacy. Depression, too, at times is a necessary position, and it has a purpose. We can’t always be happy, just as we can’t be continually sad. James Rhodes is making a wise observation that happiness and sadness are part of a continuum. They can be normalized as part of the experience of living.

Severe or prolonged depression is a different matter. It is not normal sadness at all. These symptoms are not part of normal sadness:

  • To really want to kill yourself
  • To not have the energy to wash or wear clean clothes
  • To want to scratch, burn or harm yourself
  • To not be able to think clearly
  • To not be able to make simple decisions

These depression symptoms need expert psychological or psychiatric help. These symptoms are not a progression of normal sadness, but a sign that help is needed.

However, if your sad feelings are fleeting, and part of a normal life with its ups and downs, rather than clinical depression, it’s important to put them in perspective, and Rhodes’ words can help with that process.

Written by Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (


crisis depression Psychology wellbeing0 comments