The History Boys (2006), a masterful film adaptation of playwright Alan Bennett’s drama of the same name, has a thoughtful and melancholy ending. The film deploys a creative fusion of present and future in which the character of Mrs. Lintott, a history teacher, asks her students about the people they grew up to be. The handsome and charismatic Dakin has become a tax lawyer; Scripps, a wry but compassionate Anglican, a journalist. It is the main character, Posner, who offers Mrs. Lintott the most moving answer. He became a teacher. Having once loved Dakin, he continues to feel homosexual desire, but for unspoken social and professional reasons (and personal ones implied throughout the film) never acts on them.
“I’m not happy,” Posner confesses poignantly to Mrs. Lintott, “but I’m not unhappy about it.”
Posner’s touching meditation on how his life has turned out indicates that he does not think his unhappiness is meaningless. Indeed, it is quite possible to be meaninglessly happy in the manner of a vacuous reality TV star seemingly ignorant of the world’s broken state, just as it is possible, like Posner, to feel misery that is actually meaningful. In a similar vein, philosophy professor Jon Cogburn of Louisiana State University argues in an eloquent blog post: “I think that philosophy, like other creative endeavors and certain forms of religion, attracts people who experience the brokenness of the world and the self yet also have experience of the numinous (truth, beauty, goodness), experiences that partially transcend the all encompassing brokenness. But meaningful unhappiness just is the experience of brokenness.” (Philosophical Percolations)
This is a very helpful nuance for understanding unhappiness. Yet unhappiness is not only directed at the broken world outside of ourselves, but also at our own shattered inner world. We might feel that we are failures, that we have made regrettable choices, or that we could have made more of our lives. Writers such as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh have philosophized extensively about the interior nature of unhappiness and why people across such diverse cultures and societies seem to share a universal angst. For Thich Nhat Hanh, people are unhappy because they are seeking ideal conditions outside of themselves. His Five Mindfulness Trainings (collected reinterpretations of the Five Precepts for his disciples) note that we need to return to the present moment to be grounded in inner peace. It is only by being in the present that we can remember we have more than enough conditions to be happy.
This advice seems even more applicable when we look at just how much choice is available to many of us today. We often have sundry regrets about past decisions and fears about the future. No matter what path we select, we always wonder if we could have taken a better path that might have led to more happiness. From the job we did, or did not, accept, to the relationships we chose (or ended up not pursuing), we could spend our lives speculating on a near-infinite number of what ifs that we have left behind. As long as this self-torture continues, we can never live in the present and enjoy life.
We live in a mind-boggling quantum world of choices. The possibilities latent in our picks of human relationships, professional paths, children, and even where we live (including the choice to emigrate or live in the country of one’s birth) amplify Thich Nhat Hanh’s warning against losing ourselves as a fragmented consciousness in space and time, caught up in regrets of the past and paralyzed by fear of the future).
In 1951, Alan Watts (1915–73), one of the first teachers to interpret Buddhism for a Western audience, wrote an almost prophetic book about our age, anticipating many of our existential struggles in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. Among many insightful nuggets of advice, he argued, “If to enjoy even an enjoyable present we must have the assurance of a happy future, we are ‘crying for the moon.’” In reality we have no such assurance, and we will all suffer and die anyway. Therefore, if we cannot live happily without assurance, we cannot live happily in a finite world where life itself constantly gets in our way, where death is the end, and where, as the celebrated Chinese military strategist Zhuge Liang (181–234) once said, “Men devise, heaven decides.”
We feel unhappy because heartbreak, disappointment, and regret characterize life as much as joy, contentment, and wonder. From Watts’ perspective, however, it is this lack of assurance or certainty of happiness that offers us the potential to become wiser, gentler, more empathetic people. This meaningful unhappiness provides a spur to wisdom, existing within us as an inner tension that motivates us to spiritual practice.
In the real world, there are happy and unhappy Buddhists. However, as we can see from our exploration of unhappiness, unhappy practitioners are not necessarily less wise or less accomplished than happy ones. The next time someone confesses that they are unhappy, that they are experiencing brokenness in their lives and in the world, rather than passing judgment over their choices or spirituality, everyone might benefit from some compassionate and non-judgmental conversation.
We therefore come back to Posner through Watts’ advice on living without an assured future. Buddhist thought teaches right thought, right speech, and other right ways of living. However, is there also such a thing as “right unhappiness?” Could the state of meaningful unhappiness, the experience of brokenness, be in some way what Posner meant by not being unhappy about his sad life?
Watts, Alan. 2011. The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. Original edition, 1951. New York: Vintage Books.
Why are Tenured Philosophy Professors Unhappy? (Philosophical Percolations)