That Feeling When by Nikhil Taneja: Do we know how to be happy?

That Feeling When by Nikhil Taneja: Do we know how to be happy?


I recently had a realisation that after years of struggling, I’m at a place where things, at this current moment in time, are okay. In fact, they are better than okay. My personal relationships feel wholesome, I’ve never enjoyed work more, I am getting rewards and awards for the years of hard work I’ve put in getting here. My life is going… pretty smoothly. I have been so pleasantly surprised that things are going well that it’s now turned into suspicion about what’s inevitably coming next!

It’s like I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. There’s got to be a catch, my brain’s been telling me; doesn’t this feel like the calm before the impending storm? When the going is good, why does it feel like a set-up for the ‘tough’ times? These niggling questions, combined with the frustration that I am over thinking so much when I should just be enjoying the (very rare!) good times, has been giving me more anxiety than I’ve had in months!

‘You are not alone’

To process my feelings, I did what I usually do when I feel too much: I expressed. On Instagram, obviously. I asked others if they too find happiness ‘wrong’, and if we actually know how to be happy at all.

I wasn’t expecting hundreds of DMs to my post by people who wrote in to say, ‘you are not alone’. I got DMs saying things like ‘I feel guilty about resting and wonder why I’m having a good time’ and ‘When good things happen, a sense of fear comes with it. I feel comfortable only in chaos and mess’. There are people who said, ‘Anytime I get success, I feel I don’t deserve it if I didn’t struggle as much as my friends’ and ’I feel sad when something good happens. It’s hard for me to accept anything good can happen’. One person even wrote, ‘Sometimes, I end up sabotaging the smooth phase because of the thought of impending doom!’

A lot of people explained it as the ‘Indian mentality’ of ‘workaholism’ and chasing ‘capitalism’. That as Indians, we are wired to never be satisfied with what our present is, and are always striving, struggling and hustling for more, ‘even if we do not know what we are striving for exactly’. That the struggle gives us something to look forward to, especially for people who want to constantly be ‘better versions of themselves’. That we have now starting liking being uncomfortable so much, that this feeling ‘gives our brain comfort!’

Patterns of negativity

Others called it the curse of being ‘over thinkers and over feelers’. And many gave me terms to learn more about: ‘survivor mode’ and ‘trauma conditioning’ and how we are conditioned to chaos and we ‘romanticise pain and struggle’ so much that we have now developed a ‘negativity bias’ where, when things are good, it’s hard to accept it. One person poignantly wrote, ‘What are we even chasing? Even when we are happy, we look for closure.’

A few people sent me the same video by noted public speaker and author Brene Brown, where she called this struggle a ‘foreboding of joy’. She said that ‘we are trying to dress rehearse tragedy so we can beat vulnerability to punch.’ That ‘when we lose our tolerance for vulnerability’, we are not able to ‘soften up to joy’. It’s been bittersweet to learn that it’s not just me who responds strangely to what should be ‘happiness’. That these patterns are wired so deep within us that we haven’t even begun unlearning them.

But it’s also been gratifying to read that we’ve identified the challenge: that even though it’s taken us all this time to be vulnerable when in pain, we now also need to embrace vulnerability in times of joy. We have begun to be comfortable telling each other that it is okay to be sad. Maybe we now also need to tell ourselves that it is okay to be happy.

Nikhil Taneja is a writer, producer, storyteller, public speaker, feeler of feelings, men’s mental health advocate and co-founder of Yuvaa

That Feeling When is a fortnightly column that offers a relatable take on mental health and emotional well-being.

From HT Brunch, September 24, 2022

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