Megan Nicol Reed is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

Megan Nicol Reed: The importance of unhappiness

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Each week Megan Nicol Reed talks through what’s on all of our minds.
If you don't go through feelings of being unhappy, how will you ever know what true happiness feels like? Photo / iStock
If you don't go through feelings of being unhappy, how will you ever know what true happiness feels like? Photo / iStock

How frigid it is as I write, swamped by my winter dressing gown, rain flagellating the window. How can it be only a day or two ago I welcomed this change for the inclement. Turned on the heat pump with a thrill. Already I feel bleak. I had intended to go for a run yesterday but, venturing out between squalls to pick up a palm frond downed by the storm, I slipped on the stairs. As I lay there, winded, I noted the moss; my husband's neglected promise to waterblast, the burgeoning bruise on my thigh. Forced into idleness, I instead polished off the leftover pudding, the cream, and the custard too. And now here I sit, bleak, blubbery, bruised.

I try to draw on the words of Gillian, 77, who wrote to me recently. Her email was, as it stated baldly in the subject line, an "open letter on negativity". Gillian claims to enjoy "everything in life including swimming in the sea, painting, bridge and travel". She tries to "find something to like about most people", but struggles to warm to those "negative, dull people", with "no 'get up and go' who seem to enjoy grumbling".

I wonder what Gillian would make of me in my present state. Should I take her advice?

"Put on some music," she says. "Sing and dance round the house." I play some Tracy Chapman. I feel not so much like dancing as weeping. I persevere; try to bust out a running man. I have momentarily forgotten my sore leg. I curse.

Gillian says she is currently performing on stage at her local community theatre. "What astonishes me are some people's comments when they hear about this part of my life: 'You must be mad!' or 'Why bother with all of that stress?'" she says. "They don't get it. I love it. Want to do it. I have so much fun with bright, happy people."

I'd rather have a pap smear than join an amateur dramatics troupe, but I take her point.

It's no fun hanging out with negative, dull people.

If I could escape my own miserable company today, I would. But then I am not attracted by the relentlessly cheerful either. I am suspicious of those who are always positive. Bubbliness is not a trait I seek in a friend. It seems to me that allowing for, although not wallowing in, a degree of negativity in life is necessary. It is happiness' flipside. If we are never down, how can we appreciate, recognise even, when we are up? Lying on the couch last night, sick with lemon tart, teeming with pity, I tried to remind myself there were people worse off. That I might be a pig, but at least I wasn't starving; my deck might be slimy, but at least I wasn't homeless. And so on. It was futile. Thinking of all the world's ills only ever serves to make me sadder.

I wonder, though, if Ingrid, who emailed me recently describing how she has turned her life around, might be on to something. Through a process of re-evaluation, she said she has learned to "embrace what actually is, rather than how I would like things to be". It strikes me as a recipe for contentment.

Interestingly, in a letter responding to last week's discussion of chronic pain, which, I hasten to add, I am not in any way equating to my pathetic, temporary injury, Deb, who also suffers from the debilitating condition, takes a similar approach. "Most people in chronic pain find it very hard to let go of that 'old me' - the one who ran 10km and never stopped working/being a superwoman.

It's hard to give that up, and we need reminding to slow down, in the kindest way." She believes acceptance is "the hardest part of this whole ugly thing, and I won't pretend I'm even close, but if I don't get on with my life, as it is now, accepting I still have so many blessings, then what's the point?"

She said there are practical things we can do for those with chronic pain: carrying groceries, making dinner. Sarah said thermal socks and light exercise have helped her. And Stephanie has written a book, How Does It Hurt?, which fellow sufferers have told her provides both validation and solace.

Next week I'd like to discuss money.

If matters of a financial nature trouble you, please get in touch.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Canvas

Please do write: megannicolreed@gmail.com

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Megan Nicol Reed is a columnist for Canvas magazine.

There were many things Megan Nicol Reed imagined she would do in her journalism career. She ticked off feature writer, editor and columnist. She never envisaged agony aunt. Now, when she isn't trying to sort out her own life, she's trying to sort yours. And when she's not doing that she is writing her first novel. In her downtime you'll find her mothering, cooking, running, cleaning and reading. Needless to say she spends much of her life in activewear.

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