Opinion: Why we can’t be happy

by Ifeoluwa Nihinlola

There’s been a rise in people devoted to chastising the faux-sad, the depressed for show, the performers of melancholy. These apostles of happiness will have us believe that young people are choosing to be sad because it has become fashionable. That the youngin’ should stop moping around and get on with their silly lives, or at least perform their sadness in private, away from the safe happy spaces we’ve designed for ourselves.

It’s important to note how sinister and oppressive this pretend-pragmatism is. Some unfortunately vocal people have decided that a swathe of human consciousness be proscribed because, according to their data obtained via advanced analytics, it has become too popular. God forbid that the spirit of the age, the totem of our times, be the grey cloud of sadness or depression. There are names for people who attempt to deny others their happiness—Grinch, killjoy, sourpuss, etc., —but what do we call these apostles who tell the sad to either be happy or go to hell?

Maybe at another time I would unlook this like I do a lot of things I see on social media, but I’ve had intimate moments with sadness this year that I’m now part of the human subset the apostles are targeting. I’ve watched valuable man-hours drift away while sat on the floor in my room, staring at the ceiling, wishing there was something that could be done to pierce my sadness.

While at the nadir of this sadness, the one thing I was worried about was the possibility of extending it to people around me like it was a contagious disease. I didn’t want pity, didn’t want to have people check on me by the minute. I wanted to find a way back to joy and happiness without the charity of others. Bar a few extreme narcissists, this is how many people respond to their sadness. Sad people are often capable of making other people laugh as a way of masking their pain. At least, for me, the part of my brain that produces comedy is often undisturbed by whatever sadness the rest of my mind is entombed in.

A performance of sadness sounds like something only privileged people can be accused of. People in visible pain are given the permission to be sad in public, while others should be queried and asked to show receipts of their misery. We become emotional quality assessors, deciding what sadness genuine or not. But ironically, we are also the people who say ‘the rich also cry,’ a statement we are quick to whip out when we need to feel good about our penury while we watch people of means suffer.

We should also question the notion that performed sadness has become fashionable. Or as some people often like to infer: that young creatives now choose sadness because they think it’s hip and popular. Yes there are people who think this way, but hasty generalisation is too common a fallacy to ignore. There are a few things as funny as Nigerians insisting depression is now hip. We’re famous for our head-in-the-sand response to our collective gradual march to socio-economic hell by making a joke out of everything, yet some people think young people performing sadness are the ones who need to gerrarahia.

In Nigeria, happiness is what sells. It is what is fashionable. This isn’t Germany where we all go around with stoic faces. Sadness isn’t suddenly the new sex that advertisers are now using to entice the young because it has become their thing. Joy is still the predominant creative energy. It used to be anger in the time of the one who had death in his pouch. But now, it is joy. ‘Joy, nothing by joy’ like the Star Boy says. Or perhaps, giddy happiness misconstrued as always equivalent to joy.

Rebecca Solnit, in an interview with Krista Tipett of On Being, said:

‘Joy is such an interesting term, because we hear constantly about happiness, “Are you happy?” And it’s — emotions are mutable, and this notion that happiness should be a steady state seems destined to make people miserable. And joy is so much more interesting, because I think we’re much more aware that, it’s like the light at sunrise, or the lightning or something that is epiphanies in moments and raptures, and that it’s not supposed to be a steady state, and that’s OK. And I think it’s a word that comes up a lot more in spiritual life than happiness…’


These apostles of happiness act like it’s a bubble that must be protected by militant opposition to all things melancholy. But in the battle of public emotions, happiness is still the victor, sadness the underdog, and Basket Mouth still manages to convince us he’s not in need of a comedic make over. What is being revealed is the frailty of these apostles. Their false conviction in their personal happiness is what is under threat by the perceived deluge of sadness. Rather than bash the young folks daily, perhaps they should go look for epp in the bottle of their choice.

Of course we’re happy—too happy; to suggest otherwise is to force-feed us bobo. The real question is why we’re not more given to contemplation, to melancholy. One of the world’s wisest men once said that it’s better to go to the house of mourning than that of feasting. Maybe if we took that man’s advice, we wouldn’t be where we are today, dancing skelewu into depression while ruled by the one man we shouldn’t have allowed anywhere near the presidency. We all deserve happiness, but the pursuit of it should never be an excuse to dismiss sadness.

The question we should ask isn’t why can’t we be happy. The real question is: why are we not sad?

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

IfeOluwa Nihinlola lives in Lagos. He writes essays and short stories and blogs at www.ifenihinlola.wordpress.com.

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