"If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad."
That song popped up on one of my Spotify playlists last week. Now it’s stuck in my head. If you know the tune and can hum along, it’s probably stuck in your head, too.
"If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?"
Let that earworm burrow away. You’re welcome.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard a random song and thought, “Wow, I really needed to hear this.” Maybe it’s not the tune so much as it is the message. For some reason, the lyrics just resonate.
Not only am I now stuck with the earworm, I’m also fixated on the lyrics.
Recently I've observed an uptick in the number of people who actually feel bad for being happy. They might choose not to celebrate a win for fear of alienating family or friends. They fear creating FOMO in others. They hide pride when seemingly everyone around them is feeling down or depressed or angry.
“Times are really tough right now,” a friend posted to social media last year. “Don’t gloat.”
My friend wasn’t directing that missive to anyone in particular. Certainly not me. I mean, after all, I only gloat on rare occasions, and it’s usually in reference to a win by a favorite sports team. I’ve even stopped going to social media to brag about an Earnheardt kid win during the pandemic.
Before COVID, I was a shameless self-promoter. Maybe I still am to some degree. But pre-COVID, I was a regular Don King when it came to promoting the accomplishments of my kids. So, I never quite understood the complexity of motivations behind muted happiness. Now I want to figure it out. I want to know why people feel guilt instead of glee. I’m genuinely interested in knowing why my friend and so many others like him are reluctant to bask in the reflective glow of well-deserved happiness.
Sheryl Crow, who famously sang those lyrics, “If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad,” probably wasn't the first person to meditate on this conundrum, although she was likely the first to sing about it so eloquently.
When my wife speaks the chorus of Crow's hit, she usually stops at the end of that first stanza, "it can't be that bad." This is because, like me, it’s the antithesis of happiness. It seems silly to feel guilt or apprehension over happiness. Why do we do this?
Mary Beth's interpretation is probably more like, "Look, whatever it is you're doing if you're having fun, if you're enjoying yourself, if no one is getting hurt, if you won’t regret it later, if you're not breaking any real laws — then it can't be that bad."
I could live with that advice pre-pandemic. In fact, I could live with it right now. Maybe this is the answer. Because, in context, the meaning has more to do with our ability (or inability) to be joyful, to celebrate a win, and to live in the moment.
The true revelation in Crow’s song is a piece of deeper, richer advice than my 20s-something brain could fully appreciate when it first hit my radio in the 90s. Her song, co-written with her friend Jeff Trott, was a sort of therapy for both of them. Trott was dealing with a break-up when he initially penned the lyrics. Crow sang it to lament the pressure of following up her first hit album with more award-winning music.
But Trott went on to marry that girl, and Crow went on to produce another great album. Clearly, they got over feeling bad for being happy.
I suspect we all get over it. Eventually. If we don’t get over it, that’s on us. Because, in the end, that’s the real answer to my “Why do we do this to ourselves?” question.
Medium author and certified life coach E.B. Johnson notes, “Because happiness can be so fleeting or so tricky to discover for ourselves, it’s important that we learn how to enjoy it, value it and use it when we need it most. There’s no point in feeling guilty when you’ve finally managed to make yourself feel good.”
For those of us who have been feeling down and depressed during COVID, these words probably ring very true.
Johnson also suggests that the reason why we get in the way of celebrating a win may have deeper roots: childhood.
My mother was happy when I was a kid. She still is. My father, even in the depths of his depression, tried to put on a happy face. Contrast this with my friends, whose parents generally avoided being happy on purpose. As Johnson puts it, the self-sacrifice and misery of my friends’ parents were the only definitions of progress.
Did you catch that equation? Self-sacrifice + misery = progress. Yikes!
Talk about literally and figuratively beating yourself up.
So, of course, it makes sense that some children would see this behavior in their parents and subsequently model it, associating guilt with pleasure.
Now, these children are adults who tend to feel sad for being happy about some accomplishment. You know who they are. They are our friends who would rather wallow in their own misery than have a celebratory drink.
The truth, the answer, the revelation is this: if it makes you happy, you shouldn’t feel sad or bad or anything other than euphoria. OK, you might not be ready to give us a triumphant “hurray!”, but at least start with a sly grin.
When you do something amazing in your career, celebrate it. When your kid hits the winning shot in a basketball game, go gloat on social media. And if you go toe-to-toe with COVID and kick its ass, tell the whole world and let us join in the happiness with you.
Because in the end, if it makes you happy, it’ll probably make the rest of us happy, too.
— Adam Earnheardt is professor of communication at YSU and executive director of the Youngstown Press Club and interim executive director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.