Is Unhappiness A Sin?


If you type “sin” into my Gmail search bar, the list of archived emails that come up are almost entirely from my dad. Though a liberal, Obama-loving, ex-hippie, my dad is (and I sometimes forget this because of the first three) super duper spiritual — and to him, that means religious. He’s not constantly ranting or fanatical though. My parents dedicated a lot of time, and physical energy to our synagogue for a lot of my life. They celebrate the Jewish holidays. They study Torah. I don’t live at home anymore, and we don’t always talk about religion so it’s very easy for me to forget how Jewish they are. Unlike, I’m sure some people’s parents, they’re real non-confrontational, non-pushy about it.

So what are these emails taunting me from my inbox? They’re a weekly newsletter my Dad sends out just before the Sabbath. He doesn’t write them. Usually, he picks pieces that he finds interesting, thought-provoking or discussion-worthy, and he doesn’t always agree. This week’s email subject line struck me because it read: “Is Unhappiness A Sin?”

Turns out, it could be. The basis for the email’s argument comes from here: “Because you did not serve God with joy and a happy heart…” — Deuteronomy 28:4.

This is said to the Jews as a warning before they enter Canaan/Israel. Aside from “serving God,” the point is to do everything with a happy heart otherwise God’s gonna be pissed.

The email continues:

But is being unhappy a sin? How can one be punished for a thing like that? If God punishes people for being unhappy, that would rather seem like kicking a man when he’s down.

Yes. Speaking as someone who sees a therapist for depression and anxiety, who has been on and off meds and who struggles all the time with jacked up mental health: Yes it would be a super cruel double-whammy if I still cared about what was or wasn’t a “sin.”

Look, I get what it’s supposed to mean. Wallowing or purposefully being negative or making yourself unhappy may be akin to sins like the seven deadly: sloth or pride or gluttony. They may set your life backwards and be bad for you. But being unhappy is more nuanced than that. It’s harder to “fix” than telling a stranger on the street to “smile.” (How annoying is that, by the way?) That’s essentially what calling unhappiness a “sin” is — standing in front of someone else and telling them to feel guilty for how they feel.

The email says, defiantly, “Happiness is a decision.” Again, I know what it means. But no. No it is not and it is wildly simplistic and unfair to millions of people to say that it is.

What it means is that you can choose how stress and sadness affect you, in some regards. I work really hard with my therapist to not let small infractions drive me into a rage or to stop, breathe and not allow minor setbacks to send me into an crying spiral or OCD cleaning streak.

I guess the ubiquitous example here is the story of Job, right? Where God takes away everything and Job still prays and is happy. So God rewards Job and gives him his life back. (PS: In that story, God kills Job’s children and then in the end, instead of bringing those same children back to life, he just gives Job new children — like children are interchangeable goldfish or hamsters. That’s messed up, God.)

What I mean to say is that happiness is not a result of outside conditions, it’s within us. Very zen. This is how the email explains it:

We tend to see happiness as an indicator of outside conditions. If things are going well for us, we are happy. If things are rough, we are – or have cause to be – unhappy. The word itself implies that happiness is something that happens to us; that when we are happy, it’s due to good fortune. Conversely, whenever we are unhappy it is because we have caught a bad break and suffered some kind of mishap. But God tells us that this is not so. Happiness is a decision. And like all decisions, it has consequences. And God does not punish people for being unhappy. He warns us about the trouble that unhappiness can bring.

Easy to say from a privileged perspective though, right? Easy to say when you have almost everything you need. This is basically religion’s version of #whitegirlproblems. Even outside of religion, and especially when it comes to mental health, the question becomes: “Why can’t you just be happy?”

That’s not who I want to address in this response though, because that is not who most often seeks solace in religion/religious email FWDs. There’s a whole world of people with very real unhappiness that they do not control. For people who are medically, mentally unhealthy and unhappy — suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, whatever — this is dangerous and an inconsiderate thing to believe. You can’t just pray away unhappiness, and calling it a “sin” won’t make people less unhappy. (How’s that working with homosexuality? Nope? Dudes still sucking on penises on the reg? Oops.)

My dad means well: Sure, self-pity isn’t productive. Rage isn’t healthy. Making the same mistakes over and over again and expecting to be satisfied is sad.

But is unhappiness a sin? I have to say, “no.” It’s a normal human emotion even God can’t erase. You ever wonder why those megachurch pastors smile all the time and then fall apart in underground meth dens? It’s because sometimes unhappiness is your natural state and you need to embrace it and work with it. You can’t pray it away. Happiness is not a “decision” for everybody. Even well-balanced, optimistic people get sad sometimes. And for those who truly can’t control their unhappiness, how dare you simplify what they go through.

Unhappiness is part of being a person. Let’s not too easily call it a “sin” and sweep it under the rug.

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