The Boy Who Wanted to Be Happy

man beach sea coast sand person people boy vacation male model spring africa child black fish season muscle beauty african network south africa africans photo shoot barechestednessI have found myself recounting this story many times in the course of my professional work, most recently in the week just past. I read it many years ago in a collection of children’s stories, and I associate it with my being in what was then called junior high school, now middle school. In my vague memory, the story was attributed to a West African folk tradition. I have looked for it in various ways a number of times over the years and have never found a version that seemed like the one I remember. Memory is a fallible thing, as we know. If anyone recognizes it & can direct me to a reasonable facsimile, please feel welcome to contact me. I am not going to try to represent the story in its original form; just the bare bones plot details as I remember them.

A boy was fishing at the river, and he caught a magic fish, which promised to grant him a wish– a single wish– in exchange for being released back into the river. The boy wished, “I want to always be happy.” The fish, being a wise as well as magical fish, encouraged him to think about his wish carefully, but the boy persisted. What could be wrong with always being happy? So, poof! the wish was granted and the boy immediately felt very happy, and released the fish back into the river.

On returning to his village, he found that his family’s house had burned down. People were lamenting this unfortunate event, especially the rest of his family, but he was very happy. Everyone thought this was at least odd, if not downright disrespectful, or worse. Then he went into the jungle, where he soon found himself being chased by a lion. As he ran for his life, he noted that he was very happy, and even realized that if he were scared, he might be able to run faster. He then had several other adventures in which happiness was not called for. He finally went back to the river, was able to recapture the fish, and wished to always have the right emotion for whatever befell.

So many times, I have been with someone who bemoaned feeling anxiety, or depression, or another negative emotion. Yet, negative emotions are appropriate to negative events. Depression is not a mental disorder. Anxiety is not a mental disorder. If I have just lost my home to a hurricane, it is a time for depression and sadness. It is also a time for action. If I have anxiety about being able to retire, my worry about the future can lead me to save money today. If I am depressed and anxious about my health, it may lead me to start exercising and to stop having seconds on chocolate cake. A depressive disorder is when my depression impairs my ability to have a life, or is so severe that it immobilizes me, making it impossible to work toward having the life I want. An anxiety disorder is when my anxiety prevents me from living my life, or makes it incredibly distressing.

This also means that when I recover from a mood disorder, I cannot expect to be free from negative emotions. I will still be depressed or sad when bad things happen. I will still be anxious when I worry about the risks and uncertainties of life. What recovery means is that I can still work toward having the life I want, whether it means climbing up out of setbacks to get on level ground again, or setting out to climb the mountains of my goals and aspirations.

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About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in anxiety, behavioral health, Depression, Emotions, happiness, mental health, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Boy Who Wanted to Be Happy

  1. Swiss Schall-Hart says:

    Great post!

  2. jamesmatter says:

    Thank you. One of the risks of being in the therapy business is pathologizing normal problems and feelings. We can have strong feelings and big problems that *don’t* represent part of a mental illness– whether or not we may have mental illnesses at the same time.

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