Q: How are you? A: Fine.
Q: How are you? A: Not so good. Q: I’m sorry to hear that … what’s going on for you?
Two routine exchanges, the second sounding more authentic than the first. Most of the time How are you is not really a query but a social routine. If you respond honestly and hint that things aren’t going well, you’re fortunate if the other invites you to elaborate.
More often than not, people are perplexed to find that their simple question has touched a sore spot. They’ll just as quickly change the topic or promise that you’ll feel better soon. Mention “a flu” and you might get lots of that going around. Hint at “feeling sad” and you might hear that tomorrow is another day.
I’m exaggerating, of course. The responses may well be empathetic and compassionate. But there is something about the whiff of unhappiness that gets people’s guards up … they’d rather not get to near lest you’re contagious. I mention all this because of a recent book which argues against “relentlessly seeking happiness.” Here’s an excerpt:
I for one am afraid that our … culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am wary in the face of this possibility: to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstraction that ignore concrete situations. … Without the agitation of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?
source: Wilson, E.G. (2008). Against happiness: in praise of melancholy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.