Alisa Valdes

Writer. Producer. Human.

Why “Happiness” is a Debilitating Goal


If you’re a woman, you are probably familiar with the annoyance that is having a complete stranger, almost always male, occasionally terrifying, tell you to “smile” or “cheer up” when you’re doing something like walking down the street doing a mental comparative analysis of various brands of cat food. The dude isn’t really telling you to smile; he’s telling you he’s threatened by you unsmiling. He’s seeking to shame and control you as a means of regulating his unbearable inner world.

This happens to all of us, male and female, in a way, every day, through the incredible American cultural pressure towards happiness. “I just want you to be happy,” say our friends. “How are things, good?” ask our coworkers. Even if you’ve been up all night crying into your top sheet because life is extremely difficult right now and you were too depressed to get up for another box of tissues, you do what everyone does: You smile and say everything’s fine, then lock yourself in a public restroom stall to cry a little more.

Our society, focused primarily upon the peddling of things unnecessary to those who can’t afford them, uses happiness to sell stuff, through the dark prince of propaganda: advertising. We are inundated every minute of our waking life with images of shiny, happy people. Got irritable bowels? Just take this pill and you, too, will be joyfully riding a tandem bike in the woods with a super hot girl! Legs hairy as a yeti? Just use this depilatory and, presto, your kids will love you so much they’ll smilingly take their lunch boxes from you as they trot towards the school bus helmed, of course, by a smiling and not at all creepy driver.

This grinning delirium, we are told, is the goal. Of everything. Just get happy, and the rest will follow. We write McFerrin anthems to it, and when the singers of those anthems get too old to look happy (even if they’re still smiling, those pesky frown lines!) we find younger stars to Pharrell it all over the airwaves again. C’mon. Get happy! Americans are more fixated on this one-dimensional emotional ideal than any other culture. We pop antidepressants at a higher rate – much higher – than any other culture. We are desperate to be happy, and never stop to consider that it is the very expectation and requirement of happiness that is making us so unhappy to begin with.

There are many problems with mandating happiness.

One: Life is hard sometimes, and it’s okay to allow space for pain and sorrow. In my own family in the past month we’ve had a murder and a cancer diagnosis. That shit sucks ass. It is okay to be unhappy under unhappy circumstances. In fact, it is necessary, healthy and human.

Two: Sometimes, the only rational response to something is fury. There are many people walking around alive today because anger carried them through pain and abuse that would have otherwise destroyed them. Rage, properly directed, is the catalyst for every liberation movement in human history, and the basis for all comedy worth watching.

Three: To be peaceful is not always to be blissful. Sometimes, peace comes to us in the guise of poignancy, melancholy, despondence. Sometimes, our greatest accomplishment is simply getting through another day in full acceptance of all that is, and this can be a kind of disconsolate pleasure.

Four: The cultural insistence upon a Happiness Goal is not only unrealistic, it is highly invalidating and judgmental. Our discomfort with a full spectrum of human emotion leads us to heap shame upon ourselves and others, for feeling the things that everyone else is also feeling and hiding. This causes undue suffering and self-hatred, and lots of lying. This causes many of us, over time, to learn to doubt our own experience of ourselves, and life, which leads to an insecure sense of self in the world.

Those who read this blog regularly know that I am an awe-struck humanist defined by my unique spiritual smoothie of Buddhist and reasonably Christian fruits. I am at home with the mystery of it all, comforted by our relative insignificance among the vast unknowables of space-time. I am also, as an artist, drawn to all emotions, because without a full spectrum of feelings there is no creative endeavor worth a damn. Happiness is wonderful, when it arises. But so, too, is everything else. To feel is to be alive.

It’s okay to be whatever you are, wherever you are.

It’s okay to feel what you feel.

Just be.


Why “The Secret” is a Weapon of Privilege



I have written two screenplays in the past two months. One is artsy and historical, about a forgotten woman genius from Victorian-era Berlin. It was a passion project and I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple of people about it. The other is an adaptation of my second novel, done at the request of my producing partner, for a Mexican TV and music star. That one, I’ve rewritten twice, from the ground up. Hundreds and hundreds of unsatisfactory pages tossed into the bin of discontent. Writing, they say, is rewriting. Man, is that true.

Meanwhile, my money is once again running out. It has been this way for the past ten years. I lurch from project to project, paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes I get paid once a year. Sometimes twice. Sometimes, not at all. I have to find a way to make the money last until I sell the next thing, and sometimes the timing is off because of a million unanticipated setbacks. This is one such time. I’ve got enough to last me maybe another month, and then – nada.

So I do what any artist with a kid does: I look for a day job. Those are hard to come by in Albuquerque. This is the poorest state in the nation, with the highest unemployment rate. Wages are low, and demand for my skill set is next to zero. I have been stuck here since my divorce 13 years ago, because I am not the sort of mother to take her son across state lines without permission, and my ex is not the sort of father to not care whether he sees his son regularly or not.

This morning, as I shared my frustrations in job hunting with a friend, I was dismayed by his response. He came at me with all this “quit your stinking thinking” bullshit. “Write the job and salary you want to get, on a piece of paper, and put it on the wall next to your bed. Put that energy out into the universe and it will come back to you.”

This is the usual nonsense spewed by people who adhere to “The Secret” and other magical thinking around prosperity and success. If you’re failing, the theory goes, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough to be shiny, sweet, happy and optimistic. It’s no coincidence that the person who told me this happens to be a white male working in the health care field and making a six figure salary. He owns three homes, rents two of them out for income. In his mind, my failure to find money is entirely my own fault, for just not trying hard enough.

The first problem with this pseudo-psychology/science is that it blames the victim. Most of the 7 billion people on earth live in extreme poverty and deprivation; by this privileged man’s “logic,” it’s their own fault. The entire third world just isn’t living up to their potential because of stinking thinking. This is nothing short of metaphysics, in the worst way, a type of prosperity religiosity that absolves society and community from the responsibility of helping those in need, by giving everyone permission to judge those in need as being just not happy enough to deserve success.

The second problem with “The Secret” and other such “advice” is that it isn’t advice at all. It is judgment, often uninformed and unfair, usually given by those who have more than enough and believe they deserve it. It does not take into account the very real issues of classism, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, ageism, economic disadvantage. It ignores the prejudices of the world, and says, in essence, that those who have, have because they deserve it. This is utter bullshit.

The third problem is that “The Secret” is nothing but a grand experiment in confirmation bias, allowing people to extrapolate and see whatever it is that they want to see, without requirement of empirical evidence or, of course, compassion.

I’m not in this position because I am negative. I’m not in this position because I don’t work hard enough. I’m in this position for a host of reasons, many of them out of my control. My “friend” likes to think of himself as a Buddhist, but in truth he, like so many other new age adherents from backgrounds of privilege, misses the point. Buddha never taught that you could think pain or difficulty away. Quite the opposite. Buddhism gives people the tools with which to endure and accept circumstances beyond their control, without losing their minds or souls.

While it is certainly true that there are some people who find themselves in difficult circumstances because they lack initiative, that is not the case for most human beings. If “The Secret” were real, most of us would not be struggling. But it’s not real. It is nonsense. It’s no different than the idiotic claim some make that we bring about our own illnesses through negative thinking. Sometimes, motherfucker, you just happen to have grown up a block from a toxic waste dump and now you have fucking cancer.

How to Let Go of Everything You Thought Mattered

PREFACE: Last year, I got a nifty little certificate that declared I had graduated from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy program, meaning I was not longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for the mental illness that had sent me to the program in the first place. This did not mean I had been “cured” of Emotion Regulation Disorder (or, as the evil dwarves of the psychological underworld still like to call it, Borderline Personality Disorder), exactly. No, no. For ERD, there is no cure. There are, instead, therapies that teach people like me which of my everyday and, to me, benign behaviors are seen as Fucking Crazy Bullshit by Everyone Else. In DBT I learned new skills and behaviors that, when practiced with diligence for the rest of my damn life, will allow me, at best, to Fake Being Normal well enough to pass, most of the time. Each moment, it seems, is still a fight not to go slip-sliding back into that cold, dark hole where everything hurts. I’ve decided that the best use of this blog might be to talk about my post-DBT day-to-day life, the setbacks and successes. Hopefully these little stories will help those with ERD feel less alone, while shining light for normal people on what it is like to actually live inside the broken mind of someone with this severe mental illness.

If I’m lucky, I am, right now, at about the midway point in my lifespan. I am 48 years old, so probably I am more than halfway to the drop off. We do have longevity in my family, though, so, you know.

I spent the first half of my life as so many people do – figuring out how to GET stuff. An education, a career, a mate, pregnant, parenting skills, health, fitness, the right car, a nice handbag. Whatever. I was focused on finding and holding, on becoming the things I had always imagined I would be.

For the most part, I am happy to report I succeeded at all of it. I got almost everything I set out to get. A good education, a successful career, a husband, a child, a home. But then a funny thing happened, a thing for which no one had prepared me and about which I had never even stopped to think.

I lost it. All of it.

For the young, life is thought to be about getting and becoming. Live long enough, however, and you will learn that the real journey, the raw and incomprehensible reason for existence, is exactly the opposite of this. Life is not about getting and becoming; it is about losing and unraveling.

That great education? Was in two fields that are essentially now obsolete. The career? Also dead. And the mate? After a decade together he met someone better, left me for her. Our child? He’s growing up and won’t need me much anymore, and that is how it should be. The house? Lost it in the mortgage crisis, have another now, thanks to my mother’s generosity. Health? Comes and goes. Cars and handbags? Here and gone.

So, here I sit, a woman I never imagined I would be, when I was young. Single, unemployed, facing a soon-to-be empty nest.

So much loss.

You don’t consider, when you are in the frenzied act of accumulating your accomplishments, what, exactly, you will do once things change – and they will change, for all of us, in one way or another. At least I didn’t.  So when I finally realized that all of the markers to which I had gone to hang my identity out for the world see were no longer there, I was devastated. Depression hit and was not budging.

At least, not until I had a profound realization. I was not unique. I was not tragic. I was not unfortunate.

I was human.

And the human condition, should we all live long enough, is simply this: We are here to learn to let it go, all of it.

Life, by its very design and nature, is about loss. Everything that is, ceases to be. Everything that is, will become something else. We all lose everything, eventually. This can be a reason for terror and sorrow, or, looked at with compassion and non judgment, it can be the very thing that allows us to become open, tender, and curious about where we are right now. Not where or who we were; not where we’re going; not who we will become. What is, now.

Buddha taught that pain was inevitable but suffering was optional. So too, for loss. Peace comes not in accomplishing what you’ve always set out to achieve, but, counterintuitively, in releasing all attachment to everything.

Be open. Be a curious observer to your own life’s changes. Learn to let everything go. That is where peace lies.