"You just shouldn’t constantly strive for happiness, I think"

Shaped like a playful garland through the canteen of the Auditorium, you find more than two hundred and fifty people waiting for the lecture by psychiatrist Prof. Dr. Dirk De Wachter. His book “De kunst van het ongelukkig zijn” (‘The art of being unhappy’) is a bestseller, both in the Netherlands and in Flanders.

“We are so prosperous here, judging from a few independent parameters (health, safety, finances, etc.), yet we don’t feel we are doing so well. How is that possible?” On the back of his book, he actually gives a short and concise answer to that question: “Striving for happiness as a life goal is a mistake. Striving for meaning, on the other hand, is what life is all about.”

An orgasm every day

“We think we have to do it all: have a successful career, be good children, travel and have an orgasm every day. Because we are pushing ourselves like this it doesn't work out, I think. Give children basic trust,” he says with his vivid Flemish accent: "You may fail, and I will still love you. That is the concrete slab in the swamp of life."

I want to create some confusion and I hope that people will remember some of it

Dirk De Wachter
Psychiatrist and bestseller author

“I sometimes notice that the audience is clapping as if I am a stand-up comedian who came to deliver a fun message. That is not my job. I want to create some confusion and I hope that people will remember some of it.” Stand-up comedian might not be what De Wachter wants to be remembered for; there is regular chuckle and laughter in the Blauwe Zaal nevertheless. He is undoubtedly aware of his talent for lightening heavy matter by adding some humor. And it works: people are hooked to his story. The lecture organized by Studium Generale is popular: completely sold out and quite a few people on the spare bench to fill in any no-show spots. The evening opens with a Menti quiz, which shows that tonight's largest category of interested people mainly work outside the TU/e. Interesting. Feeling unhappy and/or lonely is of course also a universal phenomenon. A third of the audience has reached out for help from a psychologist, psychiatrist or coach before, for issues like loneliness or feelings of sadness.

‘Sadness doctor’

“In my early childhood, I have had different dreams that I had to give up on. I had no talent for playing soccer, no musical hearing (rather essential to become a musician) and I actually drew too well (that was not appreciated at the art academy). So in the end, I wasn’t good at anything. Then my mother said, "If you can't do anything, just go and study." Then I looked up which study takes the longest.” The audience starts to laugh softly. Yes, psychiatry. “And so one becomes a psychiatrist. My children say "daddy is a sadness doctor." And that’s what I see a lot during my consultations: sadness."

 “Sadness needs words. But it is also something with thorns. You can hardly grab it without injuring yourself. We unconsciously want to keep our grief for the dead alive, because it is proof of our love for them. But we don’t want it to be so painful. So what a psychiatrist should do is swaddle. Bandage with words that swaddle the sadness so it can be carried under your arm, safely on the path of life, I think. Grief needs time, in a time where we have no time. But we have to make time for sadness. And no, that is not always efficient. The most essential thing in our existence is waiting. Then I realized; I have the most essential surname." (‘De Wachter’ would translate as ‘the one who is waiting’)

If we keep telling ourselves that life must always feel like paradise, then it will certainly be disappointing

Dirk De Wachter
Psychiatrist and bestseller author
The key to happiness

“The art of being unhappy is about being able to accept the inconveniences and difficulties in life, I think,” De Wachter says. We will hear that addition ‘I think’ a lot tonight, because he’s one not afraid to doubt. He does not pretend to spread truth, he shares ideas and hopes that you think about them yourself. "If we keep telling ourselves that life must always feel like paradise, then it will certainly be disappointing." The key to happiness lies in learning that you do not have to be happy all the time. And we need to discuss our sad feelings more. And not only paid, with a psychologist or psychiatrist. “Talk with each other. Talking about the difficulties and listening to those of others ensures a sustainable connection between people.” De Wachter does not say how exactly that connection should be made. “I'm not there to give five quick tips like in women's magazines. I try to create some confusion and hope to make people think for themselves. The answer that it yields tends to be much more valuable then."


"Attachment is one of the biggest challenges in psychiatry at the moment. A human is born and is completely vulnerable. A baby cannot live without his parents. And I am not just talking about nutrition but also about attachment. We have to hold him. We don’t do that enough anyway, holding each other. With sadness comes the need for skin to touch. Hold each other. This has become precarious because of #metoo, people dare less and less to touch each other and are afraid that they will touch someone else against their will. No, of course I don't promote that. Hold with consent! We have to bring that – the importance of holding each other - back into our upbringing. And change here happens bottom-up so next time you visit your old father in his retirement home; hug him. Bottom-up is the key: ordinary people meaning something to each other. Not a solution in the form of a minister of loneliness," as was asked by the audience whether that could be a solution.

De Wachter often cites philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in his lecture with his famous statement “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (hell, that's the others) but he is convinced that he was wrong. He corrected him at his grave in Paris: “You were wrong. It has to be "L’enfer, c'est le manque des autres" (hell is when you have to miss others). He didn't say anything back. So I assumed he agreed with me."

De Wachter is happy to walk up and down the stairs of the Blauwe Zaal when the audience asks him questions. "I like to look into your eyes." The listeners happily take their chance to ask questions. "Do you believe that you have to follow an official course to become a psychiatrist?" "Yes," De Wachter answers. “But I also think life is very important. And genuine interest in people.” Of course we are still at a technical university here. So the audience is also interested about the opportunities of technology in making that much needed connection. “People often think that I am against the use of technology. That is not true. If it can support a healthcare professional, sure, fine. But don't hide behind a screen. So, send a text: "when and where shall we meet?"

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