“I’m afraid I’lll never be happy.”
I’ve had that fear myself, and heard it expressed by others many, many times. The promise of happiness lurks around every corner of our lives, often taunting us. From the minute we are conscious we are given messages that if we do or don’t do certain things, we will find happiness, we will catch it and it will cling to us and be a cloud of contentment under which we live forever. We experience what we think is happiness, and then at such a slow leak that we hardly notice it leaving it deflates, and we are left with our old selves, with all the familiar wounds, fears, and weariness.
We talk about happiness as something to “attain,” a state of being, but what is happiness, really? Are we expecting the wrong things from it? Are we using language that sets us up on a treadmill of disappointment?
How are we to navigate this unfair, difficult, and taxing life? We are animals, above all, always on the lookout for danger and threats to our survival. Furthermore, we are social animals, so we can’t seem to help comparing ourselves to our peers, sizing them up, and considering our own ranks and positions. We are also goal-oriented and reward-seeking animals who find value in challenges, improvements, and winning over others. Happiness is one of the prizes we’re gunning for (although we often think if win other prizes, happiness will be a fringe benefit.) It is an elusive, slippery prize, and its rarity seems to make it more precious.
But maybe the happiness we’re hoping to get “someday,” doesn’t exist. The future itself doesn’t exist. Not really. The past doesn’t exist either, it’s a reimagined story that changes a bit with every recollection. In this moment, right now, either we feel happy or we don’t. If happiness is a feeling, or an emotion, and that seems to be what it is if it is anything at all, then it is inevitably unstable. It is not a constant state to attain, but something to seek out in the present.
Happiness, also, isn’t exactly a state of utter tranquility. We like to be slightly unsatisfied. We don’t abide well with large gaps between what we want and where we currently are in relation to that, but if we have realistic goals and are making measurable progress, that in itself is more satisfying than having reached an end point and having nothing left to strive for. Once the dust settles we enjoy the clean air for a short while before we’re ready to kick the particles around again.
Human contentment, then, probably involves not just love, rest, peace, and having our physical needs met, but also mix of anxiety, striving, and tiring ourselves out. It’s about breaking up monotony with a bit of novelty and excitement. It’s about working our bodies and minds sore, working ourselves not beyond exhaustion, but to an exhaustion we can quickly recover from and begin again. In the midst of turmoil we think we want stillness, but what we seem to thrive on is the right mix of excitement, effort and relaxation.
Hoping for happiness in some distant future may be the wrong way to go about pursuing happiness. Even though moments are transitory, because they are all we have, they can seem to linger forever. We know how temporary everything is, but that often doesn’t seem real in the face of a very convincing illusion of permanence.
Having a moment of displeasure, feeling deprived, or even disappointed, betrayed, or sorrowful is not a constant state. The satisfaction of obtaining a big, or even small, goal can result in a burst of positive emotions, but we can’t count on that to last forever. What may be a better pursuit is not looking for a constant happiness, but finding acceptance in the fluctuations of life.
Some argue that happiness is a choice, that in this moment we can choose happiness, which I mostly agree with. However, I don’t think it’s something we can choose like choosing to eat a banana instead of a candy bar. When you chose a banana, the reality is that that’s what you’re eating (whether or not you like it,) but if you chose happiness in a moment, that might not automatically change your emotional state or mood. As someone who suffers from depression that’s highly influenced by hormonal changes, I know that happiness cannot be conjured at will. But I also have experienced happiness while being in a state of depression.
What choosing happiness in a moment may do is set your though processes on a different course. That’s why, I think, things like gratitude and humility are so important. We get so caught up in the drama of our own egos that we fail to see the kindness of others, the good things we have in our lives, and the wonder that we are alive at all. Once we step outside of ourselves, and add some depth and scope to our perspective, we can get a notion of how small and insignificant our own grievances are. Suddenly your cup of coffee, your dog, the person next to you, the smell of grass, can seem miraculous.
But this doesn’t always work. Happiness does not always come, and acceptance of that can bring a bit of peace. Too often we get frustrated with ourselves for “not being happy,” as if it is a crime, a fault of being. We compare ourselves to our perceptions of the happiness of others, which is mostly based on images and presentations we know are somewhat fronts. Other people are struggling too, even the smiling ones. It’s just a simple fact, such an easy idea, but so difficult for our stubborn hearts to remember.
It is a tumultuous and cruel world, but bland things like monotony, boredom, and ennui seem to be some of the biggest threats to our sense of well-being and life enjoyment. This may be because we are wired to both loath monotony, and to gravitate to it at the same time. A misguided way of fighting against boredom and ennui is to stir things up by annoying others, or worse, being destructive towards others. The alternative way to fight boredom, in my experience, is to actively seek out wonder in the world, get lost in the endless bursts of beauty and curiosity in the world. Seek out the strangeness, and look for the seemingly infinite ways that the familiar, the mundane, are actually unfamiliar. We get locked into thought patterns, in ways of observing our world. Just a little variance breaks everything up, and sends ripples through our world.
There is a theory on happiness called Hedonic set-point that argues that no matter what happens to us, good or bad, we tend to migrate to a “set-point” level of happiness. This explains why when something amazing happens to us or when our dreams come true, the ecstasy fades and we suddenly get used to the new reality as the norm. More money, graduating college, a better job, finding love, getting a new pet, moving to a new city: all of those things can bring a quick rush of joy that subsides and we find ourselves feeling much the same as when we were technically in a “worse,” position in our lives. A similar phenomena happens when terrible things happen to us: death of a loved one, job loss, foreclosure, divorce. We go through a trough of grief, and our satisfaction level with our lives may have been altered for the long-term, but after a while we heal a bit from the blow, we feel like the old selves we were before the loss. We feel in a way we imagined we could never again when we were in the depths of low point. We are surprised to find that misery, just like joy, fades.
Sometimes, I think, we are too sold on idealism, and that breeds both the hurt and tumbling anger of cynicism, and the often blind disconnectedness of optimism. What little we’ve been able to understand about this life and our world, is that it doesn’t fit in with paradigms of paradise. We are so tribal and reject otherness so readily that we can’t ever seem to get along with each other as a whole. We are creatures that need to consume energy to survive, yet we live on a planet with limited resources, so even if we all accepted each other, there would still be fights over the distribution of these resources. We are emotional creatures with vast internal worlds, and finding peace just within a single individual is a virtually impossible task. Yet we still are inclined to dream of paradise, not just in a metaphysical afterlife sense, but right here in this jumbling and complicated world.
Often it is just as simple of thinking if you get that certain job, or career, or spouse, or child, or move to the country, or move to the city, or quit your job, etc. that you will find your own personal heaven, but we also dream of making both societal and technological “progress” to a point where there will be no problems with our world, that if we just make the right decisions as a whole, everything will improve on a massive scale.
It simply isn’t going to happen, on a personal or universal level. That doesn’t mean striving for things is pointless. Striving seems to be part of what we need to feel happiness, and can bring positive changes, but awareness of realistic expectations may prevent us from being disappointed when progress, advancement, or getting the things you want, as vast or simple as they may be, fails to bring as sustained sense of contentment.
We may overly frustrate ourselves by feeling like failures of happiness if we aren’t happy, or we haven’t met our goals. Sometimes we need to make changes and assessments in our lives that may make it easier to find happiness in the future, but it seems to me that these changes are always about providing the right buffer of challenge. That’s why having both long-term goals and short-term goals are so important. We need a long-term goal as something to hope for, but the short-term goal gives us something realistically attainable. The excitement of striving for that goal, the momentary thrill of achieving it, and the hunger for the next goal, seems to keep our brains stimulated in a satisfying way. Paradoxically, we find satisfaction in being almost satisfied. We want hope that there is still a space left where we can feel even better. If we choose to look for gratitude and beauty in any given moment, that’s where happiness lives. It may not be there in the next moment, but we aren’t there yet. In truth, we never will be in that anticipated next moment.
Since we are always in flux, since our bodies, moods and circumstances aren’t completely in our control, happiness isn’t a given. It isn’t an entitlement, and not being happy right now, in this moment isn’t a something we should be ashamed of or hate ourselves for. Giving up guilt or anger over this perceived lack in ourselves may not bring happiness, but it can offer up a bit of relief. Happiness is a wonderful thing when we experience it, but it isn’t the only thing.