Happiness has been on my mind a lot lately. This is partly because we’ve had quite a few changes in our household routine–new jobs, new schedules, hopes that weren’t fulfilled and unexpected happy surprises. All of the ups and downs and whoop-didn’t-see-that-one-comings of life can really put a wrench in my plans for how my life should be going, where I should be at, whether I’m measuring up at this point in my life. If things don’t go according to plan, I can feel unhappy.
There’s also the constant thought in the back of my head: is this the right path for me? Am I doing the right thing by skipping a traditional college degree and career path to pursue what I’d really love to do in life? Will that make me happy in the end–even if I don’t succeed? Will I be happier doing what seems like the safer route, or will I always wonder what might have been?
And then there’s just the day-to-day drag. I start my mornings by opening up my web browser to sort through e-mails and scan the news headlines, and there is always–without fail–something depressing waiting for me. Someone has died, there was an accident, the economy is tanking, etc. Dropping into some circles of acquaintances leads to more bad news; you know how some people just love to find the negative side of every situation in life, no matter how big or how small?
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One more thing got me thinking about my personal levels of happiness. Before I went on my vacation last month I received an sponsored post offer from a company that basically works to make people happier, through a combination of training coaches, community activities, quizzes, and more. You know there’s a serious lack of happiness in America when someone founds a whole company based around teaching people to be happy!
I browsed briefly through the company website and read a couple of blogger testimonials. Something about the whole enterprise bothered me, though I couldn’t say what. But since I was going on vacation and didn’t have time to take on another sponsored post, I filed it at the back of my mind and forgot about it.
Fast-forward to today, and there’s another e-mail from the company, once again inviting me to test out their product. I gave the site another once-over, still trying to figure out what felt so “off” about the whole thing. And finally it hit me:
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I don’t believe happiness is a goal to be reached through five-minute activities, quizzes, and group exercises. It’s not something you can study for and earn after a set period by completing a certain number of exercises and getting a high enough score. True, those might be good ways to help someone learn to think more positively or practice more positive life behaviors, but they’re not going to magically transport you to your destination, because happiness isn’t a stop at the end of the line. It’s something more subtle that evolves and ebbs over a lifetime.
I think there are lots of studies out there that show people are more or less happy if they do certain things, like hang out with large groups of friends or meditate on a regular basis. And if those things work for you, fantastic! Keep on keepin’ on. But trying to follow a set of guidelines to become a happier person is a hit-and-miss proposition. For some people, sitting alone at home with a pile of books might make them a much happier and more contented person than hitting the social scene. (*cough, raises hand, cough*) I don’t think shoehorning yourself into a twelve-step happiness program is a sure bet or even wise.
Why not? Because it turns happiness into one more chore, one more box on the to-do list, one more thing we need to achieve or have in order to be…happy. Do you see where I’m going with that thought? You can get so focused on achieving that elusive state of happiness and so stressed about getting there that you become profoundly unhappy.
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Please understand, I’m not trying to knock the company or their mission. But the drive to be happier makes me think of the drive to become stress-free. There are lots of things that can reduce your stress levels, and I think they’re great and try to practice them often–yoga, self-pampering, drinking tea while listening to Enya and sniffing scented candles. But if I’m pushing myself through a scheduled list of “stress-relieving” activities, guess what–I usually end up more stressed than when I started. If I’m just going through the motions because I’m “supposed to”, I derive no benefit from them.
Happiness is a journey and a state of being. It’s a developed habit. That’s why it’s hard to teach: it’s a continual mindset. Because once you step away from the computer, or the support group, or whatever tool you’re using to make yourself “happier”–what do you have left? The term is real world application and without it, all those motivational slideshows count for moot. If you want to be happy, you have to be able to maintain that attitude toward each situation without being prompted, and I think you can only learn how to do that by…being.
Happiness involves learning to live in the moment–not in a distant memory or an as-yet-unfulfilled future–and embracing each small thing that brings you joy. Happiness is not a one-time task, it’s a life attitude. It’s not something that can be earned through a course, it’s an awareness that is cultivated through living. Other people can help you learn how to cultivate it but if you’re stressing out about checking off the “happiness to-do list” in the pursuit of happiness then you’re missing the point.
|(image via Pinterest via bitsoftruth.blogspot.com)|
Again: I’m not dissing the company. I think their product might help some people, and that’s cool. I just think it’s misunderstanding the nature of happiness and trying to conveniently box it up in a pretty package. I think we want someone to tell us how to be happy because that’s much more concrete than accepting happiness as an evolving, shifting thing, and humans in general like concrete, solid, secure things.
Okay, so we’re all zen and happy now. What about when the s*** hits the fan? Who’s happy now?
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That’s another thing about happiness: I don’t think you have to have a happy day every day of your life in order to be a happy person. For starters, that would be too easy and boring as hell, and boring things don’t make me happy. Also, it’s not realistic; not every day is sheets fresh out of the dryer and surprise cards and a cat snuggled up to me in the morning. Some days are piles of dirty laundry and unwanted bills and a cat puking on my clean work clothes. When I struggle to find happiness in my day or I start to wonder whether Ive made a mistake and I’m missing out on something better, I tell myself:
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Sometimes you’ve just gotta curse at the cat, treat yourself to the double mocha so you don’t smack anyone, and accept that this day is shot–and then move on to the next, ready to have a better day. It’s fine to have a crappy day. Don’t pressure yourself to live every day full of magic and rainbows. I don’t know how many times someone has said that I seem unhappy and I’ve growled, “I am happy, dammit!” You can be happy overall and still have a bad day. It is allowed. Don’t let someone tell you otherwise.
There’s another thing: what makes us happy changes. I’ve realized this in my own life after being turned down for promotions or job transfers that, to be blunt, later turned out to be assignments from the depths of hell. You have no idea how thankful I am that those doors slammed shut when they did, even if I (bitterly) questioned it at the time. Was I unhappy then? Yes. Would I have been more unhappy if things had gone according to my plan? I think so, and I’m happier now that I encountered the “plot twists” that I did.
You can’t move on if you’re bogged down in the coulda-shoulda-wouldas. And I don’t think you can be truly happy if you’re constantly second-guessing what will make you happy! Will some of your decisions not work out, or some of the things you wanted not come to you? Yes, but that doesn’t mean your life and your happiness are wrecked. The less I worry about whether I’m doing the right things to be happy, the happier I am overall. It’s kind of cyclical.
I guess the point of this very long and rambling post is that I’ve finally realized two things about happiness:
- First, that you can’t measure your happiness by another person’s benchmark, any more than you can by a dollar amount or a list of achievements. Define your own happiness! Letting go of the pressure to hurry up and be happy can be incredibly freeing!
- Second, that happiness doesn’t mean constantly walking around with a smile plastered on your face. Some days are more happy and some are less so. Some are downright crappy. That doesn’t mean you’ve failed the game–tomorrow is a brand-new day.
Let’s stop putting so much pressure on ourselves to be thrilled to bits with life. The more you try to get to that magical pinnacle where everything is rainbows and sunshine, the more disappointed and unhappy you’re going to be. Instead, accept happiness as an ongoing journey–a lesson learned by living, if you will–and revel in the small joys. Sometimes, they’re the most important.
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And in case you’re wondering…no, I won’t be test-driving their happiness curriculum or blogging about it. I think I’m happy enough as I am. :)