On happiness and a fool’s errand

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Our 7th grade teacher had given us each a slip of paper to write our answers and we all got to work with our pencils in silence. “Happy,” I wrote in stumpy block letters, thinking myself deeply and unusually intellectual for taking it there. A couple minutes later we read our answers aloud one by one and I was dismayed at the number of my peers who had written the same thing. I could only assume they’d copied my genius.

Realizing that happiness was a more worthy goal than, say, riches or fame, seemed like a big breakthrough at the time and it was something that stuck with me all the way through school. In fact it was during college that I became obsessed with the notion.

Every walk to class needed a soundtrack, every tree needed appreciating, every night needed reminiscing, every mild-mannered person needed cheering, every day needed to close with a hopeful journal entry. I remember writing down reasons I was “a generally happy person” on my old tumblr, as though people needed advice on the matter from a privileged white college student who was both financially and emotionally supported. Insufferable.

“She’s just really good at being happy,” I remember an old boyfriend writing in a letter to my parents, begging them to like him. (Not even this noble assessment of his convinced them, by the way.) I wore my happiness like a badge of honor and I needed everyone to stop in their tracks with me and tilt their faces towards the sun when a cloud happened to move at just the right moment. Everything was romance.

It wasn’t until I’d graduated and gone through some challenges that pushed my capacity to cheerily seek out the silver lining did I start to let go of – and even rage against – the idea that happiness was the ultimate goal.

Outside of the utopian bubble that was college, a lasting sense of well-being wasn’t as easy as a satisfying deep breath at the end of the day, nor should it have been. My life gained depth through a variety of experiences that weren’t all worthy of a syrupy journal entry. But still I often found myself scrambling for my old self, sure that I was a failure for losing my overly optimistic sensibilities.

I was recently looking through my writing from those first years out of college and re-lived the inner turmoil.

I don’t think I’ve been truly happy with my life and self for a long time. Not a long-term sustainable kind of happy. I’ve definitely had highs and a few moments of being content, but nothing that has really stuck. Nothing that has kept me warm at night and kept me waking up every day smiling. Nothing that has made me feel invincible to the conditions of life – like I could be happy no matter what. None of that. Fuck. Why am I not like that anymore? What happened to me?

Note the obsession with happiness. And a year later:

Tonight I laid on the carpet in the dark and listened to Everything is Talking by The Long Winters and felt all at once like a caricature of myself, but hoping that I could just stay in that warm and fuzzy place forever and not care about anything else ever again. I don’t care about anything.  I want to not. I like to not. All I need is this feeling.

 I really really really like not caring. I am much less concerned with being happy these days. Which is sad? But it’s honestly a nice change. I like the cozy little darkness that is my head these days.

Note the spiral into apathy. And 6 months later:

I feel so lost in some ways. Figuring out my identity…who I am, what I want. What defines me, what I want to define me. Where those two lists differ. Whether my wants are right or wrong. Whether to trust myself. How do I start to more actively live by the things I believe on deep/subconscious levels that take a serious sit-down to think about and sort out? How do I stop going through the motions and feeling fine? Feeling the emotions on a surface-level. Sure…this or that was fun. But how do I be alive inside my own head?

Note the dissatisfaction with previously-desired apathy. And another year later:

The profound loneliness that is just intrinsically part of “finding myself” can sometimes feel poetic, I’ll give it that much. But that pathetic little tear I produce in the middle of the night because I’m so utterly confused, so overwhelmed by the thousands of thoughts running through my brain? That tear doesn’t feel very nice when it’s running down my face, no matter how profound it may look in the movies. It feels sad.

 And maybe that’s it. Maybe this is all just a defense mechanism. Maybe “not feeling like myself” is just code for “I’m sad and thinking too much about it.” Maybe by defining sadness and discomfort as “not feeling like myself” I’m separating myself from it. Maybe I don’t want my personality to touch that shit with a ten-foot pole. Maybe I don’t want to get comfortable with it.

My relationship with happiness in college clearly haunted me in the years that followed. And when seeking it began to feel like a fool’s errand, what I failed to grasp for so long was that feeling a feeling isn’t an errand at all, it’s an effect. Happiness can be a choice in small moments and even from a zoomed out perspective, but attempting to always feel a certain way was robbing me of the present. The present which was inevitably moving me – either calmly or suddenly or subtly or violently – all over a massive and dynamic spectrum of human emotions. The very ones that define the human experience.

In a TED talk called What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?, behavioral economist Dan Ariely talks about what motivates humans to do what we do. I heard this snippet as part of a TED Radio Hour called The Meaning of Work, and this anecdote stuck with me.

If you think about it, there are all kinds of strange behaviors in the world around us. Think about something like mountaineering and mountain climbing. If you read books of people who climb mountains, difficult mountains, do you think that those books are full of moments of joy and happiness? No, they are full of misery. In fact, it’s all about frostbite and having difficult walking and difficulty breathing – cold, challenging circumstances. And if people were just trying to be happy, the moment they would get to the top, they would say: “This was a terrible mistake. I’ll never do it again. Instead, let me sit on a beach somewhere drinking mojitos.”

 But instead people go down and, after they recover, they go up again. And if you think about mountain climbing as an example, it suggests all kind of things. It suggests that we care about reaching the end, a peak. It suggests that we care about the fight, about the challenge. It suggests that there’s all kind of other things that motivate us to work or behave in all kinds of ways.

Of course! An interesting and worthwhile life is one that visits all the corners, pockets, cliffs, and peaks of the emotional spectrum. My desperation to stay in one static position was so intense that I’d built my entire identity around it. I’d laid the cement on happiness and stuck my feet in, sure that I could stay there forever if I just took a moment each day to let the sun warm my stupid, smiling face. When the tides of life inevitably shifted my ground everything felt wrong and I thought I’d lost myself. I wrote furiously in the middle of the night in search of my real self, my happy self.

But of course I was there all along. The problem was never that I wasn’t in a perpetual state of grounded bliss but that I was completely out of touch with reality. I’d aligned my internal self with the dreamy, romantic version of life I was sure I could hold on to forever with a little gumption. “HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE!!!“ I screamed at myself until I was too tired scream.

Happiness is one choice, yes, among millions of others. It turns out I’m as good at being happy as I am good at being any other emotion because that’s what it means to be alive.

The catch 22 of finding peace with this inevitability is that disruption is the beautiful and necessary counterpart to that peace. It’s an unsettling thought isn’t it? What if the point is just to participate? To participate and savor the dulcius ex asperis, the sweetness after difficulty, that will inevitably punctuate the experience of life on earth?

As Francois would remind me, instead of washing the dishes to get them done, I must wash the dishes to wash the dishes. Because the point of being alive is probably just to live.

Thank goodness I didn’t think of “alive” when I wrote out those stumpy block letters all those years ago or I still might be high off the smugness.

13 thoughts on “On happiness and a fool’s errand

  1. I don’t know how you do it but you seem to be able to perfectly articulate every feeling or thought I’ve never been able to articulate myself, and it’s reassuring that these feelings seem to be universal. So thank you xx

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  2. This is so beautifully written and articulated. As Maddie said its really comforting to think this shift is much more universal than it feels sitting inside of it. I am really working through the same feeling of “losing myself” and a sense that my life all of a sudden has become tragic in a way that my blissful privileged college counterpart could not have imagined. But I am learning to remove myself from those extremes and just live my life in a way that is fulfilling, whether I am happy and optimistic or not. Thank you for your beautiful and funny posts, you are really wonderful!

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    • You are wonderful! Dude, I feel like I can’t respond to comments like this without sounding super cheesy and unlike myself but I can’t help it. This was just super nice and insightful and well-said. Thanks so much for poking in and saying you get it. If that’s not a reason for me to write I don’t know what is. Feels nice to know you guys are out there feeling these same feels. :*

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  3. It sounds like you went through a bit of a depression. Wanting to feel nothing, feeling nothing and regretting wanting it… Feels a little too close to home.
    I agree with Francois that the point of life really is to just live. Which when you’re in a positive mindset is oddly refreshing, but when you’re in a negative mindset it causes you to spiral. Well, me. Causes me to spiral. Overall though, we are all just organisms. When a fox hunts its prey, it doesn’t have an existential crisis. It doesn’t want to go vegan (I wish I had the willpower/creative cuisine to go vegan), it just does what it’s programmed to. Live. We act all high and mighty because we have the self awareness to overthink things, but when we are drowning we all grasp for air. Life is life, there’s no point but to wash the dishes. Smile at your partner, cuddle your pet. Stub your toe on that stupid table.
    Where was I even going with this?
    I’m glad you wrote this, I analyze and rethink my feelings/past just as much: like learning from your mistakes v. 2.0. I think it’s heathy. Being able to understand how your mind works is so important. At least I hope so!

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    • Maybe you need to put that middle paragraph on an poster or something. I’d buy it.

      We, humans, really are our own worst enemy.

      Thanks for always leaving super thoughtful comments. I don’t deserve you.

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  4. You are an amazing writer! Seriously, if you ever find yourself bored, please try your hand at writing my essay on Don Quixote, due in approximately 12 hours. Anywho, if that doesn’t strike you as particularly fun, I will continue to patiently wait until when you do pick up the pen again and write your next post :)

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  5. I think we are the same person living in parallel universes or something. Though I am far less cool than you.

    Sometimes I live my life through phases. Different experiences mark the different phase I was in. I often reminisce and think about who I was in high school and wonder where did that person go? Those feelings, thoughts, everything about who I was during that time. Then college came and I was this carved out brand new person… who is she? I was still figuring it all out. This happens with certain jobs I’ve had or relationships I’ve built or a trip/vacation I went on. I feel like that was another phase and another me. Now here I am and I can’t help but ask myself how I ended up here. Was it a choice of correct paths, complete fate, or just moving forward because that’s the logical thing to do.

    Enough about me. I wanted to tell your writing helps and validates that I’m not the only one out there who feels a certain way.

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    • KATE. I’m so sorry I didn’t answer this until now. I loved this comment so much at the time, but dove into a blog break shortly after. Finding people who feel the same way is a huge part of why I write, and I’m so glad you connected with this one and told me. Phases and past selves are the weirdest thing! Sometimes I feel oddly sick with nostalgia about a past time even though my rational brain knows things are better (or different in a good/necessary way) now. I think our pasts have a weird allure to us because they are no longer unknowns. They are comfy and certain, but they weren’t AT THE TIME, which is important to remember. Anyway, thanks for writing me and I hope you’re liking your life today!

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    • Hiiii! I never answered this I’m sorry! I got a little sick of my own style posts, I’m glad someone misses them. I think I want to bring them back! I might do something on my apartment too, I like that idea. Can you just do my blog for me?

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