“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.