What does Happiness Look Like?

I had my sister on facetime at a coffee shop somewhere in Arkansas. There was a small college in town, and this was the place for students to hang out and study with their friends. There were enough people talking that I felt ok having a phone conversation with my sister without having to walk outside. “I really feel like I need to be back in Minnesota. I need to quit my job and move back home,” my sister said to me. She would bring this up about every two weeks. I would then go on to explain to her why quitting her job and being an unemployed single adult in her late twenties is not the best choice to make in her life. If anything, escaping from the life she’s made for herself is the most sure way to bring her unhappiness. If she thinks she’s unhappy now, teaching elementary school in Denver, just imagine what being 27 and living at home in Minnesota must feel like.

You see, I liked Colorado. I had spent the last four years going to school there. I liked the outdoors, the lifestyle, and the sense of being in the mountains, so I was trying to convince my sister that it’s actually not all that bad.

But she is stubborn.

Unfortunately, I completely understood her lack of enthusiasm to live in a place you don’t like, working a job that’s just “ok.” I was in Arkansas doing some work for a company, and had recently turned down a more stable long-term job offer at the same company. I was facing the prospects of being one of those jobless college graduates. Worse, I had just let one slip through my fingers. “Erin, I know you really don’t like where you live, and you want to be home, but you can’t just quit your job and move back home. I just turned down a job here, because I don’t like Arkansas. Even though I like the people I work with, I’ll have to wait at least 6 months until I can come back.”

At this point I realized the older couple sitting in lounging chairs behind me were eavesdropping on my conversation and they had overheard my last comment about Arkansas. Apparently, all too familiar with young people’s lack of desire to live in Arkansas, one of them chimed in and said, “You can’t change people and places.” I kept looking forward at my phone, trying not to engage this person, but that comment bugged me. ‘You can’t change people and places?’ I thought that was the point of living, to make a difference in the world, and change people’s live’s for the better. And now, here are two old white people, relaxed in lounging chairs, drinking hot drinks and reading books at a coffee shop somewhere in Arkansas, saying to me in a passive-aggressive way that I can’t change people and places. Bullshit.

My sister threatened to email her principle the next day to tell him that she was moving back to Minnesota, and wouldn’t be able to teach come fall. Apparently she had prayed about it, and this was the answer she was given. “Why don’t you pray for courage instead of asking for an answer. Maybe that’s what you need right now,” I told her. She shut up a bit, and we hung up a little later.

I’ve had more than one person tell me in the past year that I either wasn’t happy, or that happiness was most important in life; alluding to the idea that I wasn’t happy or I had my priorities wrong.

Like, so what does your opinion matter to me? And who are you to tell me whether or not I’m happy?

I know who the happy people are in my life. I can see their smiling faces in my head. They tell me they’re happy. They tell me they’re happy all the time. I envy them. But the fact that they ‘know’ they’re happy, makes me envy them even more. There’s still so much I need to do before I can be happy. I need to get married, I need to get a better job, I need to make more money, I need to buy a house, I need to have kids. Once I have all that, I’ll be happy.

Ok, I know that’s a ridiculous list of things to do before I can finally be one of those smiling faces in my head, but these people did it. And now they’re happy.

I asked two of my friends, who I thought had good relationships with their spouses: what makes a successful marriage? They told me three things: 1. That you have hobbies that don’t involve the other person, 2. You enjoy being together, and 3. What you both want out of your lives is very similar. It sounded like a sensible list, and I wrote it down.

I then started looking for somebody that met all three of these requirements. I thought I had found the one. She was smart. She was fun to talk to. She told me that she wanted a ‘normal’ life. I thought to myself, “that’s exactly the same kind of life that I want,” and I knew this was the girl that met all three. Until I found out that she liked my roommate instead, and I’m just not the kind of personality to pee in the pool.

Turns out crossing off that list of to-do’s in order to be happy is going to take a while, but I don’t want to wait that long. I want to be happy now.

I recently made it into, by the skin of my teeth, a company I’ve always wanted to work for. It’s a dream come true, and I’m extremely lucky. I felt happy when I made it in. When I got the phone call, I felt a sense of calm bliss, like I had achieved something significant. But I quickly realized how unfulfilling it was at the same time. It’s not that the feeling of accomplishment went away, it’s just that it really only filled up one part of myself. I realized there’s more than one motivating force inside me that drives me. I need family. I need intimacy. I need friendships. I need shelter and a place that I feel safe.

I’ve come to find that those happy smiling faces in my head have a lot that they’re working on too, but none of them are afraid to recognize when they’re happy, and express gratitude for what they have in their life. They try not to take what they have for granted, and more importantly, they want to share it with others.

Happiness is a pretty dynamic concept. I can’t tell you what happiness is, just as much as you can’t tell me what it is. The only thing I know is that it’s something you feel, when you feel belonged to, and when you feel part of something that has purpose and meaning. I think that purpose and meaning is up to you to define.

I told my mom the other day I was having trouble getting started down the road toward these things that I want. I was frustrated that things weren’t moving fast enough, and it was hard for me to decide what I need to do, or what I need to abandon in order to accomplish these goals I’ve set for myself. After spending an hour with her on the phone, she finally said, “You just haven’t lived long enough to know yet.”

Words of motherly wisdom.

About the writer

You’ll know who I really am by the mistakes that I make. I don’t expect myself to be an expert, to be perfect, to be nice to every person I meet, or happy all the time. Don’t expect me to get it right the first time. Know that I’m already hard enough on myself, all I need is a kick in the ass, and a bit of encouragement.

When I mess up, don’t hang your head in embarrassment. Don’t sweat it out, and pretend not to listen. Help me find courage. Let me know it’s ok to fail. Mediocrity is not the adversary to achievement.