You, Me and The Rest Of Us.
Part One: Happyness
“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness” — Viktor Frankl
What does it mean to be happy? This has been asked, debated and beaten to death in so many ways without ever reaching an answer we could all agree with. Before I go any further, I should say that I have always been a big believer that happiness and how we define what it means to be happy should not be divorced from the individual. That is, my version of being happy is and should be different from yours…and that’s okay.
I’ve been thinking about my happiness intensely over the last few weeks and months trying to answer the question; am I truly happy?
Allow me to explain a little further. I smile a lot, on purpose. Forever ago, I read somewhere that smiling tricks your brain into thinking you’re happy and that in turn makes you feel happy. I’m unsure of the science behind this idea but I put it into practice then and here I am today, full of big smiles in awkward photographs yet still questioning the root cause of it all. What does happiness look like to me?
To get a little more insight I had a conversation with a dear friend, Shawn, about what happiness means to him. Straight away I got the sense that he had turned this question over in his mind a number of times as well. He starts off with a clearly defined idea; “For me, my ultimate happiness in this life will be to be a happily married man, the best children and being able to provide for every need for my family”.
It’s hard not to admire that, knowing exactly what you want. Oh, to be blessed with such foresight. I’ve always found people who know exactly what would make them happy fascinating. So I ask him to unpack this for me. He adds another layer.
“Happiness is achieving a set goal. I have an overriding goal and then that gets broken down into smaller goals, which have a timeline attached to them. As I conquer these smaller goals, I get closer to the big one and each conquered goal gives me a fraction of the total happiness I am hoping to have.”
I’m intrigued. What happens if a goal can’t be reached? If happiness is achieving the next goal and that goal becomes unattainable, how do you reroute your happiness?
Easy. You adjust your goal. You figure something out. You pray. God’s got your back.
That dissatisfies me. This definition of happiness frames it as something that is, in a way, always out of reach. The next goal, the next achievement, feeds into the narrative of the “pursuit” of happiness. Always elusive. That’s an idea I’ve always tried to fully understand. Why do we do that? Place happiness ahead of us like we always have to get there.
Then it dawned on me. For most of my life, I had defined happiness the exact same way. It had always been this elusive thing, closely tied to whatever goal or accomplishment I was chasing in that moment. If only I could meet my next target, I’d be happy then.
Shawn has an excellent way to explain this. We do that because we have an innate need to pursue something. When we give ourselves something to chase, we have a purpose. We have something that we get out of bed everyday to chase down. When we have achieved everything, there’s the fear of having nothing else to do. So people will set a goal, achieve that goal faster than they thought and immediately set a new one. Insatiable.
It’s a valid point. Purpose is important. Having a purpose helps us understand our place in whatever environment we live in. But purpose is separate and apart from happiness, is it not? I’m even more uneasy now.
Doesn’t applying that purpose-driven mindset to happiness lead to a lot of the sadness that we see around us? Where we feel unhappy because we haven’t achieved something we thought we would. We forget to look at where we are rather, we focus on where we think we should be. We measure the gap between where we are and where we want to be and not where we are and where we came from.
Discussing this phenom, we stumble upon gold. When does joy come in? I have to admit that this isn’t something I have ever considered; what is the difference between being joyful and being happy? Thinking about it further I begun to define joy as something you feel at certain moments or events in your life. That feeling on your university graduation, a special birthday, or when you dribble past two defenders and slot the ball into the bottom corner leaving the goalkeeper helpless on the floor. All those things can bring about a great feeling of joy. Or so I think.
We immediately disagree on this concept. The line between joy and happiness is thin but for Shawn, joy breeds happiness. Joy takes into account our current situation then reinforces our belief that we can get to where we want to be and encourages us to carry on.
“Joy is the inner excitement that comes from knowing that you are in line with God and He has got your back. That is, happiness comes in moments but our joy transcends to external expressions. When things aren’t so great or they are just neutral, joy is what we feel inside us. We can be sad, but still have joy in our heart.”
“Joy helps when we are unhappy.”
I should’ve mentioned earlier that Shawn is, by nature, a romantic. I *almost* shed a real life tear. You never stop learning about what it means to be happy and my talk with him really showed me that.
So what do we do then, when we are unhappy?
My now reformed idea of happiness ties it closely to a state of well being. A state of mind. This may not be the best word but I find “contentment” as the closest thing I can get to. Being tuned in with your life as is. I think true happiness also goes hand in hand with gratefulness. Understanding that the true value of the destination lies in the journey and being grateful for it. That’s why you find folks who have made in far in life, have success but still feel unhappy. They have missed so much of the journey that happiness eludes them.
Shawn says that you have to find your joy. Focusing on what you have and not on what you don’t. Count your blessings, name them one by one.
“No matter how unhappy I am with where I am compared to where I need to be, I am not where I was from the beginning. In fact, I’m closer to achieving than the start line. That encourages me to keep pushing. Happiness will come when I meet the milestones. The wedding, the marriage, the job and so on. Joy is in enjoying the process now and chipping away at that goal until it becomes a reality.”
*sheds real life tears* I told you he was a romantic.
In addition to counting your blessings, Shawn also points out that there are those who are less fortunate who would be prepared to inherit all of his problems if his blessings also came with them. When he reflects with that in mind, he is able to better appreciate what he has and how far he has come.
Happiness no longer sounds like something he places ahead of him, as a thing he has to chase. I’m reminded of another word by Mr. Frankl, “Happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
As I continue to think about my happiness and what it means to me, I find the more I focus on living my life the best way I know how, the happier I feel. My happiness is no longer inspired by my goals or aspirations, nor does it feel as elusive as it once did. Happiness has become a side effect of the effort I put into constantly learning, growing and trying to become a better version of myself everyday.
And I’m loving every bit of it.