Happiness is not the end goal

Some people are just happy. My son is one of those people, blessed by God, Nature, or nature’s god with an outlook on the world that is not only positive but joyful. He doesn’t *exactly* greet the dawn with song, but he does wake, without an alarm clock, at around 6 am, play with whomever is awake (and with the dogs and chickens if no ne else is available) and his first words to me are usually “Good morning Mama, I love you!” This is a child who smiles after neurosurgery, entertains himself through church, and sings to himself while he snuggles up to nap with me, his dad, or his caregiver.

He is a genuinely happy kid. Sure, he cries, or gets frustrated. He becomes angry, even, and acts like a petulant child because, well, he’s ten years old. But there’s never a question in my mind that he’s not only content, pleased, thankful, and excited, but happy.

Julian, a few years back

I have never experienced the elation he feels just because he is awake. The realization came as I was writing about overcoming suicidal ideation for a BiPolar blog, and he was doing homework near my feet. We were listening to Hamilton and something struck his fancy and he started giggling, and I thought, “I don’t think I have *ever* laughed like that. About anything. Ever.”

I was talking to a therapist (the one who sees my daughter, foster son, and other members of my family), and she asked me what makes me happy. I told her about how much I like my current grad school program (I’m working on my second master’s: this one in history instead of education), and that I am learning to let go of the grades I get (since being a student with a disability/fulltime job/part time job/spouse/family/kids/etc makes the 4.0 harder than it really should be). I talked about how I feel torn between my two jobs (I’m a teacher of Deaf students during the day, and an ASL/English interpreter about 15–25 hours a week, usually at night), but that I like my boss and my coworkers, as well as the people I teach/interpret for, but that sometimes the amount of paperwork and smiling can be overwhelming. I told her how much I enjoyed the sarcastic humor of the teenaged boy who lives with me, and how snarky and dark he can be in his jokes. Before I could get to the rest of my household she stopped me.

“I didn’t ask what made you feel accomplished,” she said. “Nor did I ask what you struggle with but learn to overcome, nor the people you find less obnoxious than the ‘vast, unwashed masses.’ I asked what makes you happy.”

I explained that I was getting a lot done, not being too slowed down by my pain, and feeling less specifically suicidal/depressed/alone than I tend to this time of year. Given my current work schedule and recent spate of school drama, I felt like that had been a good answer.

“Alright,” she sighed. “Let’s try this again. Are you happy?”

There’s a line in my favorite movie where an angrily defensive cowboy responds to that question with “What kind of a question is that? Am I happy? Are you happy?” Hint: He is not, and he knows it. He is painfully unhappy, and about to be more so. The clip is brilliant.

Feeling a similar response well up in my chest, I paused. *Was* I happy? Honestly, no. I wasn’t happy in the way that my son is happy. I never have been. I was not happy the way that my husband is when he is out in nature, the way our roommate is when he’s gardening or listening to music. I see it, and I am overjoyed that it is an experience they are having, but I don’t share in it.

The suggestion was made that this is a jaded, cynicism thing. The last 15 years have ben rather…involved. So, I decided to look back. I can’t remember many of my emotions, clearly, before I was about 9, but I remember experiencing fear and doubt in that 9 to 20 range. Anxiety and nervousness, guilt and anger. But I can also remember hope and love, and relief and peace, so I can recall having “positive” emotions.

Me, smiling, and having a great time in the Gemini capsule

As an adult, I feel content, sometimes (although this is rare). Amused, surely, since I have fun when I earn it. I often describe myself as feeling accomplished, or pleased that I got my work done. Proud? Absolutely. Excited about a chance to tell someone how terrible Woodrow Wilson was, or why I love Teddy Roosevelt, or how I feel qualified, halfway through my second Master’s degree, to give an opinion on who the worst President is that we’ve ever had, and how many of the worst five have been since the assassination of JFK (another hint: quite a few if we are talking about men who were bad at their jobs and bad for the country, not just terrible human beings). Same can be said for dealing with the exhaustion of working a full-time job with an extra 25 hour gig…yes, I am exhausted, and yes, it would be lovely not to have to…but I am proud of the fact that I can command a good hourly contracted rate to do a job I enjoy and make it worthwhile to work the extra hours when necessary. There are an absurd amount of topics and experiences that I enjoy.

But, happiness and joy are different, I was raised to remember. Joy takes effort, and you have control over whether you are experiencing it. I can be joyful over the fact that my friend gets to live in Hawaii after he is done with his nursing gig in Alaska, even if it means he isn’t moving back to Portland, because it is what makes *him* happy. I can hear a friend walk in my door uninvited (if you don’t know if you should do that, you probably shouldn’t…there are about four people in the world who can get away with it, and most of them used to live here), and I will find joy in seeing them since they live far away/have stupid medical schedules, despite it meaning I am giving up sleep/homework/lying-the-hell-down time. I would still rather see them, and I will still be bummed when they leave.

So no, I’m not a happy person. I am however a smart, kind, reliable, hardworking, honest, good, and interesting person. This is a trade-off I am alright with.