From my own observations
I’m fond of telling people to “stop trying to be happy”. It tends to make them think.
Sometimes it just makes them think about what’s probably wrong with me or how they can exit the conversation, but other times it invites the question of “What else would I do?” Because a lot of people, it seems, default to this idea that they should spend their lives seeking happiness.
But I disagree.
I think part of the misunderstanding is that people assume the absence of happiness is sadness. But both are actually highly emotional states.
There are more neutral states in which you can (and probably do) primarily exist, and indeed you can’t hope to always be highly emotional without experiencing the full range of emotional extremes. You can’t just live in a permanent state of happiness.
So what else is there?
When I was seeking my divorce, my therapist asked me why. I don’t think he was trying to discourage me, just explore the motivations. One of my answers, among others, was simply “freedom”. And then he asked me a question that I found rather curious. “What do you want freedom for?”
I thought about it, but I didn’t have a firm answer. There was no particular thing I wanted to have, or do, or be. I just wanted to have the opportunity to explore. To live without permission. To have different things, to do different things, to be different things, however I wanted, whenever I felt inspired.
Freedom is about possibility, and potential. But it’s not just about what you are free for, but also what you are free from. I wanted freedom from the emotional assault, from the manipulation and control, from the weight of a codependent spouse.
I came to understand freedom as not simply a means, but in fact its own end. Freedom is our home, a safe origin from which we can experience all other kinds of fulfillment. Find the negatives, the toxicity that keeps you from being free. And then free yourself of those things.
My divorce was difficult. There was a lot of pain. It was a long time before I could feel things like happiness again.
But it’s better to be free than to be happy.
When I was younger I was highly political. I was passionate about what I believed was best for the country. I was educated, informed, and deeply disturbed by the political climate.
I tried to tell people. I tried to teach them, to warn them, to inform them. But I changed nothing. It turns out you can’t change someone who isn’t already open to change. Only those who seek can find. Pushing information at anyone else is just a kind of intellectual assault.
There was another time in my life when all I wanted was a relationship. I was consumed by my desire for companionship and intimacy. But anyone who’s been there can tell you that you can’t force a relationship. You can’t will it into existence. All you can do is wedge yourself into some bad situations.
Real relationships grow organically, even if the seed comes from something like a dating app.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in trying to change what you can’t. But no matter how strongly you feel about it, no matter how proactive or loud you are about it, you can’t force reality to fit your expectations. The only thing you can change is yourself. Everything else is just an invitation. You can invite someone to learn more about your beliefs, or to go on a date, etc, but that’s all.
When you accept this, you can have peace with yourself and with the world around you. Peace is a much more neutral state, not highly emotional. But it’s still a positive state. You can work toward this state. You can live in this state. And you should.
It’s better to be at peace than to be happy.
A friend is someone that will laugh with you, but a close friend is someone that will cry with you. We all have a desire for human connection, but it can be difficult to get past the laughing together stage.
It’s only when we open up and talk about our hopes, our fears, and our hurts that we can go deeper in a relationship. But that’s a scary thing to do, as it also leaves you open to judgment, abandonment, or perhaps just as bad, apathy.
What I’ve come to understand is that there are two primary things people need from human connection, though they may feel or express one need more than another. But we all have both.
People need to know, and to be known.
Many of us can keenly feel and identify the need to be known. We want someone to take an interest in us, learn about us, understand us, and through it all, accept us. Some of us give ourselves up too easily for want of this. I know I’ve been there.
But also we have an equal need to know. Some of us are too preoccupied with being known to realize we also need to know. But knowing someone else, hearing their story and understanding and accepting them, is just as much a part of connecting. It gives you another lens through which to see the world, it helps you see yourself, and it’s a powerful experience to allow this part of a person to briefly co-exist with you in your own mind.
To know, and to be known, is to be connected. It’s the very antithesis of being alone. All relationships come with trials and pain, but the good ones are worth it.
It’s better to be connected than to be happy.
I haven’t been on this globe very long, all things considered. But in that time I’ve lost friends, family, jobs, money, homes. I even lost my marriage, despite the explicit promise of forever. The realization that everything you have you could lose at any time can be a little daunting.
But if there’s one thing you can count on, one person that will stick with you to the end, it’s you.
You are your own forever. You are the only constant in your life. Even though you can and will change, sometimes quite dramatically, you will always be you. So while it’s good to invest in a friend, in a home, in a career or a retirement, how much better to invest in yourself?
No economic downturn will rob you of the lessons you’ve learned. Your experiences won’t leave you when things get rough. You’re writing a story with your life, and though people may not always remember this story, it’s an indelible part of history.
What kind of main character do you want for your story?
Through all the pain and loss, the victories and celebrations, the struggles, the climactic moments, you’re the only constant in the story. Other things matter, other things help write the story, but it’s still yours.
Growth is about deciding who, which version of you, the story is about. Growth can change the tone of your story, rewrite the genre, and even give a tragedy an uplifting final chapter. An amazing character can overpower the circumstances of the surrounding story.
It’s better to be amazing than to be happy.
After my divorce was finalized, I spent some time exploring myself, exploring the world and my understanding of it, looking for what really matters. It took a profound state of emptiness to recognize the things I was missing, but I found these four. I cherish and pursue these four.
I still do things that make me happy, but I draw a line. I know what I’m willing to trade for happiness, and more to the point, what I’m not.
So by all means, go out, do fun things, and be happy. And sad. And excited and anxious and relaxed and afraid. Be everything. Feel everything. But keep these things in mind and you’ll be alright.