Oh Happiness, Where Art Thou?

Happy Birthday! Happy New Year! Happy first something, happy last something, happy anniversary of your first or your last something! Humans love to wish each other happiness. And why not? Our country bestows us with, upon other rights, the pursuit of HAPPINESS. We are entitled and we want to claim it! There is a new breed among us – the self-realized happy seekers.

With the media forcing traditional snapshots of happiness down our throats, it’s no wonder we emerge from a hypnotic haze yearning for those very cliché images. It takes an extraordinarily strong and self-motivated person to see beyond the brainwashing and unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits all solution to this overly complicated equation.

Sometimes we have gone too long without happiness that we have forgotten what it looks like; we don’t even recognize it when it surrounds us. We have mistaken comfort for happiness and we have accepted money in lieu of happiness. We think we are happy because we are getting more, going further, earning more, checking things off the list. We go and go – sometimes like we’re climbing a mountain and sometimes like we’re running on a hamster wheel. Seldom do we stop to ask – are we happy? Do we even know what makes us happy?

Life is like the Goliath and we are the Davids. We are bred to persevere and to survive. Sometimes our limits will be pushed and our boundaries will be tested. We may feel so overwhelmed like we’re perpetually swimming upstream. We may get hopeless and powerless and we may find ourselves diving head first into a life full of anxiety and depression.

Depression has become as common a diagnosis as the common cold. It has infiltrated our society, affecting rich and poor, men and women, adults and children. Depression propaganda has permeated into our homes with messages on TV, ads in magazines, posters in the subway stations. They tell us the symptoms and tell us where to go to get help (hint: prescription drugs). They tell us that it hurts everyone around us. So we want to fix it.

We are an impatient breed and want instant gratification; antidepressants offer a quick (often temporary) solution. Really they are like scotch tape when you need crazy glue. Antidepressants are the most-prescribed drugs in our country. Last year, American doctors wrote 232.7 million prescriptions for antidepressants to an estimated 30 million patients who spent over $12 billion dollars looking for happiness in a tablet.

Incidentally, researchers have concluded that happy pills benefit only the most severely depressed patients, whereas they are only as effective as a placebo for those who are mildly or moderately depressed. Translation: many of those currently hooked on happy pills would save a lot of money by switching from Prozac to Tic Tacs. Drugs will numb the pain, but not remove it.

Depression is a chronic illness – something you have to monitor all the time, much like a diet. We have to put ourselves on a happy maintenance program. Discover which of life’s morsels make us happy and interweave them, like vitamins, into our lives.

There is a sub-category of happy seekers: American women. It’s the modern version of the midlife crisis and countless over-achieving women are confronting at different times. In our 20s or our 60s. One day we discover that we have stumbled off the path we were (often blindly) following. We may have been pushed off the path; we may have jumped off the path. Different causes, same effect: we find ourselves lost and confused.

We cross days off the calendar governed by a perpetual To Do list that usually follows the formula of cross one thing off, add two more to the bottom. We resist the urge to say no because we somehow internalize that as failure. We make promises to everyone but ourselves because we know that those are the hardest to keep. We carry a thin satchel full of heavy burdens and like all things fragile, eventually we break.

Women often place themselves on the back of a long line of candidates competing for the dangling carrot of happiness. In front of us stand our children, our husbands, our parents, our households, our communities, our jobs.

But eventually everyone gets to that day. Life will bitch-slap you in the face – just when you are down. Then it will sucker-punch you in the stomach. And when it really wants to prove a point, life will kick your sorry ass to the curb. Sometimes it feels like our lives have been ripped apart so badly, it leaves a visible tear.

But life lessons seldom come without pain. In fact, they bring with them all sorts of emotional baggage – anger, resentment, frustration. We want our turn at the happiness wheel – but somehow we’ve forgotten how to steer the beast. Like stroke victims of life, some of us have to re-learn how to be happy.

We must give in to the fact that we cannot control everything. It’s no coincidence it’s the mantra for every 12-step program. We must permit ourselves to find our happiness, but we have to overcome our hurdles. Especially the guilt hurdle. Women lug a collective gender burden; we find ourselves enduring the same struggles as our mothers and grandmothers. We still over-give and under-take.

Why do we feel guilty being happy?

Maybe because we see so many people who aren’t. Maybe we have a martyr gene. Maybe our happiness comes at the expense of someone else. Maybe we feel guilty about the source of our happiness. We have to let it go; this guilt is our paralytic. This is where we do have control.

We have to allow ourselves to feel happy. We have to stop punishing ourselves for mistakes of the past. We have to stop regretting bad decisions and start learning from them. We have to forgive ourselves. We have to learn to embrace our instincts and trust our decision making abilities. If we let fear cripple us from taking a risk, we are allowing ourselves to be trapped in lead boots at the bottom of an ocean of problems. If we do not put value on our happiness, the world won’t either.

In any situation, we can choose to be proactive or we can be choose to be reactive. Choosing happiness is proactive; letting life choose for us is reactive. It is our job to modify the actives; the door will not open if you do not knock on it.

Essential in this quest for happiness is a fundamental shift we have to make in our thinking. Confronting difficult situations, we can either employ the defeatist “why me?” thinking or we can empower ourselves by transforming it into the “me because…” thinking. There is usually a silver lining; sometimes it’s just harder to find. It’s our job to sift out the happiness.

Life is an uncertain terrain we travel blindfolded. No one is there at the end to pull off the blindfold in a grand reveal moment. Any moment can be illuminating. Any moment can be enlightening. Any moment can add periphery to our tunnel vision. Any moment can be the pivotal moment when it all becomes apparent.

Life is just a series of moments strung together; stepping stones to get you down your path. The moments carry us through. They strengthen us, they help us grow, and they give us the opportunity to be David to Life’s Goliath.

2 thoughts on “Oh Happiness, Where Art Thou?

  1. I can answer your headline question.Happiness is within each and every one of us.I suspect you are aware of this:“We have to allow ourselves to feel happy”We tend to listen to our ego’s perpetual desire to define itself with ‘things’ – status symbols, designer products, even perfect (not necessarily natural) looks and bodies.When we learn to connect with our <>real<> selves, the ego diminishes, allowing the joyful state in which we are born, to shine through. I have found the best way to connect with the real self is meditation – giving yourself the time to just ‘be’.

  2. Wow! I've never seen so many similes, metaphors, and cliches invoked on one piece. I suppose this slippery notion of happiness lends itself to that. Your point about 'scripts is well made. My goal for the coming year is to articulate what activities make me happy–and then do those more often–getting into nature, interacting with animals, developing a skill, traveling to a new place, practicing my Spanish…Your next piece should be on meshing two people's ideas of happiness! Keeping one person happy is tough enough. <3

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