Leaning into the Afternoons

Happiness

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Jen posted today about happiness being a choice. I think that’s an excellent way of looking at the matter, but it never quite satisfied me. On my old blog, I responded to someone who had asked, “Is it better to be unhappy and single, or unhappy and in a relationship?” with the post below. The “fly in the ointment” for me about happiness being a choice is how many people we watch in our lives pursue with reckless abandon things that have terrible consequences for them, their life, and those around them. When asked, those people never say, “That thing makes me happy.” In fact, that almost unfailingly list the many ways it doesn’t bring them anything resembling happiness.

I guess that led to the observation that we, all of us, are designed by evolution to pursue happiness. In fact, the state of happiness could be seen as the key to the survival of our species. The issue, as I point out below, is when – for any number of reasons – we either fail to attach happiness to positive, challenging, life-affirming things, we temporarily attach our happiness to weak, unsuitable anchors, or we fail to attach happiness to anything at all (if we do the latter, we leave the attachment at the mercy of our emotions and thoughts…and that hardly ends well). We are in constant, never-ending addiction to the state of happiness.

(Birmingham, 2007)

“Is it better to be unhappy and single, or unhappy and in a relationship?”

That was the question you asked. Here is my answer: it is better to be happy. There are those who say it’s impossible to be happy all of the time, and I suppose that’s true in a specific context. That’s so because, unfortunately, “happiness” is a word (like “love”) to which the English language does not serve justice. In most cases, we grow up in Western society learning the blacks and whites of things and absorbing the grays through experience. We learn that mad is the opposite of glad, frown is the opposite of smile, and that happy is simply the opposite of sad. But there is a difference between “being happy” and “having happiness.” Here I can’t speak for you…I haven’t been where you’ve been or seen what you’ve seen. I can only speak for me.

In the context of relationships, I’ve had a marriage end quite suddenly, and there I was alone. I literally cried myself to the point of exhaustion when my ex told me she was pregnant with another man’s child after we had tried, unsuccessfully, for three years to have children. I have played the part of the jester and the king. But never was my happiness taken away from me.

I have lain in bed through no choice of my own when I was paralyzed…nothing to stir my thoughts but the spectre of an unknown future where I might never walk again. I have felt the depths of depression that two years of that relentlessly pushed on me. I have tasted the black helplessness of anxiety and fear that depression can bring. But still my happiness remains today.

Life is about thoughts, feelings, and actions. No one should ever allow themselves to be governed by any of the three. There is satisfaction with your circumstances and there is dissatisfaction. Those are logical decisions about your feelings with appropriate actions for each. There is alone and there is lonely…and only experience can tell you the difference. But happiness is a state of being. More importantly, it’s a state of being that your soul will stubbornly pursue regardless of your disposition…and there is the key.

Because you don’t decide to pursue happiness – that choice is made for you by virtue of being human – the only thing you can choose is where and what to attach your happiness. That, whether the decision is made consciously or subconsciously, is what your soul will pursue without fail. We are at the mercy of our senses – our perception – when it comes to reality, and the pursuit of happiness will put those senses at its mercy. It’s just the way we are wired. Whatever you attach your happiness to, you will become convinced that it is the most important thing in the world…a thing to be desired above, and at the exclusion of, anything else. If it’s a person, your soul will do all in its power to convince you that you are in love and your cause is noble (whether love is present or there is anything noble about that relationship), that you need that person, that you cannot live without them. If it’s your career or a sports team, your soul will put you at the mercy of the ups and downs of those transient things. You will never have the strength to convince your soul to stop the pursuit. It can even put your sanity and physical well-being at stake. Such are the roots of fanaticism, abuse (both dealt and taken), addiction, and a host of other unhealthy conditions.

So here is my advice, such as it is: attach your happiness to yourself. Take the ebbs and flows of life for what they are, but let your soul pursue you, know you, and understand you…obsessively. Once you place that kind of value on yourself, and work to keep it there, then all good things will follow. And in the meantime, in those shades of gray in the everyday, your happiness will be safely held close to your heart…the very definition of a thing that can’t be taken away but only given up.