…And what do we know of happiness?

Personal Essay

…And what do we know of happiness?

The first time I became curious about happiness, I was standing outside of this emotion completely, like a child outside a candy store, marveling at the expressions of those who seemed to have it in the palm of their hand.

Life had finally caught up to me, and any effort I had put into weaseling my way into the store of happiness had come undone, melting away at my feet in the hot sun. Discovering the things that gave me an inkling of what it could be like at the age of 25 made me feel like a late bloomer. 

I have spent two decades and a bit being my own sworn enemy, but it recently dawned on me that if I keep standing in my own way, myself and I are never getting inside that store.

Mine isn’t a unique experience. Most of us were raised in survival mode and only got a glimpse through the window of positive emotions, questioning what it is we should do to be happy.

As a child, happiness was my mother picking me up from school on her payday and driving me to Mcdonald’s. As an only child for the first 10 years of my life, my mother and I spent all of our days together. As a young mom, then in her mid-20s, she was not only tasked with redefining positive emotions but doing so for both of us while navigating the most tumultuous time of her life. 

Now, well into my 20s, I see happiness as one of the most difficult emotions to access and define. Yet, it is also the emotion I find myself inquiring most about in relation to the people I love, always asking “Why aren’t you happy? How can I make you happy?”

What am I actually asking? Am I asking anything to begin with? Or am I simply uncomfortable that they might be feeling something negative?

Most of us were raised in survival mode and only got a glimpse through the window of positive emotions

Many know happiness as a feeling that ebbs and flows. Others believe it is in contentment wherein lies peace and therefore joy, love, and happiness. But what happens when we place human beings at the epicenter, with happiness on the left and sadness on the right? I believe that is when we begin to seek and compare to external models of what happiness looks like and feels like, and that to our detriment, is the model on which all of social media rests.  

Happiness feels unreachable because we see it as the opposite of sadness, and in a society so full of grief and sorrow, it feels as though we are running through mud in the opposite direction.

As a generation that has already taken a major dopamine/serotonin dive, I worry that the joys of every day will not make up for it. So in a world where inner peace is rare, and the little joys of every day don’t quite add up, how do we redefine ‘happiness?’

Disregarding the hormonal reasoning for a moment here, I often wonder if we would swing so violently between joy and pain if we weren’t taught to achieve either or – and to dangerously attempt to sustain said emotion for the rest of our lives.

As someone who has felt extreme emotions for most of her life, so intense that I often walked around with my chest bowed, my arms crossed in front of me at the sheer weight of all that I was feeling, a recent escapade with my psychiatrist into SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) has made me stand up a little taller.

For the first time, the weight has lifted, but not in a comfortable way either. When you have spent so long feeling the weight of your existence, the shift into a lighter being feels almost…empty. I cried on the phone to her asking “Why am I so numb? I feel nothing now.”

In her book “We All Got Burnt That Summer,” poet Olivia Gatwood writes “I want to know what it means to survive something, does it just mean I get to keep my body?”

Does emptying my body of negative emotions mean that I must now fill it with happiness? Then why does it feel like yet another burden I am about to place inside of it? I believe it is because we’ve been conditioned to be extremely uncomfortable with the contradictions inside us. We aren’t sure how to hold two very different things, simultaneously. 

While standing outside the candy store, I remembered why I was dragged out of it, and it was mortality. The simple yet complex act of being human is central to the whys and hows of every question we ask through religion, philosophy, politics, at dinner with friends. But it doesn’t take a great and complex thinker to ponder the simple question of “How can I be happy?”

It is a luxury to be joyous in this world. This is not to say joy is an expensive luxury, while it rightfully may be for some. I have begun to understand that happiness is simply in the understanding that it is not something you can hold forever. But we are impatient, we must have it always, we insist on running inside of this wheel. 

In the “Blue Octave Notebooks,” Franz Kafka writes, “There are two main human sins from which all the others derive: impatience and indolence. It was because of impatience that they were expelled from Paradise; it is because of indolence that they do not return.” 

Does emptying my body of negative emotions mean that I must now fill it with happiness?

The Instagram therapists also tell us to do it for our younger selves. Your younger self would have wanted you to taste it, to walk into the store and grab at everything on the shelves. But what if you cannot remember her? That younger version of yourself? Why are we incapable of holding our own hand in the present? Of wanting things for ourselves at present? 

With age also came love, and the dependence on those lovers to hold my hand and take me into the candy store. I grapple with this quite often, as the many Instagram therapists define this as codependency, an unfair one at that. Why must one be responsible for another’s happiness? But then again, who are we if we are not human to one another? What do we have to give each other if not love?

Regardless of my lineage, familial trauma (and probably some undiagnosed neurodivergence), I have come to accept that being loved and giving love is one of my primary sources of happiness. I came to this conclusion kicking and screaming, but now I have yielded into the folds of it. 

I am the first to admit that it is easier to love others, to serve others, to buy and feed and nourish all others but yourself, but perhaps within those shreds of humanity lie our ability to be able to sit with happiness.

My pursuit for happiness has left me with a lot of questions, but it has also made me realize the very delicate act of balancing your own humanity with that of those around you. 

It’s neither an epiphany nor bittersweet. How do I sit with this swelling in my chest? How do I acknowledge it yet simply let it pass through me? How do I say it to you in a way we both understand? How do we befriend happiness so we find the right words to describe it? 

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