How many times have you uttered the cry, “I just want to be happy”? I’ve done it too many times to count. Truthfully, we might just as well wish we were a pineapple. We’re as likely to be successful.
We engage in all kinds of behaviours we believe will make us happy. We chase it with everything in us. Ironically, sometimes the behaviours themselves end up making us miserable.
I spent decades caving to the demands of my eating disorder. It promised me if I was perfect, I’d be happy. I worked hard at it and chased that belief almost to the death, but happiness never came to pass. It’s not really a feature of eating disorders, to be honest.
I’ve since come to realize that perfectionism isn’t part of happiness.
Part of the problem is with the definitional shortcomings. We don’t know what happy is, not really. We never bother to define it. We never try to figure out what “happy” looks like? We just know we want it.
When we chase something we don’t understand, with a definition we can’t articulate, we’re bound to fail.
We encounter images that promise to make us happy everywhere we turn. Pictures all over social media show people in alt, having the times of their lives. The list we can cull from these images of things that are supposed to make us happy is extensive and includes: travel, eating out, eating in, wearing makeup, not wearing makeup, starting a new job, moving, redecorating, reading, going to art galleries, going to concerts, getting plastic surgery, and getting back to nature.
Interestingly, they’re all externals. If we base our happiness on these ideas then happiness is something that can be acquired – even purchased – and not something we achieve through our thoughts and behaviours.
The other thing that all these images tell us about happiness is that it should be perpetual. We should be happy – ecstatic, really – all the time and if we aren’t, there’s something wrong. We’re doing life wrong; we’re wasting it.
I like to be happy, but if I was forced to choose only one emotion to sit with for the rest of my life, happiness wouldn’t be it. Happiness is tiring, for one. I don’t think we’re meant to be happy all the time. If we were, we wouldn’t have other emotions and emotional responses. If we could only feel one thing for the rest of our lives, how would we grow?
Nevertheless, the question has been asked, so what emotion would I choose to sit with in perpetuity?
There is an ease to life that comes with contentment. I haven’t experienced a great deal of it myself, to be honest. I was a single parent in a contentious relationship with the ex-partner and a person who struggled with her mental health; contentment is not a state I easily achieve. Yet, I have been there.
There was a three- or four-month period almost two decades back, just before I met my son’s father, where contentment was a thing. I had a job I liked. I was stable in my eating; my eating disorder was held at bay. My anxiety was under control. I wasn’t depressed. There was a sense of ease and flow to my life that I relished. I wasn’t ecstatic all the time, and social media posts would’ve been boring, but I was mostly serene.
It went to shit, and fairly rapidly when I got into a relationship, but oh how I loved those days. I miss them. So, for me, contentment is worth more than happiness. The serenity of those days was invaluable. I hold the memory like a lodestone.
We’re told happiness should be the ultimate goal. It doesn’t have to be. We don’t have to do as we’re directed. We don’t have to buy what social media is selling. And it is selling. There are purchases required if we live the happy lives we see Instagrammed. We’re told in no uncertain terms that we’re not good enough as is, and we’ll never be happy unless we buy the appropriate, promoted product.
I think the reason there’s no universally accepted definition of happy is because it varies so much. We want the emotion but we can’t get it by following in other people’s footsteps. Some people find their happiness in long, backwoods hikes and ziplining over ravines. I would not be one of them. That kind of thing would not make me happy – I’m not a huge fan of heights. But for others, that kind of day would bring nothing but joy.
The trick with definitions is to not accept a manufactured one that is presented to you with ulterior motives (buy your way happy) but to create one for yourself that works for the person you are. To do that, you have to figure out what happiness means to you. And recognize that we won’t be feeling it all the time, nor should we.
We are a cauldron of emotions and all of them need a turn if we are to be complete, whole, and at times happy, person.