When I wrote a list of things that would make me happy, I thought I was being lenient. I didn’t say I needed millions of dollars. I didn’t say I needed eternal love or a celebrity spouse. I didn’t even say I needed a job. All of my requests were simple things, like socks or tea. My baseline of happiness was so low; surely I was set to be happy soon and often.
Boy, was I wrong.
Happiness is not an achievement you unlock when certain conditions are met. It’s not a product you create when you gather the right materials. I can have all the fuzzy socks and clean sheets in the world and still be miserable.
Here’s where all the people who hang plaques reading “Money doesn’t buy happiness” over their mantles and waggle their fingers at material goods will start compulsively muttering “I told you so!” And in a sense, they’re right. Countless stories, songs, TV shows, and movies have reiterated the idea that well-off people can still be unsatisfied with life to the point of cliché.
But this tired notion is not what makes me want to leap back in time and shake my past self around shouting “You idiot! That’s not how happiness works!” No, my issue lies with my old definition of what happiness is. Looking back at that list, it’s clear I thought happiness was like a personality trait I would gain if I made enough friends and watched enough sunsets. Or if I just adjusted my attitude, I would suddenly see how much I had to be grateful for and become happy.
Believe me, I know how much I have to be grateful for–the very fact that I saw my former list as one of “simple” demands shows how enormously privileged I am–but I will never become happy.
Happiness is not an identity. I can’t become happy. No matter how many behaviors I model or habits I pick up, I’ll never be a happy person. Happiness is an emotion. Like all feelings, it passes. And it often comes and goes without reason. The same compliment could make me glow one day and feel like I’m being patronized the next. I could cross off every item on my list in one day and still feel like shit.
These ideas are not profound, and they’re not new, but it’s so easy to fall for the myth of Happiness as a Destination or a Permanent State of Being that they merit repeating. And these days, I’ve been feeling a lot of ways besides happy, and it’s become a major source of guilt. The idea that the pleasant conditions of my life should produce happiness makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong. The sooner I understand that I don’t need to cling to happiness when it enters my life, that it’s okay to let it pass, the sooner I’ll be able to let sadness, hurt, and anger pass as well.
That’s not to say that I want to eradicate my non-happy feelings. I will not treat happiness like a wild animal, pretend that i just need to sit quietly and avoid making eye-contact with it until it feels safe enough to creep up to me. No, I’ll let happiness and all other feelings come in and out as they please. I don’t want to be stuck in any one feeling, including the pleasant ones. No emotion is a state of being, no feeling a goal. All of them are valid, and the sooner I stop chasing toward one while chasing others away, the sooner I’ll be able to live in my emotions, rather than as them.