Forget Happiness!

Last year I gave up on happiness and decided to start enjoying my life.  That’s right–forget happiness! And it’s been good.  I found peace in thoughts like, I get to live such a rich life.  Rich, alluding to the contrast.  And when I stopped trying to run down happiness, I had more space to notice it when it did appear.  And these are some of my observations about the elusive H word. 

Happiness is a feeling.  

Feelings are temporary.  This seems kind of obvious but our cultural narrative doesn’t support this idea.  How often have you heard yourself or someone else say, I just want to be happy!? We want ourselves, our family, our friends to BE happy.  Be implies some sort of state where one can exist in perpetuity.  More realistically, we could say, I want to experience happiness more often.  It’s like a place I get to visit, and I like it there, so maybe I should try to go there more. Maybe even daily. But no one gets to live there, at least not me, yet….maybe ever.  

And what does happy even feel like?  Can you explain it?  That’s difficult too! I heard happiness described as a feeling of completeness, like having everything I need right here in this moment.  That’s the best definition I’ve come across.  It’s made it easier for me to recognize it when it shows up.  In a moment when R gives me a passionate hug and kiss (that boy is a lover!), when I see something click for one of my patients, when I connect with a friend.  Sometimes it’s only there for a moment before another feeling comes in to bust up the party.  But ahh…happiness—completeness—I feel that in moments of my day.  And when I stopped chasing it, I started to notice it popping up spontaneously.

Happiness has a set point.  

This is a term coined by Sonja Lyubomirsky.  The basic idea of this is that we get used to the level of positive and negative emotion in our lives and we tend to return to those levels even as circumstances change.  One example of this is consumerism, how when we make more money, we tend to want more things, thus maintaining our happiness set point at Not Quite.  So if you want to adjust your happiness set point to accommodate more happiness, you must recognize that it will feel uncomfortable at first. That’s the nature of change.

It’s easy to see evidence of this in my own life.  My 20s were really challenging with the cancer diagnosis, PA school, difficult marriage, and lots of moves to different states.  I think somewhere in there, my happiness set point got adjusted in the direction of increased negative emotion.  I have noticed that when I begin to get comfortable, my tendency is to bring in something new to challenge myself.  This blog, a class, a puppy, religious/spiritual inquiry, relationships, new avenues for my professional work.  I am uncomfortable with being comfortable.  It feels foreign to me.  

Do you remember story on Catch Me If You Can about the mice who fall into the bucket of cream?  One gives up and drowns and the other runs so fast he churns the cream to butter and climbs out.  I might be like that second mouse, only I keep throwing myself into buckets of cream just because I’m used to the effort of churning it into butter.

There are a couple of way of looking at this.  One is that I need some challenge to feel complete. Maybe, for me, happiness is available within, and because of, challenge.  Another is to consciously guide myself into contentment by sitting with the discomfort of no challenge (Ha! Maybe THAT is the real challenge!).

Vitality is…well…vital.

“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.” This comes from Andrew Solomon and I LOVE this thought.  Since I started letting go of the idea that I NEED to be happy, I have switched my focus to vitality. 

Can I nerd out on the word vitality for a minute? If you look it up in the dictionary, there are a few definitions, but my favorite is the power to live or grow.  Words like vigor, energy, animation, and enduring come up.  And then if you go to the word root vital, it means necessary to the maintenance of life

From this, I take that happiness is just a part of vitality.  It’s a blip on the spectrum of human experience.  And if depression is a kind of death, then vitality is the answer.  Not to close myself off from negative emotion, but to embrace the whole of it.  To do and be and see and feel what brings me to life!

So what is that?  It varies and will continue to vary, but I know I find it most readily when I am open to life.  When I say yes to all of it.  Yes to vomiting on a Friday night because I’m so full of grief over the life I envisioned for myself that is lost.  Yes to a euphoric surf session watching the moody clouds roll in and then being enveloped in the storm as I rush to my car to avoid the hail stones.  Yes to a quiet night in with my puppy.  Yes to a date with an interesting person, even if I’m sure he isn’t mine.  Yes to a hammock and sunshine in the yard with my son.  Yes to learning to draw naked people on Monday nights at the local university.  Yes to yoga and food and meditation and rest.

So I’m keeping an eye on my happiness set point.  I’m watching for moments of happy. I’m exploring what brings me to life. I hope to slowly get more comfortable with being comfortable. But I also get that challenges, and the negative emotion that comes along with them, are necessary to my vitality and, therefore, my moments of happy.

Happy Sunday! … or whatever you’re feeling. It’s all welcome!