Have you ever woken up reluctantly after 2 snooze button hits, searched for your glasses on the night table, then on the floor so you can make it to the bathroom without running into the wall, slumped on the toilet and thought – only 15 hours until I can get back into bed!? Or are you one of those people – “happy” people, who bounce out of bed no matter what nightmare is on tap for the day and hum your way to the john with your rose colored glasses firmly in place?
I hate to admit it, because damn! if I didn’t wish I had been born in the gene pool of the latter but truth be told, I am more in the former. I had to work at happy. Every step of the way. It didn’t occur naturally for me. I was born with my baseline level on the lower end of the spectrum of “happy”. Happy was a destination I was always on my way to like the kid in the backseat asking his parents, “Are we there yet?” No, not yet.
It’s not that I never felt good things, good emotions because I did – love, wonder, curiosity, compassion, kindness, excitement, appreciation, hope, but I wouldn’t have really defined any of them as “happy”.
“I just want to be happy!” You hear that a lot. Happy, happy, happy! We all just want to be happy. There’s a song on the radio constantly right now, “Because I’m happy…” which I immediately change. Geez, I get it, you’re happy. Good for you.
Being happy seems like the goal we all want to attain like being 5 lbs below our ideal weight. But what exactly does happy mean? Or more accurately, what does it mean to you? Does it mean never having to step into the DMV again? Does it mean only buying organic? Does it mean finding the owner of that glass slipper and of course, living…. “happily ever after”? Until you define “happy” – it is just a shell of a word like “nice”. And as we used to say in my sorority days in college during rush when trying to describe a rushee, “you can fill Byrd Stadium with “nice” girls- be more specific.” Because until you define exactly what happy is to you, you will never feel it because you will always be wanting what you feel you don’t have.
When I started my pursuit in devouring every spiritual path known to man, my goal was happiness. Because I was not happy. And the worst part was that I believed I didn’t have any right to be – unhappy that is. Which, of course, only added to my unhappiness. I was in my early 20’s and had just finished the best time of my life in college, I was living in NYC in an amazing apartment with views of the downtown skyline that you see in movies, I was dating a wonderful man that I would soon marry, I was young, had many friends, a great family, had every advantage in life given me, my whole life ahead of me and yet… I was miserable. Actually, I was downright depressed. Like, get me on Prozac as fast as you can write that prescription depressed. What I kept thinking was, “I just wanted to be happy” and I had absolutely no idea why I wasn’t. And I had no clue how to get there. I had everything people say makes for happiness yet I wasn’t. I was in a fog of confusion about what it meant to be happy.
So I started the “if only” or “as soon as” game. As in, “if only” I had a great career I loved, then I would be happy and “as soon as” I figure out what I want to do with my life, I will be happy. I used that one for awhile thinking it was my lack of climbing the corporate ladder and unused potential and creativity that was keeping me stuck in unhappy.
The “maybe” game was played too those days. “Maybe” when I furnish our apartment beautifully, I’ll be happy. “Maybe” when I have more money, I’ll be happy. (which translates into,”maybe when I have every material possession I could ever want, I’ll be happy.”) But as one thing failed after another to deliver on the promised land of “happiness” I started to realize that happiness was elusive for me because “chasing happiness makes it elusive.” (Dalai Lama XIV) It was that carrot that was always just out of reach and when and if I got to it, I was still hungry.
Then one day, a friend called who I hadn’t spoken to in awhile and asked me this: “Rate your happiness, rate your peace right now.” This was such a meaningful way to ask me how the hell I am, right? Loved it. On that day I have no idea what I said, maybe, happiness = 4, peace = 7? It doesn’t matter but what does matter is that right there, right then, it hit me. The fog just lifted. My peace wasn’t dependent on my happiness rating. I saw with crystal clarity that they were separate – my happiness can change on a daily, even moment to moment basis but my peace, that is what is under my control. Happiness is fleeting. Peace is always possible. Peace is the sky, happiness is the weather.
Happiness is elusive because happiness is dependent – dependent on one’s external conditions, circumstances or events and these can change. I can wake up and discover we are out of coffee. I am really not happy about that. But in the next moment, I can remember some old Christmas Blend stored away in the freezer and now I’m happier. I can open the fridge and see someone drank all the soy milk, I’m back to not happy again. Happiness comes and goes. It is dependent on things that are subject to change but peace, well, peace is a more durable state. Peace is attainable in any moment, no matter what happens. I can be unhappy about a morning with tasteless, freezer-burned coffee without milk but it doesn’t have to disturb my peace. I had at last found my personal definition of happiness and it was called peace. Peace was going be my road to the promised land of happiness.
Today, most times I am actually a genuinely joyful person, which of course implies that sometimes I am not. I have found happy is just too fleeting and generic a term for what I feel most of the time. Too forced, too general, too surface, too much like a animation movie theme song. Joy is deeper. And no matter what life throws my way, I can always find my way to peace…. eventually. I can find peace even when I am unhappy.
What I’ve discovered is you don’t actually have to be “happy” to live a joyful life. The “I’m-going-to-be-happy-or-else” attitude is the greatest killjoy on our planet. It’s depression causing. Stress inducing. It’s so solemn and serious. There’s no joy in that, no appreciation. Certainly no peace. When you begin to relax and lighten up with everything that happens, not make everything into such a big deal, as in “big deal happiness” or “big deal unhappiness”, when you begin to have a sense of humor about the whole thing, the whole thing becomes less heavy. More joyful. More peaceful.
Learning to cultivate inner peace and a joyful mind lessens the burden of forcing “happily ever after.” It starts with an open heart, an open mind and the willingness to lean into every moment of your life whether you define them as “happy” or “unhappy” – whether you are enjoying the greatest cup of coffee you’ve ever had or stuck in line at the DMV renewing your license having just taken the worst picture of anyone known to mankind.