The Elusive Art of Being Happy

The Question

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness and why it seems to so often elude me.

“Are we happy?” is a question I find I am constantly asking myself (yes, we—that is the me who participates in the outside world and the other me who lives inside my head, vacillating between harsh judgement and genuine concern for my wellbeing).

Sometimes the answer is a flat “no”. More often than not, it’s a mental shrug followed by an, “I don’t know” or a, “mehmmph”. But it’s never a, “yes”.

It often stops there.

I usually don’t pursue it, don’t ask “well, why not?”. I just accept it and sink inwards.

Mull over other topics. Recurring characters, all of them.

Thoughts of the future. Ruminations over the past.

Self-doubt, Dread, Criticism. Encouragement, Drive, Fantasy.

Egging myself on to be productive, searching for the motivation to create.

Failing.

Feeling too aware of it all.

Fighting the urge to numb nagging consciousness with some substance.

Failing that, convincing myself I will get to work if I just feel a little better.

Giving in—sometimes it works and I succeed in creating, sometimes it fails and I fall back on shaming myself—Repeat.

It might be a false and fleeting state of “contentment”, but it’s the only way I know how to get it with any sense of certainty and reliability.

I’ve tried other ways.

Really, I have.

Pre-pandemic, when I had space to wander endless streets and alleyways with no particular destination in mind, I tried walking.

I’d walk for hours.

I tried sitting in parks, in nature, and being peaceful, mindful, observing everything around me.

I’ve tried working out, I do yoga.

And sometimes it does help.

Really, it’s not all bad, there is the occasional sense of euphoria, satisfaction, pride at accomplishing something I set out to do. I catch glimpses of happy, I do. Sometimes for days at a time. When I write or play guitar, for instance, I often feel pretty content in those moments.

Creation, growth, expression. My dreams manifesting momentarily before me. Productivity. Tangible progress, a step towards a goal. A valid reason to feel good about myself. It just doesn’t last, doesn’t carry me over into the next day, sometimes not even into the next minute. It’s like doing little bumps of happiness—enough to give you an idea of the feeling but not enough to have a true and enduring experience of it…just a taste, more frustrating than satisfying.

Yes, the respite is always temporary and too often aided by some destructive substance.

All those things that people tell you will help, “just do more blank and you’ll be happy, it’s all you need, the article I found on Facebook said so”: Exercise more, go out into nature more, meditate, create, go to therapy, journal, get better sleep, get laid, eat well. Yeah, ok, these are all good things. But the ease with which you can do them varies and there is no panacea, no guarantee. There is no mathematical equation, no chemical solution that—if you only follow the steps—ends in happiness. There is more to it than that. This is all simply work that you must do in order to merely approach happiness. The real trick is, as you near it, as you get closer to it, you need to learn how to accept it and embrace it. Because if you aren’t ready for that, you will freak out, you will run away, and you will have to start all over again.

Without fail, I end up back in here, back in this state of discomfort that seems to be my normal. Trapped within the vortex of a mind that never sleeps, is never resting or at peace with the world nor its place within it.

The weird thing is, I don’t avoid that space. I think If I didn’t need to eat, or sleep, or move, or do anything the human body does, I could just sit like a statue forever, lost in introspection.

But the stillness would be deceptive to anyone looking in from the outside.

You see, it’s not a meditative state but a paralysis—a high energy, chaotic, ongoing state of anxiety.

And introspection is not the same thing as self-work.

For a long time now, I’ve made the mistake of confusing the two.

The Problem

I don’t know how to be happy on my own.

So, I substitute it with various external mechanisms, hoping to replace that which I cannot grasp, to fill that void artificially until I can comprehend the real thing.

And even though I spend so much time analyzing myself and other people, I can’t figure out how anyone does it.

And those people who do find it, who say they are happy? I don’t trust ‘em.

Are you? Is that really possible? Do we live on the same planet?

But that’s just bitterness and jealousy speaking. The problem is mine and I will try to own it. When I really stop to think about it, I find it boils down to this:

My entire conception of happiness is wrong.

Yes, I deserve to be happy. The issue is that I equate happiness with capitalistic notions of success—if I can just attain this…if I can just get to that next step…THEN I’ll be happy. When this is your perpetual mode of thought, there is no room to be present, no capacity to be grateful.

And it’s not exactly my fault. We live in a society designed to crush the creative spirit, while simultaneously squeezing out our very life blood.

So, as a creative person who cannot fathom doing anything else with my life, I am constantly trying to sell myself.

That’s the only way I can survive in this world doing what I love.

Which is the only way I can survive.

Because I’d rather die than give up on my dreams.

Still, the brutal fact remains: You need a lot of money just to survive. Financial success really fucking matters in this world.

You can shout clichés at me all day, say “that isn’t true, money can’t buy happiness!”, but I’m assuming you’re already living pretty comfortably and/or self-sufficiently if that’s the case. So I say, fuck right off with your empty, condescending platitudes.

But it goes beyond wanting to be able to, you know, buy groceries and live in a house. I would be lying if I said I didn’t crave recognition for what I perceive to be talent.

I want so badly to be relevant in the eyes of the world.

I’ve spent the majority of my life engaged in this exhausting battle of trying to prove something to other people—to my parents, my friends, the world, to anyone I see as consequential. Creating art solely for the sake of having someone say, “That’s amazing! You’re so good at this!”. So, I miss out on the sense of fulfilment that should naturally accompany the act of creation because my self-worth is inextricable from external validation.

I wish I would give myself more significance. I wish I spent more time trying to prove something to myself and myself alone…but I don’t.

And until I figure THAT shit out

I will never be happy.

People will tell you it’s a choice and I fucking hate that response.

I mean, that may be true to some extent…but hearing it generates in me a visceral reaction of rage and disgust. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m simply telling you how I feel about it. And I feel that it’s an oversimplification. Yes, I can tell myself to be happy, I can tell myself that I should be grateful or that I should do this or that instead. I can tell myself to breathe. I can tell myself anything I want. I can see every negative thought as it comes flitting through my mind and offer a rebuttal; but, on its own, that doesn’t make a fucking difference.

It does nothing to stop the physical feelings that accompany all of the heavy emotions: dread, anxiety, fear, depression, guilt, shame, sadness, doubt, anger, etc. etc.

So, anyone who tells you this clearly doesn’t know darkness like you do.

Or maybe they’ve mastered it, but I doubt it. I think that type of person is really just avoiding it.

But then again, maybe I’m the one avoiding it…maybe I’m afraid of the choice.

My friend recently gave me a CBT workbook (that’s cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing harmful patterns of thought). She swears by this book, tells me how much it has helped her. Yet, I’m afraid to open it.

Why? What is this paralytic fear of just trying something out that could potentially help me find happiness? Maybe I’m afraid that if I actually commit to doing the work, I might discover that I am a more functional human being when I’m happy.

I swear I don’t want “this”—that is, my present state of being.

But I don’t seem to want to change badly enough to do anything about it either. Or I guess…I’m just terrified…afraid of what this choice will do to me as a person.

How can I be myself without darkness and vice and chaos? Is that not who I am, really?

The Solution? (Potential)

Here’s the thing, the answer is so simple—I can see it—but I cannot, for the life of me, seem to act on it or to integrate it into my daily thoughts and actions:

You are your most authentic self when you are happy, and I mean really, genuinely happy. Soul-deep, grounded, at peace and accepting kind of happy.

And if, like me, you are given to bouts of melancholy, anxiety, and depression—if that’s the lens you spend most of your time gazing through—you will confuse that person for your authentic self. After all, you live your life in that skin, behind that mask; you come to believe in it wholeheartedly as the only way to be you.

It becomes, not comfortable, but familiar.

You’ve gotten used to the water and it’s time to get out, but you know it’s going to be a cold shock to the senses. So, you avoid it.

But you need to do it. You need to step back and take a good hard look at yourself in the reflection of the water.

And I’m not afraid to stand face to face with myself.

I will go up to a mirror and look myself right dead in the fucking eye.

That person looking back is very sad and very scared.

And I want to reassure them, tell them it’s all going to be OK, but I don’t know that for sure so I can’t.

So, all we can do is just kind of look at each other desperately and have this heart-breaking moment of empathetic connection.

And they’re trapped and I don’t know how to help them…

But I’m gonna try. I promise I’ll try…

Be nice to yourself.

Such a deceptively simple concept.

We tell children to “play nice with others” from day one, but do we ever tell them to be kind to themselves? Probably some parents do, and their kids are grown-up, well-adjusted people telling people like me that happiness is a choice. While people like me are overreacting to statements like that because we’re so tired of screaming on the inside but we don’t know how to stop.

Well, I’ve been trying to be gentler with myself lately. It feels silly and uncomfortable. But I really do believe it is an absolutely critical step. Actually committing to doing the work though… taking a step—any step—that is the true key.

With that said, I’d like to end this thing with a pep talk to that me in the mirror:

Hey, you! Listen,

You have to accept the fact that you are entirely responsible for your own happiness and wellbeing.

Others can and will support you, and you should learn to fully embrace and accept those that do. Stop building a wall up around yourself. You allow others to let you into their hearts and lives, but you won’t do the same for them, why not?

But look, the final call, the choices you make or don’t make: to open yourself up, to let happiness in…

That’s on you kid.

And you’re going to have to let go of a lot to get there.

A lot of crutches and security blankets you thought were supporting you, when in reality they were crushing and suffocating you.

You’re going to have to be very, very brave and let them go.

And it’s going to be scary.

You’ll feel naked. Exposed and alone. Stripped down to your very core. And you’re going to have to look at yourself.

And take it all in.

And embrace it.

And learn to love it.

You’ll get there,

Just keep going.

And don’t dismiss your progress

And don’t shame yourself for setbacks.

Let it come and go, no judgement, who are you to judge? Who is anyone? That’s a vestige of the religion you were raised in, the society you’re surrounded by.

You thought you’d moved past that a long, long time ago

But it’s still there. There is still a bit left unresolved.

That’s OK, you’re working on it.

Just keep moving.

I know I’m a hard person to be around, kid, sometimes I’m hard on you and sometimes I’m rooting for you. And it changes day by day. But I’m not perfect, neither one of us is.

But I’m trying.

And you’re trying.

We’re both just trying our fucking best (most of the time anyway).

That’s all we can do.

Keep moving. We’ll get there.

Sun rise, sun set.

I’ll see you on the other side of it all.

And remember, even if the goal is to make it out of here fulfilled and satisfied, just making it out alive is an achievement worthy of celebration.

I hope that one day we will learn to accept that as truth.

That we will learn to see the value in the not-so-simple act of living.

I think that will be the day we finally understand what it is to be happy.

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