What I learned When I went in Pursuit of Happiness.
I’ve been in pursuit of happiness for the last 5 years. I’m embarrassed that it took me more than 30 years to figure out what happiness really means to me. If you notice the number of books, websites and articles written about happiness you’ll see I wasn’t alone in my confusion! If pursuing happiness is our inalienable right, why are so many Americans suffering from unhappiness?
My theory is that when we’re small humans our needs are pretty basic and feeling happy comes from having those needs met. Needs like food, shelter, hugs and cuddles, laughter and a space to expand our curiosity bring us happiness. We’re encouraged to explore all within the caring eyes of our adult companions who do their best to make sure we’re happy. Then we’re shipped off to an alien place called school and told to fall into line and more or less be like everyone else. Our curiosity is rarely valued and our need to move, dance, sing and talk at the top of our voice is frowned upon. We learn quickly that we can only be happy at school if we fit in.
Over time we teach ourselves to look around, compare and figure out how to fit in and still have our needs met. By the time we’re adults we can be confused about what true happiness is – is it really going to an Ivy League school? Is it making the Olympic track team? Sure it can be. Maybe our happiness is hiding out in the corner, eating a slice of cake and rereading our favorite book, but we’re pretty sure that doesn’t really count, unless we have a club or a group or posse of friends who do the same thing.
Look I’m not anti-school, or learning. Neither am I a fan of shunning goals and basic etiquette rules. I’m still trying to find my Zen every time I’m on a plane in front of a screaming child who insists on kicking my seat-back, so I see why discipline isn’t the antithesis of happiness.
What I’m pointing out is the lack of reward for pursuing our own definition of happiness throughout our lives. Even the delightful movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness” gives an inkling that happiness truly comes from making money! And while money is quite nice indeed, I’m not the first to say that money alone doesn’t make you happy.
My earnest search for happiness several years ago when my coach asked me to set a goal to have more fun. I was silent for long enough that she asked if she’d lost the call. “I have no idea what you mean,” I blurted. “Sure it can be hard, but just pick something that makes you happy and follow it,” she instructed.
That was one of the hardest assignments of my life! I couldn’t land on a single thing that made me so happy that I would take time out of my day and pursue it for the simple sake of pursuing it! (And I admit to being afraid of picking the wrong thing or being judged.)
I had enjoyed playing instruments in school, but when I pictured picking them up again just for the pleasure of playing, it didn’t feel like it was worth the time necessary. I went through a list of things I had pursued in my life that had been enjoyable at the time and I realized that all of them had an “end goal” that made them, in my mind, worthwhile. Once that goal had been met or failed, I lost interest in the activity.
Other activities had been set aside when my first or second attempt wasn’t perfect. I was stuck and I was unhappy.
No one who knew me personally, socially or professionally would have thought I was unhappy, because I smiled and conversed and got along fine in general society. I didn’t have a clinical disease like the many who suffer from depression, but I was really stumped on this idea of happiness. To be honest, it felt somehow lame to focus on happiness when I felt I should be of service to the world!
The thing that eventually clicked for me was the idea that happiness IS.
When it comes to being happier you can’t expect anything outside of you to make it so. It wasn’t about finding a hobby or a person or a great meal, it’s actually about opening to curiosity and compassion.
Happiness exists when I’m exploring the world, thinking deep thoughts or spending time in the company of like-minded soul travelers. I am happy whether I’m doing something or just sitting on the back deck watching the woodpeckers flit through the woods.
What was a bit shocking to realize is that when I chose “being happy” as my ultimate goal, I eventually began to make more money, have deeper relationships and even started to regain my health. Pursuing true happiness may be an inside job, but it is the key to success.