What do you think it would take to make you happy? Would a lot of money do it? Michael Jackson had a lot of money…Elvis Presley had a lot of money…Robin Williams had a lot of money: it didn’t make them happy. Money just allows you to be miserable in comfort.
Would love—being loved—make you happy? I would say that Jackson, Presley, and Williams were loved by millions. Oh—you mean a more intimate, personal kind of love? Well, the truth is, it doesn’t matter how many people love you or how deep and personal and intimate that love is, if you don’t feel loved, those around you are powerless to impart that love to you. Whether or not you feel loved comes from within you because you can feel unloved even when surrounded by people who would give up their lives for you.
How we feel at any given moment is a reflection of our choices, our expectations, and our attitudes. Our feelings may be influenced by outside events, but the degree of that influence is our choice, conscious or subconscious. Some things inevitably shake our equilibrium: death, betrayal, loss of something we hold dear, but how—and how long—these things affect our happiness is within our control.
It starts with our beliefs. Do you believe you will never be happy again if your Significant Other is no longer a part of your life? If he gets hit by a train or runs off with another woman or develops dementia or amnesia and no longer knows who you are—if you truly believe you will never be happy again without him, then you have created a lifetime of unhappiness just hanging out there in the ether, waiting to pounce. This can create anxiety for you that can make you clingy or suspicious or anxious or jealous—all things that can bring your worst fears into being: he leaves because he grows weary of your clinging, suspicions, anxiety and/or jealousy.
Perhaps you don’t exhibit those kinds of behaviours—you are successful in keeping your anxiety hidden—but the worst happens anyway. He finds another woman or he dies or he just decides he is tired of being a couple—regardless of reason, you find yourself alone, without him. You are never going to be happy again because that is what you believe, what you have created for yourself. So, even if a terrific guy comes along who thinks you are the greatest thing since sliced bread, you aren’t in an emotional space to embrace his entry into your life. Either you reject him outright or you find yourself feeling guilty—like you are betraying the one who is gone—if you accept his advances.
We can get addicted to misery. We can and often do create it for ourselves. There is no legitimate reason to do so, but we convinces ourselves of stuff that we hold as values and then we beat ourselves up when we don’t measure up. Never mind that we have set ourselves unrealistic—even impossible—standards, that we adopt standards set by others when we were too young to see how unrealistic they were. Never mind that we have internalized the voice of a critical Other (parent, other family member, coach, religious leader—anyone who was an authority figure in our formative years) and we allow that voice to override our own voice of reason, we somehow feel held to those standards and will not allow ourselves to be happy until we have achieved the impossible. If we do, if we allow ourselves to be happy with less, then we court guilt. If we don’t, if we work towards those impossible goals (or become paralyzed with procrastination because if we don’t try we can’t, technically, fail) and fail to succeed, we are unhappy. And subsequent failures make us even more unhappy because they seem to point to us as failures, losers, and how can a loser be happy?
But it is a trap we have set for ourselves because we control what we believe. We define what is success and failure, good and bad, right and wrong. We can either sit down and cognitively define those things or we can do what most people do: accept the definitions handed to us by Others, authority figures, parents, people we admire. When we accept the definitions created by others, we give away our autonomy, the authority to control our lives, the power to choose happiness.
You don’t have to have a lot of stuff to be happy—that is also a trap, the idea that because we are poor or deprived or lacking in something we want, we cannot be happy. There are billions of people all over the world who barely have enough to eat who are happy. Being happy does not mean to be arrested, to cease forward progress or even to stop acquiring the stuff you like. What it means is to stop finding fault with your life, yourself, your family, your partner, your lot in life. It means being grateful that you are still able to breathe and think and love and considering everything beyond that to be a bonus. It doesn’t mean being complacent or enduring abuse or living in a boring rut. It means continuing your forward progress from the standpoint of adding more joy to a life already joyful for what it does have, not dissatisfied and resentful for what it does not have. Taking that latter path guarantees that happiness will always be just out of your grasp, it is a frame of mind in which the goalposts are forever moving, just out of reach, it is an unfulfillable promise of future happiness when or if some future event comes to pass. “I’ll be happy when I get that promotion,” or “I’ll be happy if I win the Lotto,” or “I’ll be happy if I lose weight, my man stops cheating, my child gets perfect grades, my wife stops nagging, my mother apologizes for her transgressions, my son stops doing drugs, my book gets picked up by a major trade publisher, my boss recognizes me, etc., etc.,” We all have a litany of things or events that will make us happy, but how many times have we acquired something on our list and the happiness it brings us is fleeting, and we are soon feeling dissatisfied again and looked forward to that next thing that will bring is happiness?
The happiness, the joy, is already within you. You have given yourself a set of hoops to jump through, a series of hurdles you must clear before you can release it. Someone else may have set up those hurdles and hoops but you keep them in place. You have bought into someone else’s paradigm, one that says you are not deserving of happiness unless you earn it. But look at a baby—a chuckling, gurgling, giggling baby—babies overflow with joy and they haven’t earned a thing. And when they are unhappy, it doesn’t take designer shoes and brand-name jackets to restore their joy and good nature—their needs are small and easily fulfilled—food, a fresh nappy, a cuddle, some sleep. How long has it been since being held in the arms of someone you love has brought you joy?
We do this to ourselves. It is like a virus that we catch from others, the belief that achievement and/or acquisition are the keys to happiness. They aren’t: you already hold the keys to your happiness in your heart. You already have the ability to feel happy with what you have right now. You are the one who chooses to withhold it from yourself.
But what if—? You ask. And every one of us can make a list of trials and tribulations that hold us back from happiness. A cheating spouse, an interfering mother, a rebellious teen, an asshole of a boss or worse, unemployment, ill health…and a laundry list of things that can dampen our spirits and our outlook. But you have another list, a list of the things that make your life worthwhile: people you love or who love you, devoted pets, do you have enough to eat and a roof over your head? Do you have access to the internet, the news, perhaps a cell phone to keep in touch with the people you love? What about a therapist or a friend you can unload some troubling thoughts onto? Unless you are naked, alone, starving, and isolated from everyone and everything you have known, you have a reason to be happy. Maybe not jumping-over-the-moon happy, but you have a reason to not be feeling despair.
I am not talking about depression here—depression is an illness that needs professional treatment so if you are depressed, please see a therapist. What I am talking about here is a decision, conscious or unconscious, to postpone “happiness” until later, to make it the reward you get for achievement. It is a choice you make to defer feeling happy to some undefined time in the future, a time that never really comes because as soon as we achieve, our “earn it” mindset creates a new goal and shuts down the happiness because you don’t deserve it until you have accomplished whatever it takes to achieve that new goal. And when you achieve it? Predictably, the cycle repeats itself so that you get no more than a taste of happiness, a whetting of your appetite for it, which acts as a further motivator for you to continue the game.
Happiness is within your grasp, right now, this minute. You need only decide you will have it, the way things are today. You can keep working on the same goals—let your reward for achieving them be a sense of self-satisfaction, a pride in self for the accomplishment. But let happiness and joy into your life today in spite of those things you see as obstacles. They are only obstacles if you decide to make them that.