I have a new goal for this midsummer season: being okay with being happy.
Joy can often feel fleeting, especially if we are accustomed to tragic or challenging life circumstances. It's even possible to become addicted to hardship. I can certainly attest to this!
The most devastating, crashing waves in our lives can be more familiar than the blissful peaks. When happiness surges in, then, it can be even more destabilizing than tragedy.
I also tend to feel guilty when riding these life highs, as if I don't deserve them--or if they'll end too soon. I am particularly hesitant to dance with joy if others in my life aren't faring so well.
You have a right to your happiness and positive emotions. As do I. There are ways to truly savor it without guilt or shame. Here's how.
Happiness is Not An End Goal
Happiness is often the direct object of sentences. We look for ways to find happiness, to discover happiness, or dwell in happiness.
When I wander the "self-help" sections in bookstores, I start to believe in the myth myself. If I work hard enough, if I read the right books and follow the right gurus, I too can arrive at the City of Happiness or hold it in my hands like a quivering, gleaming fish.
Perhaps there is some value in making happiness tangible. Spirituality, after all, does require intention and a certain amount of soul work.
But this mentality of "happiness as end goal" can make it harder to experience joy fully, once you have "arrived."
Destinations and objects, after all, have all the flavor and edge of temporality. We arrive at places not necessarily to linger forever. We build relationships to things that are ultimately ephemeral, for when we die, the objects do not come with us.
Happiness is not a conclusion to an essay or the gold crown in the box at the top of the shelf. It is far easier to think of it this way, but doing so makes it feel impermanent and fleeting. It makes us fearful to hold onto it, always thinking of when we'll lose it.
The fish in the lap metaphor is apt, because fish aren't meant to live in laps--they'll flop away to water or they'll die.
But if happiness isn't an end goal, what is it?
Define Your Own "Happy"
In romantic relationships, I find that I consistently ask my partner, "Are you happy?" or "What can I do to make you happy?" In the past, I felt that happiness was the peak, a clear indicator that the relationship was working, life was stable, the sky was bright.
I knew I met the right person when he didn't say "yes" or "no" or even "maybe." He frowned. He told me that it wasn't about being happy. That wasn't his vision or his aim in life. Such a question was almost in itself paradoxical.
I asked him what was his aim in life.
He shrugged a little. "Adventure," he said. "Learning. Love. Living with urgency." He added: "To answer your question, I'm satisfied with my life right now."
I liked this. (And I still love him). His response showed me how comfortable I was with trying to squeeze fulfillment or satisfaction with life into a neat little box, a question that functioned like a report card, telling me how well I was doing, reaffirming I was on the right track.
These words also made me think about the role I gave Happiness in my relationships and my own life journey. This urged re-definition.
In fact, when we define what "happiness" truly means to us--how it propels our life, what it does to our very bones--we also define what shape it takes.
Our definition of happiness makes it into an end goal, an ephemeral object, something elusive or terrifying, a universal condition, or a zebra. The good news? We have control over that definition.
Happiness is what we make it.
Know Your Agency
We've all heard that quote: Happiness is a choice.
I often hear disgruntled responses to that quote. People cite neurological disorders, tragedy, drug or alcohol addiction, chemical imbalances. How can people who are truly disadvantaged choose happiness?
These people have a point. As someone who knows what it's like to have sadness linger in the veins, I understand that happiness doesn't simply arrive with the snap of a finger.
Being okay with being happy, however, begins with agency. We have control over the definition of happiness and how it speaks in our lives. We also have agency in how we respond to happiness and let it fill us.
Some people deliberately hide from happiness, out of fear of its early loss or the result of trauma. Yet once joy walks in, we get to choose how we react.
Joy is Sadness's Equal
The great poet Rumi talks about welcoming emotions in to sit at his table. He talks about letting sadness and joy alike eat like guests in his home; he treats them both equally, listening to their stories.
I like this. I've practiced it a lot with sadness. I began to practice it with joy. I let bliss take up residence in my house and I listen to its narrative.
What did I realize? A lot if its narrative comes out of sadness. The best joyful guests I've had have been the result of a tragic wave or a profound healing.
I also realized that these guests were mine alone, independent of others'. I didn't have to feel guilty for inviting them in--in many ways, they chose me. Our life circumstances are fundamentally our own. We are given the gift of savoring them all fully as they arrive, regardless of where others are.
Being okay with being happy means being okay with being your own emotional, living self.
Being Okay With Being Happy
Defining what happiness is to us, identifying our own agency, realizing that joy isn't always an end goal--all of this doesn't say much about that fear of losing joy, of the shortness of a happy spell.
I've spent the past several years navigating tremendous loss and grief. I got used to the refrain of suffering, healing, and processing. Now I'm starting to realize that life isn't ever about not processing.
But it can also be about bliss. In fact, the times that I've let myself sink into both sides of the coin have been the most instructive. If joy feels fleeting, so does sadness.
I've decided to give joy as much attention and response as pain and grief. Those guys have had a lot of care from me these last few years. It feels unfair to shaft happiness.
Being okay with being happy means respecting joy as the powerful, transformative emotion it is. It means letting our cells quake with a different energy that shows different things. These emotions are all teachers; to be good students, we have to listen fairly to all.
I'm still working on being okay with being happy. But, as with everything, mindfulness and self-awareness have been my best tools. They've shown me that happiness is a sister of darkness and that that isn't a bad thing.
So, if you feel a smile creeping on, let it. Meditate on that sensation. Feel what's behind it. For me, what's behind any emotion is always a dashing of love (and longing).