I'm Learning to Be Okay With Being Happy

I'm Learning to Be Okay With Being Happy

You have a right to your happiness and positive emotions. As do I.

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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).

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To The Rising College Student, Get Your Money's Worth

It's more than your GPA, trust me.

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As I enter my last semester in college, I have had much time for introspection in terms of what I have accomplished over the past three and a half years. The grades, the friends, the good times and the bad. All of these things culminate a college student's experience, and mine is no different. If I could go back, however, there's one thing I would tell myself.

The value of college is not found in the grades.

With this perspective, very few people get their money's worth in college because they overvalue how much their grades mean. Don't get me wrong – if you're going to med school or law school, your grades probably matter a lot. That's not the point. The point is that people have a distorted mentality about what college is supposed to be. The mental approach to college is centered around obtaining a degree, not a set of life skills that will grant you employment. Degrees do not translate to competency.

This is why college is incredibly overrated, and the me of four years ago would laugh at those words coming from myself, but it's true. It's rare that people get value from their education that translates to skills, alarmingly more so with technical degrees like engineering. Ask anyone who has had an internship and they will tell you the same thing.

This is why college bothers me. People come in with a "play into the machine" mindset that their parents and friends program them into, instead of learning to do their own thing and come to understand what it is they are great at and simultaneously love to do. Much of what I have learned in college has not come from the classroom, but through my internal and external involvement with the university, especially in the last year and a half in my college experience.

I came to the realization that my degree doesn't mean shit.

The skills and connections I make while obtaining my degree because I am placed in a prime position to network matters. The work I will be doing out of college and the reason I am equipped to do so was due to my extroversion and curiosity out of the classroom, not the work I put into it.

This is not to knock the university that I attend, because I am absolutely pleased with the experiences that I've had. I consider myself blessed to have role models in my professors over the past few years who have guided me down my path. However, most people put too much faith in their classes to teach them things that the classes are not designed to do because college is currently flawed in this aspect.

There is too much regurgitation and not enough application.

Getting your money's worth in college isn't about taking your 15 hours a semester. It's how you spend every waking hour trying to improve yourself and find out what it is that makes you happy, then finding a way to monetize that. Don't waste your time with courses and degrees that lead you to nowhere but a $100,000+ piece of paper to your name.

Invest in yourself before anything, because when the world comes down off its economic high horse in a few years, you'll be thankful you have more than paper to speak for your capabilities.

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What Your 20's Are All About

Authenticity.

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Being a twenty-something is glorious.

It's easy. It's beautiful. It often looks like a pair of designer cut-offs or a laptop on a beach. It isn't terribly serious.

In fact, it's rarely serious. Yet it makes sense--more sense than any other age because it's newly educated, self-discovered, and hopeful.

Right?

This is what social media tells me. It is what college told me. It is something many of us believe.

I am convinced, however, that there is more to it than this.

Someone or some book neglected to add a few more postscripts to this chapter of the Book of Life. Or maybe they were lodged under the "Recommended Reading" portion of the syllabus (and hence overlooked).

Whatever the case, your real twenties are about something in between the really good vodka and the wandering. That something has the power to shape this decade of your life into a different kind of gem.

(Yes, you can cut your teeth on it.)

Uncertainty

College (or life after high school) somehow perpetuates the myth that graduation precedes a concrete stairway. And that stairway leads clearly to a life path, a career, a vision, and a culmination, all to the tune of Jimmy Hendrix.

A bachelor's or associate's degree initiates many into the world of work and careerdom. But it does not necessarily make things any more certain.

Perhaps you've graduated with a degree in French literature and suddenly feel an impulse to stare at lots of graphs and statistics.

Maybe you have no impulse whatsoever. You have hobbies—fixing bikes, swiping left—but cannot seem to grasp a vision.

If you're like I was in my twenties, perhaps you sense you want to do everything your parents didn't, if only your feet would touch ground sometime soon.

This decade is definitively unknown. Not having a solid sense of what comes next is not an inherent fault of yours; it's part and parcel of life's whimsical years.

Want in on a shinier secret? All decades are uncertain. This one just feels the ripest.

If you wake up every morning and have no answers (or job, or health insurance, or girlfriend, or house), great! You're doing this right. Answers will emerge, but in the meantime, sit with the discomfort of being simply where you are at.

Forgiveness

As the decade of uncertainty unfolds, lean into it. I found that I could get more comfortable with being an unknown entity in my twenties by forgiving myself (and others).

You don't have to go to an ashram to practice forgiveness, although I'm not discouraging you from this path. Nor do you have to start embracing a new religion or giving up red meat and Cheetos.

Forgiveness starts with awareness. Beginning to recognize the difference between personal goals and societal demands is the prelude to following a gentler, more visionary path.

When I forgave myself for being a perfectionist, despairing that I would never find a job, and wondering if I really should have chosen my English major, life became much easier.

Science also tells us that our brains are still firing, forming, and developing in our twenties.

As such, friendships may peel away. Certain kinds of knowledge may dissolve. You may start to realize that holding grudges or avoiding conflict isn't worth it anymore—or is now worth forgiveness.

Forgiveness can also be empowering. It's one of many doors that can shuttle you more effectively into the unknown (with grace and a good pair of heels).

Exchange

Everything we learn in childhood, high school, and beyond is not necessarily the truth. The decade of your twenties is about the conscious and willing abandonment of past ideals, notions, and information.

To some, this may be simple rebellion. To others, it may be part of the self's natural evolution.

To me, it's about an exchange.

Being in your twenties can involve trading in those old ideas for more relevant ones. It's like a consignment store for self.

At this stage in life, a lot of things crumble. A lot of new buildings and scaffolding develop. Sometimes, this is brutal. It may feel unfair. It may feel like a relief.

No one is here to say that you have to be the self of your childhood or the self of eighteen (or last year). Mindfully weeding out the old and heralding in a more graceful, informed you will make that part of your thirties that much easier.

Risk

If you haven't gotten the memo yet, this is all really risky.

I mean, trekking across Mongolia, coming out, changing your name, abandoning your career, or taking up deep water diving isn't easy.

Forgiving yourself and leaning into uncertainty—those are hard, too.

A lot can get lost. A lot more can crack, splinter, and explode. It's a minefield for the mind and heart.

This decade may be the riskiest of your life. But that's how you know you're playing a good hand.

Without risk, the path becomes in danger of getting "too comfortable." That's one thing we millennials can agree on, at least—to be comfortable is to be stagnant.

I say, be risky. Feel imperiled, whether it involves a belief system or relationship or vision. On the other side of risk is knowing.

Authenticity

This decade is yours. It can shimmer, darken, or expand depending on what you do with it. No one can tell you otherwise.

Society may urge you to be free, playful, and exuberant in your twenties. Excellent.

It may also urge you to be driven, focused, and cynical. Also excellent.

But your twenties are really all about authenticity, or what you do with it. The greatest years of your life won't necessarily be college—they may just be the ones in which you chose to live powerfully within the scope of your greatest and truest self.

If no one was there to prep you for your twenties, or if you feel that the ones who were got it all wrong, take these words to heart. Be uncertain and timid. But also be audacious and genuine.

The one who's looking closest is, after all, you.

Note: Another version of this piece appeared on Thought Catalog.

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