I read a quote from Instagram last weekend from wetheurban: Stop looking for happiness in the same place you lost it.
Ever since I read it, I’ve been turning it over in my mind.
To be happy is to feel or show pleasure or contentment, according to Oxford Online Dictionary.
This simple little sentence from Instagram has been like a clown car for me. Layer after layer of questions, feelings, and thoughts keep emerging as I play with it.
If we think of happiness as extrinsic, or outside ourselves, it becomes a feeling we can find or lose. If we’re lucky, it brushes by us. If we’re unlucky, it eludes us. If we’ve met the right person, found the right job, are making the right amount of money, look the right way, or have the right things, we’ll be happy. Forever.
In this view happiness is conditional, and we all have different conditions that must be met before we can feel it. Happiness is outside our power rather than within it. Once we have it, we expect to keep it as long as nothing changes, so we fear and resist change.
Another view is that happiness is intrinsic, or within us. It’s something we choose. Luck and circumstances have nothing to do with it, and nobody has the power to bring it in or take it out of our lives. Happiness is unconditional and change doesn’t take it away.
An easy way to tell which way we view happiness is to jot down a list of what makes us feel peaceful and contented. If our list is all about things or people we want, can get, can find or can lose, we view happiness as something outside ourselves.
If our list contains activities, practices and at least some pleasant relationships and connections, we are actively creating our own happiness.
The single biggest mistake I’ve made in life is believing another person can make me happy, or someone else’s happiness is my responsibility.
No, they can’t, and no, it’s not.
Our happiness is our own responsibility.
One of life’s certainties is change. Everything changes, along with our degree of pleasure and contentment in any given activity, relationship, or object. If we have no resilience, our happiness is fragile.
I talked about the concept of happiness with my partner during one of our walks. He suggested I look at Martin Seligman’s website and unearthed a book by him (we can always find a pertinent book in this house) titled Authentic Happiness.
The website is dynamic and interesting. Seligman, a Ph.D., is associated with the University of Pennsylvania and has an extensive background in positive psychology, which he continues to research.
The book looks like a typical self-help book and I wasn’t particularly attracted by the cover, but I decided it was worth taking a closer look, as I was writing this post and I’m obnoxiously thorough.
It’s fascinating. I read the first chapter, dug out a bookmark, and added it to my pile of current nonfiction reading.
Defining and gathering data on what it means to be happy is complicated, much more complicated than I realized when the Instagram quote caught my eye and inspired this post. Now I’m hooked by my curiosity and the realization of how much I don’t know about happiness. In fact, I don’t know enough to say much about it with certainty right here, right now.
The website and book are filled with self-tests on our perception of our emotional experience of happiness that are in themselves fascinating. I took the first one and rated myself as more unhappy than happy, which was disconcerting. I don’t think of myself as being unhappy. Maybe I don’t really know what happiness means. How much happiness qualifies one as a happy person?
I’ve never given my own quantity of peace and contentment much thought at all, although I pay a great deal of attention to the happiness of others.
On the other hand, because of my gratitude practice, when I do feel happy I feel it intensely and consciously, and I’m actively grateful for it. For example, just as I finished that last sentence our cat Izzy pelted up the stairs into my workspace, bounced into the room, jumped onto the laptop keyboard (I deleted her contribution to this post—don’t tell her) and started purring as though she hasn’t seen me in days. Her shining calico coat is warm silk. Her squeaks of ecstasy as I hold her and rub her cheeks and chin make me smile. She smells of sleepy feline and salmon cat food. She looks into my face with her wild amber eyes and lays the pink pads of her small white foot against my cheek.
We are happy together. Is happiness increased with sharing? Is it contagious?
When she leaves, distracted by a fly buzzing in my window, I have no sense of loss, only profound gratitude. I have no desire to capture that moment and live in it forever. I don’t want to cage happiness or hold it hostage. I’m not sure one can.
Other happy things: Laughing with friends, swimming, dancing, music, a good book, writing, clean sheets, walking at night, rain, and so many other things it’s ridiculous to go on.
One last thought about happiness. I have a regrettable propensity to turn it into shame, particularly when my past happiness has had to do with a relationship. As the relationship changes, which they inevitably do, and I feel I’ve “lost” my pleasure and contentment in it, I punish myself for having been such a fool as to have ever felt happy in the first place. I invalidate the real happiness I did feel because it didn’t last or was based on what I think of as my own naivete or immaturity. Not only that, I build a thick shell around myself as protection from ever feeling happy in that context again.
In essence, I destroy the happiness that was mine as well as block possible future happiness because I “lost” it before. I don’t look for happiness where I lost it. I refuse to look for it at all.
I suspect I’m not the only one in the world who does this, and I feel sad for all of us who cut ourselves off in this way from engaging with happiness. Refusing to feel happy is no guarantee we won’t feel pain, it just means our pain is not balanced with moments of peace, contentment, or joy.
I’m going to investigate what Martin Seligman has to teach. I’m intrigued. I’m also interested in how self-indulgent it feels to deliberately learn more about being happy, as though it’s a shameful thing to examine our own relationship to it. What’s up with that? When did it become inappropriate for anyone but a child to be happy?
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