Six months ago, over Christmas break, a group of friends from high school and I decided to get together for drinks. A few of the girls I had remained close with, while the others and I had drifted apart and took a more passive role in each other’s lives. After a bit of small talk over crappy beers, one of the girls who I hadn’t kept in touch with looked at me and said: “In all your pictures you look SO happy. I wish I was that happy.” This comment caught me off guard and has been echoing in my head since that day.
What did she mean by that? Am I really that happy? Aren’t I supposed to look happy in pictures — isn’t that the point?
The reason I have been so preoccupied with her seemingly meaningless observation is the emphasis which I personally place on the word “happy.” The word carries a certain weight; it has gravity to me. Some words (mostly negative ones in fact) have a triggering effect which conjures bad memories or experiences for people. Although the general concept of happiness is far from a negative one, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth because of my personal relationship with “happy.”
Now a days, there seems to be an epidemic of sporting the ultimate happy mask on social media: post a picture of you smiling doing something fun or interesting and then you must be happy. However, my fixation with being happy started before I had a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account. I learned at a young age that when I told someone I was happy (whether or not it was true), he or she would smile, seem to get some sort of personal satisfaction with that answer, and then leave me alone. I lived for that response. The fact that I could say one thing without having to explain personal emotions I didn’t want to feel or personally acknowledge was astonishing to me. I strived to be “the girl who was happy,” thinking it had some sort of novelty to it. Even when I wasn’t happy and was experiencing loss, facing challenging relationships and struggling with various aspects of growing up with a sick mother, no one really knew how unhappy I was. Years later, when I would tell friends and family about my struggles and how terrified I was, they always seem shocked. They would look at me and say: “But you always seemed so happy!” and I would respond with:“I know, you’re right. I always seemed so happy.”
Unfortunately, I think that for a good portion of my teenage years I wasn’t really happy. That is not to say that I didn’t feel happiness and experience immense joy at points — I did, but I didn’t understand that happiness could be a state you are in, not just a fleeting moment. I understood how to convey the emotion; however, I never fully understood the significance of it. I simply thought that if I said it enough times, it would come true.
In college during my sophomore year (the year of college which I struggled the most) I wrote an article for a school blog about happiness. The short article was an attempt to convince myself, as well as others, to be happy. However, this blog post was another mask I created to cover up inner unhappiness. It was a far cry from a solution to the problem I had been facing for years. I didn’t understand that to have a solution, I would need to pick apart the problem.
Learning how to be happy and be at a place in your life where you feel a general ease takes time and work — something that I never wanted to admit. It is a situation similar to the one that I experienced as a child when my mom would clean out my closet. She would start by taking everything out of my closet, which would initially create a bigger mess. The first time that she did this I was on the verge of hysterics, convinced that she was just making it worse. Of course, at the end of it all, the closet was much cleaner. After realizing that the experience wasn’t as traumatic as I had expected, I let my sister in on the secret: yes, her closet would get a lot messier before it got cleaner, but in the end, just like my mother had promised, it would be much cleaner.
Although I learned this lesson long ago with regards to my closet, I never understood how to apply it to my emotions and feelings until recently. I had to realize that to be able to be in a happier, better place in my life, things were going to have to get a lot messier before it got a lot better.
As I have gotten older I have learned more about happiness: how to attain it and how to deal with aspects of life which are both sometimes in and out of my control. About a year ago, for the first time I really felt happy, (and it wasn’t the fake kind I had been telling people about for all those years growing up.) I can’t describe it, but things felt different, and I felt different. It was good. However, once I felt that way for a period of time, I didn’t know what to do next. I felt like there was nothing to be done.
If I had really achieved happiness, what else was there to do? If I climbed the mountain, couldn’t I just hang out on top? Was this what complacency felt like?
In Mad Men, protagonist Donald Draper states: “But what is happiness? It is the moment before you need more happiness.” My first reaction when I watched this particular episode was: “Oh geez, so metaphysical, Don” (note the sarcasm). However, upon further evaluation, I realized how poignant it was. Most people, as Don noted, haven’t learned how to maintain happiness. People who have lost extreme amounts of weight will tell you that even though losing the initial weight was difficult, the most demanding part is maintaining their new habits and diet. What’s the point of losing all the weight if you are just going to gain it back right away?
This same concept can be applied to achieving happiness, and I am still working on the maintenance piece. Understanding that I can be generally happy and still have bad days has been hard. I am figuring out that I don’t have to be experiencing extreme euphoria weekly to be a happy or well-rounded person. I have been pretending for so long that it is easy to revert back to old habits. Sometimes I question if I am really happy or if it is a combination of external factors which are influencing me to act and present myself in a certain way.
This past year I made a new friend who every time he would see me would say something to the extent of: “Aw, I love you! You are just so happy all of the time.” Each time, he mentioned this, I would cringe a little. I knew he didn’t know that was a sore spot or mean to make me feel uncomfortable. My fear was that if he ever saw me upset, he would be caught completely off guard because I was supposed to be the happy one.
I have started to come to terms with the fact that I can still be the happy one and have moments of defeat and unhappiness. It is necessary to struggle, grieve, and feel sadness and anger. These emotions make the happiness you feel that much better. I know that I am going to experience uncomfortable situations, pain, and have plain-old bad days, but I also am learning to give myself permission to admit that it’s perfectly okay to not be okay all of the time.
Life is too important to spend large amounts of time and energy cultivating relationships which don’t yield a genuine harvest or living at the mercy of negative pressures, both external and self-inflicted.
Due to this fact, I need to continue to figure out what relationships, career paths, geographical locations and various other influences in my life bring me to a happiness which is sustainable and real. I want to be able to look at someone when they say: “Wow, you look so happy in all your photos” and respond with: “Yeah, it’s because I am.”