The much-younger me thought I would grow up and be happy. Just... happy. I wasn't sure what I'd do to be happy, exactly; I just knew that I'd eventually solve all my problems, have enough money, have easy and fulfilling relationships, and float throughout my days in some mode between satisfied (a bad day) and blissful (a regular day).
That was the goal, anyway.
Fortunately, I've changed my thinking on this, now that I'm firmly in middle age. I know, now, that complete happiness is an unattainable goal. That's just the truth. I know there are a lot of times I'm not going to be happy at all. There's the big, wide unhappiness, like the weeks of cold in the wintertime, when I'm exhausted and stressed and depressed. There's that kind. But there's also the small unhappinesses that pop up a hundred times a day. The clanking garbage truck that wakes me too early. A slew of ants in my cabinet. The grumpy woman who won't look at me when I thank her for the cup of coffee I'm paying way, way too much for. The staff member who's really mad at me for no identifiable reason. All of those silly, bothersome unhappinesses. And when they pop up, I can't help it; I find myself trying to overcome them. To deal with each one and find my way back to happy.
I know I'm not the only one. Most of us seek happiness. It's, like, an end goal. Right? To be happy.
And when we’re not happy, we worry: Why not? We look around and try to identify what is wrong, and we try to fix whatever we need to fix so that happiness comes back, already.
Why is that? Or, the better question: Is seeking happiness a worthwhile and fruitful pursuit?
I sought out some perspective on the whole thing. In the most recent issue of Flow magazine, I stumbled across the work of German professor and author Wilhelm Schmid. He’s in a place in his life—mid 60’s—where he’s looking back and thinking about happiness and how it relates to the span of his lifetime—and anyone’s lifetime, really.
Schmid doesn’t think seeking happiness is a wise approach; he says looking for meaning in our lives is something that’s much more important than happiness. Take being a parent. Having children doesn't necessarily make us happy all the time—or even much of the time. But they give our lives meaning. They help us build a network of relationships that will keep us connected to the world and those around us. That, he says, is what it’s all about—and what will bring happiness.
So: This morning, when my son split his sister's lip with a Gatorade bottle during a raucous indoor game of "football," I was anything but happy—but I can give myself a break on that. I don't have to be happy. In fact, it's okay to be very, very unhappy. Because happiness isn't the point. It's the meaning that comes with raising a son who will, hopefully, think twice next time when he considers hurling a plastic bullet at his sister's face. It's the meaning that comes with dealing with ebbs and flows of sadness, frustration, and depression. It's meaning: A life of meaning. A life of challenges, and crap, and awesomeness, all melded together.
I'm going to try to wipe the whole issue of happiness off the table for good... and just stop thinking about it. I'll try to embrace my unhappinesses, big or small, because they aren't the point at all. Instead, I'll try to seek meaning and experiences. Then, I'll be happily surprised... when happiness finds me.