Is Happiness Difficult? – March 2013
March 15, 2013
When I was a little girl, I had a book called “Happiness is…” It was filled with illustrations of things you could receive and experience – hot fudge sundaes, wet kisses from a dog, walking with a friend. None of the captions read “a warm feeling that spreads quietly out from your heart, in a gentle wave, lifting your spirits and restoring your cells.” I don’t think that is a definition that could be found in any dictionary, either, but there is something about it that captures the essence of the thing for me.
Over the past couple of years, as I have strung together more and more experiences of happiness, felt in moments of satisfaction and delight, I have noticed that happiness is not as easy or self-evident to pursue as the US Declaration of Independence seems to imply.
For one thing, I am much more likely to pursue self-righteousness or self-contempt than I am to try for some flavor of delight. There is a familiarity in being really right or really wrong, in defining myself by what has already happened, rather than by being in the present moment. In addition, my brain is used to ruminating over what has gone before, to running through previous events over and over without end. Not only is this a default for me, I am compelled by my feelings of panic or anxiety or shame to try to understand and resolve any difficult moments in my past (not a doable request if we are using rumination to approach the problem), and sometimes, with even less choice, I am caught by the amygdala’s sense of ever-present time as I continue to ceaselessly relive the painful memory, without even enough distance to have any thoughts about it.
My love of falling snow is another example of how happiness can be difficult. I grew up with snowy winters, and I have sweet dreams where I am walking through snow in my bare feet, not feeling the cold. And now I live farther south, where the snow falls rarely. When it does, it is bittersweet for me. My heart starts to swell with joy at the falling flakes and immediately convulses with pain as I realize that the snow will melt. The realization of the fleeting nature of what I long for slices into me like an unending and unbearable papercut. I cannot step into the happiness without painfully anticipating its end.
With both of these habitual barriers to happiness, ruminating over the past, or anticipating the future, once we start to heal, things start to change. We learn how to heal past traumas; we become capable of asking ourselves to turn away from rumination and get help or do self-empathy processes; and we begin to savor the present moment, rather than what has come before or will come after.
And then things get a little more complicated, because when happiness is outside our regular experience of life we may not know how to feel it, even when we make room for it by starting to heal. If no one has ever resonated with us at times of satisfaction, delight or joy, then happiness is an unmapped continent within us, unexplored territory that we are not sure how to find. It can be found by other people seeing moments of celebration, accomplishment, delight, love, and helping us notice them, by being seen, and by being known. And once we have found happiness, the next task is to learn to stay in it, in a way, to learn to bear it. We need to widen our window of tolerance, our nervous system’s capacity to be at rest while feeling, for happiness just as we need to do the same for worry, anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness, so that we can be a present self open to allowing life itself to flow through us.