“I’m feeling happier than I have in years,” I gushed to my Spiritual Director last week. “I almost feel guilty about it. Like I shouldn’t feel happy when my brother just died a few months ago.”
“You know there’s no ‘should’ around your feelings, right?”
“Yes. But it’s been a common theme in my life. Believing I wasn’t allowed to be happy because of all the suffering in the world – why should I get to feel happy when other people don’t?”
“And you don’t believe that anymore?”
“No. I’m finally in a place where I not only accept that I’m allowed to be happy, but I believe that God wants me to be happy. I still fall into my old guilt place sometimes, but it doesn’t last as long.”
“So where are you experiencing God in all of this feeling?” The hard question. I paused to feel for a moment. Did I sense the divine now?
“I don’t know that I can say I feel God in each moment, but my reaction to your question is that I’m experiencing an accumulation of answers to prayers, not about happiness per se, but around feeling loved. It’s like the right books, people, and experiences have been put in front of me to help me get here. Writing my blog has cemented a lot of lessons about loving myself. The prayer retreats had some seminal moments. But beyond that, I’m improving at when I’m feeling down or angry, pulling out my mantra, ‘I rest in your love,’ and doing a mini-meditation. Most of the time, I can feel God with me and I’m calmer. I’d love to experience that transcendence in every moment without having to reach out for it, and I wish I could remember to do it every time, but I’m not there.”
“Why do you think you’re feeling happy now?
“It’s no one thing. I’m sure some of it is that with my niece and nephew gone for the summer, I’m able to focus back on me. I miss them, but it’s made me realize that as much as I have had sad moments about not having my own kids, it’s pretty awesome to be able to spend so much time with them, but then go off and do my own thing without the mom guilt.”
I continued, “I also suspect that my recent happiness is heightened given the stark contrast with the deep darkness I descended to in the past couple months. Recently, though, I was reading a book about happiness. It seemed like spending so much time thinking about it caused me to feel happy. It was almost like a switch turned on.”
Her silence prompted me to explain more.
“I was already doing much of what the author wrote about, which I’ve noticed other times when I read books about happiness. So I wondered, if I’m already doing all these activities that research suggests promotes happiness, maybe I am happy and I’m just not noticing it. I started observing which activities gave me a jolt of joy. The feeling would stick with me even after I moved on to other pursuits. I know that warm feeling has always been there, but suddenly I was more consciously aware of it and I immersed myself in it in a way that I don’t think I allowed before.”
“What types of activities are bringing you that happiness?”
“It seems silly, but weeding my garden after two months of it turning into a jungle made me giddy. Every time I look at it since, I’m happy all over again. I had the same reaction to buying a storage shed that I’ve thought about for years to get the clutter off my deck. Then there’s the more obvious choices: singing, drawing and painting, spontaneous nights out with friends. Strangely, I can find this last one hard to do because my tendency when I’m down is to be alone, but I know that if I go, I’ll laugh and absorb their love for me, which I often need.”
When I left my spiritual director’s office, I carried the warm glow from just talking about my happiness out the door. I kept thinking about it. I hate when people say happiness is a choice. In a sense it is, but I don’t think it’s always easy for people to make that choice. I know for me guilt kept me from thinking I was allowed to be happy even though I wanted to be. And it ignores that sometimes life is really hard. Happiness can be elusive in those moments.
I also know that practices like gratitude and meditation are part of cultivating happiness, and I do both. Neither, however, gives me those jolts of happiness. Rather, they provide a foundation on which my happiness can flourish.
The week after our conversation, I had a number of days when I felt disheartened, sad, guilty, and angry. After such strong feelings of happiness, I took time to observe what brought me down. Checking the stats of my blog posts is a big one. Of course, when it’s going well it gives me a burst of joy, but more often I’m disappointed. It causes so much doubt about whether I can ever find success in writing.
Similarly, looking at Facebook or Instagram, not a big surprise, can also leave me doubting my choices and thinking everyone else is having a better life than me. I know I need to work on not looking at stats or social media, but some of it’s difficult to avoid in today’s era. So I keep working on extracting my sense of happiness from being dependent on that type of affirmation. I remind myself that most people are experiencing the same crap I am.
Another trigger is acting from a place of guilt rather than from my heart. Then there’s the reality that I’m still grieving. Sadness, anger, guilt and a range of emotions are triggered by seemingly innocent comments, experiences or just passing my brother’s picture in my house.
I’m trying to go easy on myself. I don’t believe I should feel happy all the time and I’m not a ‘fake it until you make it’ person. Sometimes it’s hard for me to have the self-compassion I need because when I move into negative emotions, I’m less productive, watch more t.v., eat more sugar, and get more angry at the chaos of the world. All behaviors that cause me to be disappointed. The disappointment isn’t necessarily directed at myself in the sense that I think I’m a failure – although I have caught myself doing the “what’s wrong with you” line of questioning that I quickly jettison. Nonetheless, I am disappointed that I’m not acting in the way I’d like and that can bring me even further down.
Today, I remembered my happiness resolution list and, strangely, I felt happy just thinking about some of the activities. I realized I could go outside and trim the vines in my garden and I know that will give me a nice burst of oxytocin. Sometimes it’s hard to think I have the time, but I realized that when I’m feeling crappy, I’m distracted and not particularly productive anyway. So wouldn’t working in the garden be a better use of my time than checking my stats again, which is definitely not helpful?
In this case though, just thinking about doing it allowed me to sit down and finish this post, which feels pretty damn good too. I just wish all these activities were as addictive as television – my house would be a paragon of orderliness and lack of clutter. It’s not. On the positive side though, it gives me lots of opportunities to create happiness for myself.
Also published on Medium.