Unashamed To Be Happy

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“Good, how are you?” I asked automatically.

“I am fantastic,” my ride-share driver replied.

I looked up from my phone. While I’ve heard this auto-pilot response many times, something about her words hooked my attention. But what?

Ah…what took me by surprise was that she seemed to really mean it.

While most of the people around me are capable of being good-humored, excited, energized, I admit there are very few I’ve met who seem to nurture a baseline of strong contentment. More commonly, I observe baselines of lackluster waiting-for-the-next-stimulation (and these are the better cases).

I asked her what made her so happy.

“The bills are paid – I live comfortably. I get to do my art [crafts]. I’m married to a man who loves me more than I deserve; every morning, he wakes up so happy. My ex was always unhappy; he always wanted more. He used to make fun of me for being happy – said I lacked ambition.”

Upon her words, I was inspired and saddened. Inspired by her being able to live in a way that I, and so many others, struggle to do. Saddened that there were many, like her ex, who shamed others for being happy.

While the topic of happiness is expansive and varying (even the definition itself), I want to zoom in on a specific insight she provided.

Many of us don’t learn to build a strong baseline of happiness because along the way, among other factors, we have been discouraged by those who shame us for admitting fulfillment in present “ordinary” life:

Shamed by those who denigrate our embrace of the present as indolent complacency

Shamed by those who insist we are only happy because we lack the competence to demand and reach for more

Shamed by those who mistaken dissatisfaction for ambition and entitlement for potential

I know “those” people well because I too once believed that fallacy – that happiness required exceptional moments and thus, was the exception, rather than the norm, of general life. It was induced only by external gain and stimulation, existing only post the obtainment of some “if/when” condition.

After years of testing out this theory in the lab of life, I discovered that while I constantly pursued things I believed would gain me happiness, I wasn’t very happy. {Cue Einstein voiceover: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”)

As I would discover, the major obstruction wasn’t so much the specific targets of my pursuits as much as the conditional template itself:

If we operate on condition – “I will be fulfilled when I am, have, or achieve X”, we will forever operate on the latter clause “when”.

When we reaffirm this conditional mindset, we train ourselves to forsake appreciation and celebration of the present moment for a mental concoction of some more glamorous future.

Life is in constant flux, and the future is rarely exactly as we expect (as Ben Haggerty avers, expectations can be “resentments waiting to happen”). But even in the rare cases where our future visions are perfectly realized, the future can only come to us in the form of the present.

If our habit has been to renounce the present for a fantasized future, what’s to stop us from forsaking any realized future when it finally comes around as the present for another imagined future?

I recognize I am only touching upon a minute sliver of the topic of well-being. Do I believe that long-term fulfillment requires merely appreciating the present? Not at all, as there are many factors that directly and inversely affect happiness, both in and out of our control.

However, I do believe that a key factor of learning to be happy is giving ourselves permission to engage with and appreciate the present, because the present is not a means to an end – it is both the means and the end. TC Mark

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