When we’re in pain, or when we’re suffering, or when it feels like everything in our lives is trying to pull us down, there’s a certain coping mechanism we have. We take our minds out of the current situation and focus on the future, imagining times that will be happier. Times where there will be no pain. Times when things will be wonderful and we will feel like everything is perfect.
When I go through something tough, the future is all I can think about. I’m physically present in the difficult moment, but my mind is somewhere else – imagining how much better it would be to be happy. To be peaceful. To not be experiencing pain of any sort. I daydream about it endlessly. Always picturing myself anywhere except the situation that I’m in.
And then, eventually, the happiness comes. The pain ends. It’s only temporary, because by this point, most of us realize that life is always going to be a series of amazing moments and dark moments. We know that the happiness is here, and at some point, the pain will come. And then more happiness will follow, along with more pain. It’s a never-ending pattern.
But sometimes, when that amazing, happy period of time finally returns, it almost feels like we don’t know what to do. We just went through a period filled with strain and hardship, where we spent every waking moment wishing we were somewhere else. Wishing our situation was different. Wishing life was easier. Telling ourselves not to think about the present moment, and to picture ourselves in more joyful situations instead.
Then we get to that happy place and we’re stuck. We don’t know what to do. It feels like staring at a blank wall. We no longer have to imagine ourselves in a different place or a different time or a different situation. We are finally in the exact place we were dreaming about. But somehow, it’s still scary. It’s still uncomfortable.
We’re not used to it. We’re not sure how long it’s going to stay like this. We’re afraid to let our guard down and relax. And sometimes, the most terrifying part of all, is that we’re faced with the question of If this doesn’t make me happy, what will?
Even though challenging times are harder, there’s a part of them that’s freeing. You’re miserable. You’re sad. You wish things were different. But you feel like it’s okay to be upset and unhappy, because you’re in a bad situation. You’re not concerned about the fact that you’re unfulfilled, or that you’re wishing you were somewhere else, because why wouldn’t you feel that way? You have something to look towards – a future to focus on – that is happier and easier and better than the place you are now. You don’t have to worry about the fact that you’re unhappy right now, because you know there’s a reason.
But once the happier time period comes back around, we expect that everything is supposed to be okay. And if it’s not – if there’s some part of us that still feels restless or unfulfilled or unsatisfied – we panic. What are we supposed to do now?
I don’t have an answer. I think this has been a struggle people have faced for centuries, and I think it’s something we’re going to continue to face in the future. I’m not sure exactly how to fix it, but I do know this: we’re always going to be chasing happiness. Even when we’ve reached the place we thought we were trying to go all along, we’re still going to be chasing. It feels like happiness does not sit still and wait for us to find it. It’s always one step ahead, leaving us wanting.
But I also think that the idea of happiness we’ve developed in our minds is different from true, honest, contented happiness. The idea we’ve created involves having everything we want, with no pain, and no issues, and no problems. But genuine happiness includes pain. It includes challenges and issues and fears and suffering. Every day.
We need the pain to understand the goodness. Without the pain, there wouldn’t be any goodness. There would just be “reality” – a simple, easy life where nothing goes wrong. You’re never faced with difficult situations. You’re never forced to step up. You’re never challenged to become a better person, because there are no problems and no challenges. You don’t understand the beauty of your life, because there’s nothing distressing that will help you to put it in perspective. That’s where pain comes in – to help you understand exactly how good you have it.