Since moving back to Nebraska, one of the things I’ve had trouble making peace with is my tendency to resort to cynicism whenever I’m not 100% satisfied with my life (which happens to be roughly 99% of the time). You know, instead of opening up my damn eyes to see all the awesome shit I have, I keep them halfway shut, staring at the ground, pissed and irritated that things aren’t easier or more “figured out” (whatever that means).
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that it often takes more effort to choose to be upset than it does to choose to see the good. I haven’t figured out why that is (maybe ask me in another 23 years), but what I do know is that it’s a nasty habit that myself and fellow millennials are struggling to kick. It’s why the baby boomers and gen X-ers can get away with taking cheap shots at our collective ambition — or supposed lack thereof — and we get relegated as a generation of narcissists who possess nothing more than an iPhone and an overpriced liberal arts degree.
I think a common misconception about happiness is that it’s something you just stumble upon or that’s handed to you from The Great Happiness God. What I’m learning (notice the present tense: learning versus learned — it’s an ongoing process) is that happiness is anywhere from 5-10% inherited and the rest is all earned. That’s right, contrary to popular belief, you earn happiness — it isn’t inherently here, there or anywhere. What accounts for the 5-10% of “inherited happiness”? Well, things like your family and where you’re born. I’ll use myself as an example: Although my family has its share of troubles and imperfections, I love them, and having them in my life makes me happy. I grew up in Lincoln, which despite the cynical shit-talking I do on my hometown from time to time, is actually a really legit place to have been born and raised. It’s safe; I’ve never felt like my life was in danger by walking the streets alone at night (and I did this many a time in college). It’s comfortable and cultured — no, maybe not New York City or L.A. cultured, but it’s not like I live on a farm where my only source of entertainment is satellite TV (although if this is your idea of fun, then more power to you). There are just as many experiences to be had and lessons to be learned here as there are anywhere else in the world.
So really, much of my “inherited happiness” can’t be questioned or challenged. There’s a lot to be happy with.
The trouble really starts when you tackle that other 90 or so percent — as in the happiness that’s up to you; what I’m calling the “earned happiness.” A pretty obvious example of this is a romantic relationship. I’ve encountered so many people (and I’ll admit, many of them are women) who feel that without a significant other, their lives are rendered virtually meaningless. No matter how perfect their grades are, how accomplished they are professionally or how much they may look like a supermodel, they will not be happy until they have a romantic partner.
For some (like myself), they battle the opposite problem. These people don’t think they deserve the happiness that a romantic relationship brings, and they feel this for all sorts of reasons. Speaking from personal experience, I ultimately got to a very negative place where I’d been left heartbroken by so many men that I didn’t see the point in pursuing romance anymore. Romance had lost all of its meaning, which meant I no longer associated it with happiness, much less with anything else. I became bitter and depressed, retreating to whiskey and wine to ease the sting of feeling like romantic happiness wasn’t in the cards for me.
When I finally stopped telling myself that I didn’t deserve romantic happiness, I was able to be present, which then clued me into the reality that this really amazing man might be interested in me. It then became a question not of whether I deserved to be with him, but whether I’d earned being with him. Honestly, at that time, I hadn’t. I was still reeling from heartbreak, still putting pieces of myself back together. It was going to take some time, but I had to work on myself, Mekita The Individual, before I could be part of a twosome again. But I truly believe that my taking the time to improve myself as an individual before Kent and I started dating has made our life together that much more fulfilling and beautiful. It’s because I earned this happiness that makes it so sweet. No one handed this to me. No one told me a secret code that unlocked a hidden treasure chest filled with happiness. I experienced sadness, consciously told myself that I deserved better, and then worked to attain better. That last part is key. You can’t skip the working part. You can’t just tell yourself, “I deserve happiness,” and then sit around twiddling your thumbs expecting it to come knocking at your door. You can’t focus on what you don’t have if you haven’t tried working for it in the first place. That’s like being unhappy that you have a shitty car but not saving the money to buy a new one, or at least going to the bank and checking out your options for a car loan. Again, it may take less effort to choose to be upset about the shitty car than it does to choose to do something about it, but which action will result in more long-term happiness?
Admittedly, when it comes to the Path of Happiness, I am only at the beginning. I’ve got a lot of happiness to earn ahead of me. Right now, my biggest challenge is earning happiness at my job and to be honest, they’ve made it pretty easy for me. No, I don’t make six-figures. No, I don’t get an expense account or a company car. No, I don’t work in fashion or film or any of the other industries I’ve identified as “necessary” for me to be happy with my career.
BUT. I do earn a salary that is competitive for my profession and where I live. I can afford to pay for a car that, when it’s paid off, will be the first major expense I’ve ever bought and paid for all by myself. I do get a work iPad, which is pretty friggin’ cool. I have my own office on the ninth floor of a really lovely building with an outstanding view of my hometown. Not a cubicle. Not a weirdly shaped “work space.” An office. It’s all mine and I can decorate it how I want. I work in higher education, which is far from shabby. I don’t write fashion show or film reviews, but I write about (and learn) something new everyday. I may not get free clothes like some of my favorite style bloggers, but I have the option of earning a free graduate degree.
Is where I’m at in the present moment the exact idea of happiness I had for myself ten or five years ago? Hell, one year ago?
No. It’s better. Because I’m alive, and there is a blessing in every breath. Choose to exhale. [tc-mark[