We’re taught from a young age that true happiness comes from within, that we must learn to love ourselves before we’re properly able to love others, that our bodies are temples and our hearts sacred tombs. We’re taught to be the protagonist of our own narrative, the catalyst for our own change, the semi-colon to our own adjective. After all, who else can we rely on so surely, so unreservedly to have our best interest at heart, other than our sturdy old selves?
We push forth, moving steadily, eyes on the prize — whatever the prize may be. You see, it’s a competitive game, life, and we don’t want to fall behind, we don’t want to lose. We’ll hold our cards close to our chest, we’ll wear our most elusive, resilient poker face; we’ll try to say the right things, at the right time to the right people. Whatever it takes to get ahead, to get where we want to be as quickly, as directly as possible.
The problem, however, is that more often than not, happiness isn’t our goal.
We naturally tie our perceptions of happiness to that which is in our control: to our personal achievements, to the pace of our professional progress, to the development of our personal skills. We set ourselves markers, goals, points to reach — a sprawling “life checklist”. We race forward, ticking the boxes as we go, enjoying the rush of it all — the wind in our hair, the carelessness that comes with moving too quickly.
We get caught in the ebb and flow of our busy work schedules, of our daily habits and routines. We subconsciously switch to emotional auto-pilot, surrendering to the rapids that we, ourselves, created. Our once joy-driven ambition blurs our focus, and we consequently lose sight of the simple pleasures once enjoyed so innocently in our youth. We let the surrounding crowd fade into a obscurely painted backdrop, our friends into unpaid, supporting actors; our true desires, long forgotten pitch-lines.
The pursuit of happiness in your 20s can sometimes feel a little like building an impossibly tall sandcastle with loose, dry sand. You can push, shove and fight to press down the wobbly edges; but try as you might, the second you stop, pause for a bated breath — it all comes crumbling down, submerging your toes, eroding your armor. And there you stand — tired, breathless, defeated; feet in the mud, mind in the heavens.
But what if we simply stopped? What if we stopped focusing so blindly on our individual journeys, on our own youth-warped perceptions of happiness? What if we took a step back?
Perhaps the key to happiness — the kind that’s more than just fleeting state of euphoric, cinematic joy — comes from a heightened, acute awareness of others. Perhaps it comes with understanding the importance of those we’re surrounded by, be it by choice or circumstance. Perhaps it’s gaging the mood of your work colleague, being sensitive to his or her story, realizing your ability to influence their day even in the slightest, most trivial sort of way. Perhaps it’s anticipating an upcoming, pivotal moment for a friend or lover — making yourself available to them wholly; to offer encouragement and support or make them coffee as they battle to meet a deadline. Perhaps it comes with sharing each fleeting moment of personal joy, letting these moments accumulate — giving them room to grow, breathe and explore. Perhaps it comes with allowing others to do the same — allowing yourself to feel the strength of a strangers’ smile, cherishing it for its own significance, for its own beauty and power.
Perhaps happiness, the lasting kind, comes from embracing the quiet loveliness of our own insignificance — relieving ourselves of the responsibility that comes with the never-ending chase. We all put so much pressure on ourselves: pumping certain moments with screaming importance, and certain outcomes with overbearing finality. The notion of happiness is a loaded one, after all — heavy with burden, the inevitability of disappointment, the likelihood of failure. It’s a lot of weight for one set of shoulders to carry, and we really needn’t do it alone.
Perhaps we’ve been misguided all along. Perhaps happiness doesn’t come from within, but from our ability to accept the subtleties of our role within the whole, our ability to embrace the joys and successes of others. Perhaps if we were to embrace our hearts not as sacred tombs, but hollow, blood-pumping muscles — our lives not as stand-alone narratives, but singular frames to the one beautifully shot, ever-expanding film. Perhaps then we’d feel the happiness seep in from all around us as it so wants to, as it’s supposed to.