The idea of happiness has been explored for a long time. What is happy? How do you know if you’re happy? How does one become happy? I’ll be honest, I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer to any of those questions. Happiness is a subjective state. One person’s happiness is another’s misery. One moment in time may be full of happiness and another not so much. So, how does one decide or know if they are in fact “happy?”
Here is a brief story about where and when I started my own pursuit of this elusive idea. It’s a long story and in truth I’m really just going to summarize the highlights, but the lesson is relevant. For a semester in college I studied abroad in Europe. It was an amazing experience that allowed me the opportunity to visit many countries. During one expedition to another country I got ditched. Yup, true story, a friend ditched me in a foreign country. You see we were great friends, but bad travel companions. So, somewhere along the French Riviera we parted ways. I was left to my own devices to navigate my way through France and Italy in order to meet up with others before heading back to our home base. Before we separated my friend asked me, “Why can’t you just be happy?” It was a metaphorical punch to the gut, and licking my wounds I made my way through Europe and back to my London flat. Since that time I have become successful and satisfied professionally and personally, but those words have stayed with me for over 20 years. I think about them a fair amount and this idea of “happiness.”
I am going to set aside how often people with depression hear that very question (as that is another blog post entirely), and focus on my long term reflection and intellectual assessment of happiness. Over the years I have come to realize that back then, and still now, I generally am a happy person -- truly. The idea of happiness, as mentioned, is subjective. The trick is though, in order to know if one is or is not happy one must truly know who they are and what they need. Someone else will never be able to answer that question for you or judge your emotions. Everyone has an opinion about and an impression of the people they meet at the moment in which they meet them. Everyone has an opinion on what others should do or how they should act. But the reality is, only in knowing who you are can you make the best decisions for yourself, and therein be your happiest – no matter what others may think. All those years ago I didn’t quite know who I was just yet, and as a consequence what others sometimes saw was a person who perhaps did not seem quite that happy. I was a person who more often than not was happiest in the safety of my comfort zone. So, as much as I loved my experience studying abroad and would repeat it in a heartbeat, it did leave me dangling way outside my comfort zone. For me that turned out to be the best thing, but for someone else it may have been disastrous.
I had a lot of feelings back when the “ditching” took place. At the time I was angry and sad, hurt and scared. I was also confused about myself and questioning whether I was or wasn’t actually “happy.” But in the years that have passed I’ve come to be so very grateful for that moment in time. Unbeknownst to me it was a seminal moment in my life. It was a teaching moment that allowed me to see ME. I realized that what A.A. Milne wrote was true. I was braver than I believed, stronger than I seemed and smarter than I thought. I learned about myself and in knowing more I developed confidence and acceptance and comfort. I found a new comfort zone that was bigger and bolder and braver.
The act of self-exploration has been mocked over time, called selfish or wasteful, but we all do it. We do it as we stare out a window on the subway or in a cab; as we doodle on paper in a class or a meeting; or as we sit in therapy sessions talking about our week or that time when we were 12 years old and a classmate was so mean to us. Self-exploration is so important -- it is the sustenance of happiness. It is in the moments dedicated to one’s self that we often figure out how to become a better parent or friend or partner; how to do things more effectively or efficiently; how to accept things about ourselves and in doing so figure out our version of happy. Therapy isn’t only for “problems” or “disorders.” It’s for exploration, for truth finding – be it sad, ugly, mean, glorious or enlightening. It is for support. It is for connection. It is for honesty. For only when we are in a safe, judgment free space can we be honest with ourselves. Only in honesty can we truly find out who we are and therein work towards our own idea of happiness, regardless of how others may feel about it. As the New Year begins challenge yourself. Be truthful. Be curious. Be bold. Be kind. Be you and be happy.
If you’ve been feeling like something is missing or off in your life or relationships please reach out and see if I’m the right person to help.