When I was younger and people asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, I’d always answer “happy”. It didn’t matter to me what I did in life as long as I was happy doing it.
This was problematic, of course. I didn’t know what happiness looked like. How could I work towards achieving something I had no tangible concept of? If I didn’t know what it looked like, how would I know if I’d won it?
A bit of context: I’m 27. I’m currently seeking treatment, in the form of medication and psychologist support, for my second bout of clinical depression. This time with more than a touch of anxiety. It’s a fun little cocktail of bullshit.
If my goal in life has always been “to be happy”, then apparently, I’ve not achieved that yet.
What have I been doing wrong so far? Some shitty things have happened in my life, certainly. Cancer, suicide, lost love, a family infidelity, sexual assault. Realistically I know anyone who experiences these things could be forgiven for struggling with happiness. I don’t believe my illness is purely situational but I think a reasonable response to these issues is sadness or anger, for anyone.
But, maybe my idea of happiness – because I must have some idea of what it is – is fundamentally flawed? Maybe my idea of happiness is causing me unhappiness?
When answering the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” with “happy”, the next question from more insightful people was always “yes, but what does that look like?”. I could never answer. Sometimes I would say “I’ll be successful in whatever I do, I’ll have a fulfilling relationship”.
Those things are subjective too. What does success look like in whatever I do? Is that when people praise my work? In the eyes of others I am successful and therefore I am? What does a fulfilling relationship look like? Is it one that brings me happiness? That’s a pretty dangerous circular idea.
Quantifying happiness is a step that I’ve always found too complicated to attempt. I guess that’s why I haven’t gotten close to grasping it.
I wondered if others felt that they could call themselves happy. Over the past year or so I’ve asked the question of people I come into contact everyday: the bookshop attendant, the barista, family members, my best friends, acquaintances, workmates, a stranger on the street. It’s a pretty bizarre question to ask but mostly people have been very open about their answers. I’ve felt honoured that these people have shared their ideas about happiness with me.
Some people said they weren’t happy – categorically so. They hadn’t had a lot of luck in life. Some said “mostly”. One man scrunched up his face and said that he didn’t think that the question was fair: it didn’t mean anything. I asked him why and he told me that happiness was just an emotion and not a lasting state. I was framing the question as if the emotion could be applied to his entire world.
I thought on this and I agreed. Happiness is just a collection of pleasant emotions, yes. But I also think it’s a perspective. Perspectives can be lasting – they just have to be consistently applied.
Like most other people, I’ve been spoon fed the idea that “happily ever after” really was happily ever after. I’ve been searching for a Fairy Tale Ending. We don’t get Endings – we’re in a constant state of change until we die.