Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Happiness Paradox

Meeting someone for the first time is a fascinating experience. For me, it often feels like Groundhog Day. People typically ask a series of questions to spark surface-level conversation. The usual suspects are as follows:

What do you do for a living?
Are you married?
What does your husband do?
Where do you live?
Do you have children?
They are meant to be benign questions. A way to get to know you better. To fill the silence with your favorite thing: talking about yourself.
Recently, I had a conversation with a doctor (who I was visiting for the first and probably last time) with a similar line of questioning. When she reached the, “Do you have children?” portion I gave my standard answer (to a question that is asked of me often) and changed the subject. Typically, this conversation is easily forgotten. It wasn’t this time.
“Wait, you’ve been married for SIX years, you’re [glances at my chart] THIRTY and you don’t have kids?”
“Aren’t you bored?”
“Don’t you want kids?”
“It’s complicated. But I’m very happy with my life, just the way it is.”
“Well, if you don’t have kids what do you DO?”
“Uh, whatever I want.”
It was clear from the expression on her face that she found this very perplexing. And I sensed she didn’t believe me, which was disheartening. But that conversation raises an interesting point: why do we have such a specific idea of what happiness looks like? And why do we fail to understand how someone can live an ‘unconventional’ life and still be perfectly happy?
Because we tend to believe that life is about checking items off a laundry list as we go. That graduating from college, getting a good job, marriage and having children is a recipe. Doing each of those things will guarantee a life of happiness. This isn’t how it works—how anything works, really.
Happiness isn’t your house. It has nothing to do with the car you drive. It’s not a rock on your finger. It doesn’t hang in your closet. Happiness is heartbreak. Acceptance. Picking up the pieces. It’s living in the midst of a broken mess and loving it all, just the way it is.
We tend to believe that things will make us happy (a new house, a new job, more money) but we fail to get to the heart of the matter: happiness is a choice. Our choice. It isn’t a magic wand and it doesn’t come wrapped in pretty paper with a bow on top.
It shows up on your doorstep at 2am, asking to use your phone. It tracks mud onto your clean floors. It delivers life-shattering news on an otherwise sunny, perfect day. And, if you’re lucky, it will break your heart.
Happiness isn’t pretty, friends. It doesn’t show up with sunshine and rainbows. It’s that last, and often untold, final step in the grief process—just after acceptance. It is surrender.
Surrendering to what IS. And it’s giving up every last coulda, woulda, and shoulda. Knowing that there was no more for you to do---you tried. You did everything else by the rules and it didn’t change anything. That sometimes good people are dealt an unwinnable hand. And this world isn’t the place for you to understand why. It’s where you find your happiness, no matter where that search takes you.
Having children is not a guaranteed path to happiness; any more than brushing your hair prevents cancer. Though it might be difficult to digest, living life outside of the ‘rules’ with a mess of a life is the closest we get to perfection.
It’s the letting go of what we thought it should look like that makes it so spectacular. And each time a stranger questions my choices (a bizarre cocktail of having no choice and having a choice) I dig my heels in just a bit deeper. I stand taller. I didn’t make this mess, but I cleaned it up and made the choice to move on.
There’s freedom in that place, but it’s best not to stay there forever. That’s why grief is described as a process---because while it does change you for the better, it’s not fit for human habitation. It’s a broken down shack in the middle of nowhere that doesn’t have running water or electricity. A place where you sleep on a dirt floor night after night and somehow manage to survive, despite the poor conditions. Where you realize that you really can make your life work with very little.
You need to be humbled to be free. That is a beautiful thing—and it helps to understand that you can choose. You always have a choice. As it turns out, I just wanted one thing: to be happy.

"God can dream a bigger dream for me, for you, than you could ever dream for yourself. When you've worked as hard and done as much and strived and tried and given and pled and bargained and hoped...surrender. When you have done all that you can do, and there's nothing left for you to do, give it up. Give it up to that thing that is greater than yourself, and let it then become a part of the flow." — Oprah Winfrey

1 comment:

Alicia Curley said...

+1 It is extremely annoying how everyone thinks there is still a "Traditional" form of happiness in life, and that it looks the same for everyone! NPR had a recent piece on the "check items off the list" part you mentioned; graduate, job, marriage, kids, DONE! But this is NOT a typical path for people anymore, and you don't have to have all these things to be happy! Wish more people would understand that and stop judging others who have found happiness in ways that are different from their own.


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