If you asked me why I did the “work” that I did, I might tell you that it was to reduce anxiety, to build self-confidence, or become a better communicator. But underneath it all, the real root of it, would be that I wish I was a happier person.
To be clear at the outset – I’m not talking about the debilitating sadness and fatigue that might be caused by depression or other serious mental health issues.
I’m moreso referring to how I’ve always viewed myself as (and worse, been told that I am) on the negative side, low-energy, and boring compared to the friends and family around me. Other people seem to be able to face every day life with energy, optimism, and enthusiasm and I’ve always hated myself for not being able to do the same.
So – if happiness is so important to me, why am I suddenly wanting to focus on it less, you may ask? Well, there are actually a few reasons.
The first, is that I realized that I was focusing on it very narrowly and rigidly. This should have been on my radar earlier, since I have a tendency for black-and-white thinking, and taking things to the extreme. Sure enough I started noticing myself forcing the positivity in unhealthy and unrealistic ways.
For example. I was having a rough day a few weeks ago, and feelng under the weather. As I was dragging myself around throughout the day trying to accomplish what I had set out to do, I remember pausing, noticing the sun shining outside, and suddenly being frustrated with myself. The thought was along the lines of “How can you be in such a bad mood! Look at how beautiful it is outside – this should make you happy!”. I don’t think I was being particularly fair to myself.
The term toxic positivity has gained traction, recently, and yet I didn’t really consider it applying to me. I thought I was in balance, doing the right thing by trying to counter-act my negativity. My workplace offered a seminar on toxic positivity vs. genuine optimism that made me re-consider. The facilitator was excellent. She shared a deeply personal experience, outlining how she had been diagnosed with cancer, years ago, at a young age. She has since recovered, but she re-called how she had reacted at the time, instantly feeling like she had to re-assure herself with statements like:
“At least they caught it early”
“I should be grateful I have access to quality medical care!”
“Some people don’t have the support system that you have, you’re so lucky”
Instead of allowing herself to grieve, instead of allowing the space to feel upset, frightened, and angry. These would be reasonable reactions, considering it was a pretty horrible situation. What I found most helpful is that she clarified that the above statements weren’t necessarily problematic. They might be the mindset you want to get to eventually, after processing. But it was not a healthy thing to force yourself to start there instantly, in a crisis state. The optimism might have allowed space to feel all the unpleasant emotions, while at the same time believing that you would ultimately be able to get through it at some point.
While the example above is a more devastating scenario, I thought about how I spoke to myself in exactly the same way, with both small and large struggles in my life. I noticed how quickly I jumped into the “at leasts” and the “shoulds”, as if it was a failure to ever experience a less pleasant emotion. With the example above, for instance, when noticing the beautiful weather — maybe I could have paused, let myself feel the warmth of the sun on my face, and feel soothed. But I was still under the weather at the time. It was ok to be a little grumpy, instead of being upset that the sun didn’t instantly put me in a better mood, or energize me (although taking mindful moments like this, in the long run, are likely going to get me to a better place).
The second reason I’m focusing a little less on happiness is that I may simply be having un-realistic expectations. A therapist once asked me what I was most hoping to achieve and I said something to the effect of “not feeling like every day was “grey” — that I wanted to be energetic, excited, and motivated”. She rather bluntly told me that life was, mostly, neutral. Sometimes up, sometimes down, but mostly just in the boring middle — life was going to work, paying your bills, cooking your dinner etc. Even when things are going well, and you don’t have any major stressors, life might a little dull, instead of a thrill. Sometimes you were tired. Sometimes you were bored. Sometimes you were forcing it. And if I was too discriminate with how I spent my time, and only looking to engage at things that would purportedly make me “happy”, I was likely going to shut the door on a lot of worthwhile opportunities.
While I don’t agree with her standard completely (I think it’s reasonable to expect some “colour”, so to speak, in your life) I did at least hear her out and now remind myself that I was likely expecting the an Instagram version of life. Maybe I had this impression that everyone else was jumping out of bed in the morning, bursting with joy and grateful for every minute, when that wasn’t the case.
And, more importantly, that even if there were people like this, the super-bubbly happy-go-lucky types I was so envious of, that this didn’t necessarily mean that there was something “wrong” with me, or with them. Maybe these people simply have a natural tendency to view things in a more positive light, and have a different personality. Maybe these people are using optimism as a coping mechanism. Or maybe they are flat out faking it. All of these things are allowed.
As Mark Manson (and others, I’m sure) have pointed out: I am ok. As is. End of story. He reminds us that: “Self-acceptance is the way out of the conundrum…Paradoxically, accepting that you’re just not a confident person and you’re always going to feel a little off around other people will begin to make you feel more comfortable and less anxious around others…Accepting that you have a tendency to get depressed and that some people are just happier than you and that’s fine will, ironically, make you a happier and more accepting person…Many of us are inundated with so much information at all hours of the day that it’s easy to get a skewed vision of society…Everyone else is happy.. But for some reason, you’re not”.
It would be exhausting to feel like everything about you needs to change. I was reminded recently that in theory, if I wanted to ditch all of this work, this wouldn’t mean I had any less worth as a person. I could stop it all. Right now. And still be “ok”. Of course, I don’t want to stop working at it, and that’s not the point. However, if you can believe the general premise that you are enough, as is, just the way you are, this is actually a powerful place to start. It’s why I am fond of the Carl Rogers quote:”The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”.
So – the overall point, that I am finally getting to, is this: happiness is ultimately still a goal of mine, but not something I am pursuing directly. It’s something I am hoping to cultivate as a by-product, from living a more authentic life, aligned with my values, and treating myself with a little more compassion. As Viktor Frankl puts it: “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…Happiness must happen…you have to let it happen by not caring about it….”