Happiness is a Red Herring
We all want to be happy and that’s a good thing. The more we actually admit to ourselves that we want happiness in our lives, the more likely it is that we will take steps to create it. But what does it really mean to be happy? I wasn’t sure I knew. The blogosphere and self-help libraries are full of opinions about how to be happier, find your joy, grow your gratitude, and follow your bliss. Many of us, myself included, use these words and concepts somewhat interchangeably, but it occurred to me that they are different things and the difference matters.
Did I really just want to be happy or was there something more?
When Marie Kondo holds up an old shirt, she doesn’t ask, “Does this make you happy?” She asks whether it brings you joy. A lot of people can’t answer that question and it’s not just because it’s hard to connect with the fibers in a rayon blouse. It’s that many people don’t know what the experience of joy is really like. Or their minds go back to a time when they held their child for the first time or ran wild on the beach, wind racing through their hair. When compared to that, a shirt from H&M doesn’t really measure up.
Are we totally confused about the thing we are all supposed to be striving for? I can see now that I was. In pursuing happiness, I had lost touch with bliss and the joy that comes with it. Happiness is easier to identify and latch onto because we feel it, viscerally. It’s something we experience in the physical fluctuations of our body. We feel happy when the band comes back out and plays our favorite song. We’re happy when we nail that interview for the job we really want. We’re happy when the sun comes out after days of rain or we hear from an old friend.
So often, happiness is a response to the world around us aligning itself in a pleasing way.
In looking back at my life, I realized that what I experienced as my greatest happiness was the delicious rush and satisfaction of my emotional needs being met. It’s when I felt seen, wanted, and loved by someone who mattered to me. It was the call from a boy I liked, the praise and encouragement of my favorite teacher who saw something special in me, the smile of my grandparents as they opened the door to greet me.
The happiness I felt on those occasions was powerful in how it took command of my body, sending rockets of endorphins and serotonin into my blood. It makes sense that I would want more of that. But like all emotions, the feelings of happiness would pass, leaving a shadow of lack in its place.
I held the logic that happiness and a happy life was a nearly permanent state of feeling happy. The image was me skipping down grocery store aisles and greeting everyone with a smile because I felt so great all of the time. But in believing that was what happiness looked like, I was trying to hold onto a feeling that is inherently fleeting. I was setting myself up to fail.
I didn’t understand that our emotions are not meant to form the basis of our experience. They are how we feel, not who we are. Emotions are our compass or GPS pointing us to what we like and don’t like and alerting us when we are in or out of alignment. They do their job and then they are on their way.
To be in a constant state of ecstasy or elation would just be manic.
I had tried a lot of things in the pursuit of happiness—marriage, professional success, trips around the globe. I certainly had my moments of happiness, plenty of them, but something was still missing. It’s not that I was unhappy exactly, but I was never satisfied with what I had, despite surpassing the many near-term goals and metrics I had set for myself. I was constantly moving the goal line higher because there had been no goal I had met that filled me in the way I hoped it would.
Faced with a persistent nagging that my life wasn’t feeling the way I wanted it to feel, it started to sink in. I had been in pursuit of the wrong thing. The rumbling discontent in my life wasn’t from a lack of happiness, but from the chasing of something outside myself that was never meant to last. Happiness was a distraction, a red herring. What I was really seeking was bliss and the joy that is an expression of it. But what the heck is bliss and where would I find it?
I realized bliss isn’t about achievement or the acceptance of others. It’s not about a constant string of happy emotions or everything coming together perfectly. It’s not about who I am with or not with or who does or does not love me.
Instead, bliss is an unconditional wellbeing that is not in subjugation to any situation or circumstance of our lives, be that a bank account, job, relationship, illness, or place.
Bliss is a knowing. It’s knowing myself so well and loving myself so deeply that that there is no room for doubt, nothing that can knock me off my base. Bliss is the absence of fear, shame, doubt, and that voice in my head that told me I wasn’t enough.
Bliss is the recognition of my innate wholeness and worthiness.
We find our bliss not through the ecstatic emotions of elation, but in the quiet reservoir of our soul. Bliss is not some cracked out oblivion, but a peace and calm rooted in self-love. We can experience bliss reading a good book, cleaning the house, walking in the park, and even being at work. It’s all in what we bring to it. We may have the emotions of being frustrated or annoyed as our boss takes credit for our work or the copy machine jams, but those emotions just serve to point us back to ourselves and the inner bliss of our being. We don’t let emotions define our experience.
Perhaps bliss is sounding pretty boring or anti-climactic, but that peace became the new feeling I longed for. I realized that bliss is our natural state, our birthright, and we are all just groping for our way back. We get lost seeking happiness, believing it to be something found or bestowed upon us by someone or something else.
We fall into the fallacy of believing if just this or that condition changed, I could be happy, instead of realizing that bliss is ours to give ourselves.
I found this bliss inside me not by doing something in particular, but by undoing the conscious and unconscious beliefs that had held me back and sent me in the wrong direction. In releasing those beliefs, I brought compassion to the woman who made many mis-steps while operating under them. I released the shame of my memories, those knots in my gut, finding closure with the past. As I dropped the old beliefs, I formed new ones resonant with who I really am. I am whole. I am complete. I am love. I always have a choice in how I experience my life.
When Marie Kondo asks, “Does this bring you joy?”, I think she is really asking if that item reflects back to you who you really are. It’s not that owning a particular pair of pants will give us joy, but it may represent the blissful beauty that is already inside us. In deciding to keep those pants, we are affirming who we already are. In ditching that old sweatshirt, we are releasing what no longer fits.
In a sense, this is what bliss is all about. It’s a constant clearing out of our clutter and junk, so that what is left is that which we can never lose—ourselves. From that place of love and acceptance, we find our joy, which makes us incredibly happy.