“Happiness is found along the way… not at the end of the journey.” –Abuse No More
We’ve become accustomed to thinking of happiness as something we have to earn, or something that will come to us as a kind of reward for what we’ve accomplished. We think we will be happy when we graduate from high school, when we get into the right college, when we move out of our parents’ house, when we graduate from college or trade school, when we get out of the military, when we get our first job, when we get married, when we close on our new house, once the new baby arrives, etc., etc. We never seem to think of happiness as a condition that we can experience right here and right now, even though we haven’t earned a million dollars yet, our book isn’t published yet, we haven’t earned that promotion yet, we haven’t lost all the weight we intended to, or we haven’t met that special someone yet. J.D. Meier calls this “falling into the if-then trap.” Example: If I get a date on Friday night, then I’ll be happy. Why make your happiness dependent on something that might or might not happen?
Why is it so hard for us to realize that we don’t have to be perfect to be happy? Our problems don’t all have to be solved. We don’t have to be rich, famous, married, or appreciated by our boss to be happy. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” In other words, we won’t find happiness after doing anything in particular. Rather, we find happiness while doing it, whatever we are doing. If Viktor Frankl had decided not to be happy until he could get out of the Nazi death camp, he might never have found happiness, and his time inside the camp would have been miserable. Sure, a lot of miserable things happened while he was there, but he decided to learn to cultivate happiness, anyway. (Frankl was actually moved around quite a bit, and his expertise as a physician and mental health therapist was, thankfully, recognized by the Nazis.)
Some relatives of mine have been spending the vast majority of their time at the hospital because their father had a horrific accident on his motorcycle a few weeks ago, and he is just beginning to wake up from a long coma. They started out saying that they would be happy when their dad woke up from the coma. They have since then learned to be happy when he moved his arm or twitched his eyebrows. In other words, their criteria for happiness has changed. They are pleased with smaller increments of progress, and on days when there doesn’t seem to be any progress, they are simply glad that their loved one is still alive, or that things have not gotten any worse. It’s a major life lesson for all of them, a silver lining of sorts in a very dark cloud.
There are among my friends those who are happy every time they realize they have woken up one more day here on earth. They are happy whether or not the sun is shining. They are happy whether they spend time with others or all alone. They are happy no matter what there is to eat in the fridge or how much money there is in the bank. They know that happiness is Soul’s natural state, and they realize that unhappiness comes from identifying too much with activities of the mind: worry, fear, jealousy, anger, guilt, and shame. They don’t feel the need to compare themselves favorably or unfavorably with others, because they know that they are loved unconditionally by God, regardless of their apparent imperfections. They know that God’s love for us doesn’t have to be earned. It is always there. We have only to accept it. 🙂