Because I’ve been sad, I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to figure out which way happiness lies.
I’ve always been a little obsessed with that subject, which hardly makes me unique. I’ve read a lot of books and articles that say people are really bad at figuring out what makes them happy. We think buying material goods will bring us some kind of long-lasting joy and assume that what sounds good to us today will sound equally good down the road. Neither is true.
What is happiness anyway? Years ago, I said to a friend, “I just want my kids to be happy.” And she wisely pointed out that I wouldn’t actually want my kids to spend their adult lives lying on a beach smoking weed all day long, no matter how blissed-out they might be. So it’s more complicated than “happiness”: I want them to have longterm goals and achieve them; I want them to have families and take good care of them.
Of course, I’m proof that even those things aren’t the complete answer: I have a loving spouse and kids and the luxury of getting to do what I enjoy, and yet I’ve still found myself this fall in the throes of an anxious depression.. Some of it is chemical. Some of it is that there are things going on in the world that are scary. And some of it, I think, is that I had lost the ability to appreciate the things that make life sweet. And that’s what I’m working hardest on getting back.
(A side note: It was challenging for me to write the rest of this. I grew up in the least sentimental family in the U.S. My parents wouldn’t have dreamed of crying at our graduations or weddings–I didn’t even know that people could cry from happiness until the year I watched It’s A Wonderful Life and had to figure out why my cheeks were wet at the end. Anyway, the point is, I feel embarrassed when I say sentimental things, even though I’m well aware I’m not my parents, because when my oldest son graduated from high school, I sobbed so hard I sounded like I was vomiting.)
But here goes (WARNING: SENTIMENTALITY AND POTENTIAL EMBARRASSMENT AHEAD):
What I’m clinging to these days as I drag myself up out of the hole (stop laughing, Johnny) is each and every instance of kindness, affection, love and gratitude between me and others. Yes, I feel like an exposed nerve these days, and that means the smallest touch can hurt, but it also means I’m exponentially more sensitive to the good stuff, too. As I stop focusing on tomorrow–because lately I’ve just been trying to get through one day at a time–I find myself much more aware of, and grateful for, every email from a friend, every encouraging comment on FB, every shared pastry at Starbucks, every stranger who smiles at me instead of shoving by, every good-natured exchange, every moment of solidarity, and every example of generosity, whether it’s directed at me or someone else.
There’s so much in the news that’s sad and scary but so much in my own life that’s decent and affirming. For a while, it felt like I couldn’t see that. I knew it intellectually: I just couldn’t feel it. But this is the strange gift of my own struggles: I’ve become very aware of the choices we all make at every moment of the day–how we can choose to be kind and generous or malicious and selfish–and I’m so grateful that the people I care about make the choice to be kind. I’m pretty sure that kindness, love, and generosity are all we’ve got to fall back on when everything else feels wrong or meaningless, and that every positive interaction makes life that much more livable for all of us. And the more I stop to notice the goodness all around me, the less hopeless I feel.
Happy Thanksgiving y’all.