Are you happy?
How do you know?
Do you know what makes my children happy? Everything.
I think about happiness a lot. Part of that is obvious: I’m a Happiness Engineer; a big part of my day revolves around generating or engineering happiness. I really love it, so I tend to dwell on my role. Part of it is maybe less obvious: I’m a pretty happy person. You may have to know me to understand that, or maybe it comes across ok.
But I’m not happy all the time. And sometimes, I’m both happy and not happy. And sometimes I’m unhappy. Happiness isn’t a finite thing, and it’s not a fixed state. It’s not part of a dichotomy where if you are happy you are not anything else, or if you’re something else, you can’t also be happy.
In the winter (it’s cold here and polar vortexing all over the place), I’m something not unlike unhappy. But I’m also really happy a lot of the time, too. Sometimes, the cold and the snow and the oppressiveness of the entire winter regime means I just have to lie in bed for awhile after I take the kids to daycare. I read a People or an Outside, something not about here or me or sometimes even now that is short and engaging. But typically, I then feel better. I know I’m lucky for this. Happiness is different to everyone, and I am generally pretty happy.
It’s not a decision, but for me it also is a decision.
I know that sometimes there is no way to be happy. Unhappiness can be so destructive and painful and all-consuming that you are powerless. And it is such a bastard, too, because it seeps like an oil spill into your being, so you might not notice it, or might not think it’s important. But your happiness is important (and if you are starting to feel like you haven’t been happy for a few weeks, and are feeling like a morning of reading People and watching Jimmy Fallon re-runs isn’t going to make you smile and hum, you may want to talk to someone about how you feel) and it matters to make it a priority. And ugh, the last thing you want to do when you’re pervasively unhappy (what you might, at this point, call depressed, as that is another name for this) is drag yourself out of the house or have something else on your to-do list or do anything at all. But do.*
Being happy is the best, and being a little happy some of the time is a huge improvement, and being actively not unhappy is a great goal to have. And that’s where I started.
It is easy to complain. It is so easy. I am aces at it. Like, super good. I used to remember all the crappy stuff that would happen on the way to work in the morning – file it away, in my brain. I would remember it and bring it all back up later, like the cat hacking up the head and a wing of a bird on the carpet. I’d remember it so I could tell Bob about it and we could then complain together. Then I’d remember the crappy stuff that happened during the day, and then on my drive home. Repeat. In retrospect, it’s psychotic to dwell so intently on these (often) minor things for no reason. It took me a long time to realize I just had to stop doing that. I wasn’t trying to make anything better, so it had to stop. I attribute a concept to my dad (which I have to point out, I don’t actually remember if he said, but it sounds like something he’d say, so…), which is, it is ok to complain if you can offer a better alternative.
So, for me, part of removing some unhappiness in my life was to stop looking for unhappiness and then dwelling on it for hours. I can’t imagine anything unhealthier, and I’m not really that healthy. I had to decide that if someone cut me off in traffic, it didn’t matter. Another thing I attribute to my dad (although it’s from Cannonball Run if I recall correctly – and I probably don’t) [edit: it was Gumball Rally, my thanks to @timwilsie] is “what’s behind you doesn’t matter” and here is a link for the car fellas out there. I’m sure if I thought about it for 10 minutes, I could tell you a bunch of things about my day that weren’t great. But I had a fun, exhilarating day, and I really don’t want to do that, so I won’t.
Sometimes you hear that you have to look for the positive stuff, like, self-help style. Find something nice and focus on that. I think that’s probably fine to do, but I think the best thing I ever did was to just re-train myself to not pay as much attention to the little negative things that can take a pretty good day to “kind of ok, I guess.” I’d rather have 10 pretty good days stacked up than 10 kind of ok days. Related reading here on marginal gains and why they matter (from James Clear).
So, happiness is different for everyone. I’m mostly happy. Most of the time, if someone asks me “are you happy?” I’m lucky enough to actually be happy. Happiness to me is like getting a glimpse of a favorite artists’ work and knowing there is so much to feel and know floating out in the world; it is a book I can’t put down (sometimes a real book, sometimes a euphemism for People); it is my beloved friends and my family, who let me be quiet or help me be loud; it is puns, which are the best kind of joke; it is sunlight; it is when someone who is good at something does that thing elegantly; it is perfection without the baggage of Perfection (see also: exquisite).
I take some cues from the kids. So much makes them happy, because they are unfettered and just delight in it. They make me happy, and I delight in them.
And how do I know? Because I want to know more about things, and I know that for me, when I stop wanting to learn, I am unhappy. When your side project is focusing on things that make you not happy – or worse, unhappy – stop doing that.
* Just to reiterate: stopping being depressed isn’t just a decision you make. I get that. Priming yourself to get depressed is something you have a bit more control about. Either way, it is normal and helpful to talk to someone when you feel abnormally unhappy.