I had a friend who asked me last week “What is happiness?” Interesting question. I remember there was a doctor I worked with last year and each time I would ask a question he would come back to the basic definition first. I thought this was a brilliant way to discuss things, because in order to discuss more complicated topics you have to bring it back to the definition. So let me answer: happiness is an emotion. We all know what it feels like because we’ve all experienced it. Unfortunately the media tends to put us on an endless hunt to happiness, with millions of articles, millions of suggestions, ways to find this elusive, limited-supply happiness that we are all hungry for. But it’s not limited, its in endless supply because its inside you, it’s a feeling, and I’m going to talk about some of the beliefs that we have about this feeling.
“I don’t deserve happiness.”
People usually feel undeserving off happiness when they’ve done something that they feel is bad or wrong and in order to punish themselves they believe that they don’t deserve happiness anymore. I think the article “Do I Deserve to Be Happy?” (1) explains really well why this belief is not true and so I’m going to quote it here because if we can start to believe that even criminals and other people deserve it, then its easier to look at ourselves and say “obviously I deserve to be happy too.” In this article, the author says “No matter what you have done in the world, or think you have done, you deserve happiness…Happiness isn’t a reward for being nice – it’s a birthright” (1). He goes on to describe a scenario for us to understand why criminals deserve happiness: “Let’s say two twins commit a crime and are sentenced to jail. One goes to a standard jail and becomes unhappy. The other twin goes to a magical jail which helps her feel valued and connected, and happy. Which twin do you think is more likely to feel remorse, and upon leaving jail be less likely to commit another offence?...I suspect that a victim would feel far better about being a victim if the perpetrator emerged from jail happier, well adjusted and rehabilitated. At least then the crime would have some meaning” (1).
“I need something be happy.”
It could be money, it could be other things. I think most people have explored this topic growing up, but I thought I’d mention it anyways. Money does help us- being in poverty puts us in a lot of situations that will create feelings of unhappiness, but as we all know money can only bring us so much. Plus, people can be happy despite not having money because happiness is a feeling.
“I am responsible for you being/not being happy.”
I’ll admit I have a really hard time with this one, but somewhere inside I know it’s not true that we are responsible for other people’s feelings. I do believe we are responsible for treating others with love, respect, compassion and kindness, and if we do not treat them in that way, then we are hurting other people and its up to us to do something about that. The article “Feelings and Responsibility” by Marina Michaels (2) describes it better than I could, so I’m going to quote here: “…we don’t have control over how another person thinks or over their emotions…If I choose to yell, it is indeed a choice. I know I have another choice. I know I am not doing the best I can. I know that I am responsible for the yelling. And if my friend bursts into tears, then I am equally responsible, not for the tears, but for making amends for my poor choice of action” (2). Taking responsibility for your own words and actions is the key here.
“I simply choose to be happy or not.”
Wow alright! This one is put out there all the time, and its really hurtful to a lot of people even though its meant to be motivational most of the time. But basically it’s the idea that you need to be opitimistic, see the positives, and if you aren’t happy you just aren’t trying hard enough.
Firstly, situations, words, actions, do affect our feelings, and happiness is a feeling. I think we ultimately can get to a state of being where we are no longer affected or are affected less by situations, however. There were many Sikhs before us that were able to achieve this state and make great sacrifices, by not being constantly dependent on situations. Their state of peace and contentment was based on their constant connection to God. I think for those of us who aren’t there yet though its dangerous for us to just pretend like situations don’t affect us if they do. Say someone says something really hurtful. I could just pretend that I’m unaffected, but be feeling a lot of pain inside and that pain stays there until I deal with it. That’s different than not feeling the pain at all, being in a constant peace and contentment. In my opinion it’s better to work through and experience your emotions, and then move your way towards happiness, than to suppress your negative emotions and continue to live in a constant state of internal anger or sadness.
Second, I read this really great article “I’m Sorry But You Can’t Just ‘Choose Happiness’ All the Time” by Jamie Varon (3), that explains why it isn’t just a choice to be happy and why telling people that just hurts them: “Many people are imbued with fear, toxic beliefs, past pain, and, while I believe there is a moment that you must choose to make your life better, you can’t just wake up every day and choose to be happy. You will be ignoring the fundamental growth that is necessary for a true happy existence” (3). Jamie Varon reminds us that rather than focusing on our emotions, we should work on our beliefs instead: “The choice is in choosing to change the BELIEF, not outright choosing the EMOTION. This is a seemingly small distinction, but an important one. Every day, you can choose to know yourself better and to untangle beliefs that are preventing you from peace, joy, happiness, and pure love… You cannot be expected to wake up every day and eschew away your very real beliefs, your very real emotional responses to those beliefs, and your very real resistances to examining those emotional responses to those beliefs and just… BE HAPPY. It’s delusional. It takes too much denial, the kind of denial that will surface one day in the future and wreck your life in a way that is not worth it for a fake sense of happiness” (3).
So now that we have explored some beliefs around happiness I think I’ll summarize. Happiness is a feeling and therefore: we all deserve it, we aren’t responsible for other people’s happiness, and its better to focus on your belief systems than just choosing the emotion of happiness and denying your problems. I’ve definitely learned a lot simply exploring my belief systems about happiness itself, so I think it’s a useful thing to do. Good luck!