From the time I was born, the idea of being “happy” has been hammered into my brain by the world around me.
Magazines were full of smiling women. Books were full of stories about people who were happy. Even if they didn’t start out that way, they always ended up that way in the end. Happy people were all over TV shows, enjoying life with their happy families and friends while laugh tracks played in the background.
As I watched all this happiness going on around me, I became very aware that “happy” was clearly the way to be. From a very young age I picked up on the fact that people seemed to really like happy people and I formed my persona around that idea. When I was smiling, I got attention. People complimented me and seemed to think I was pretty great. I wanted so much to be liked, that I made sure I was happy and smiling all the time. I was quite good at being the “happy girl”. For a big portion of my life I was known as:
“Lisa: the girl who is SO nice and smiles all of the time.”
In fact, in high school I won the “Great Attitude” award for my dance squad.
And I loved that people had that image of me. I had no idea who I was and I think being “happy, sweet Lisa who smiled all the time” gave me an identity. In addition, looking back now, I realize that even though that persona made people seem to “like” me more…it also kept them at an emotional distance and that is where I wanted them. Nobody tried too hard to get to know me or ask a lot of questions about me because they thought they had me all figured out the second they saw that “sweet smile” of mine. People assumed there wasn’t a whole lot to me other than a pretty face and kind heart, and that belief provided a great wall of protection for me. I didn’t like being the center of attention. I didn’t like talking about myself. I didn’t like giving people a chance to feel “let down” by me. I didn’t like people stirring up my emotions with serious dialogue. So I kept my personality very shallow, very one-dimensional, and very friendly – always keeping the attention centered around whoever I was talking to.
This persona wasn’t something I deliberately concocted, and in fact, I was 40 years old before I realized that I am really not that person I was living as for so long. I think our authentic personas are a reflection of the sum of all our personality traits, sort of nicely blended together, and it can take years to really figure out exactly who our authentic self is. For the first half of MY life, my personality – at least my public personality – was the result of only one personality trait: my desire to feel safe. It served me well for a long time but at the same time, I always felt a bit like there was something wrong with me but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I lived for the day – “some day” – when my happiness and smiles would be real.
Then of course, my anxiety disorder erupted when I was in my early twenties and my life fell apart around me.
It was a horrible time but I thank God for it because that period of my life forced me to take a look at my life and “evaluate” what was going on that led to this breakdown I had. I spent a lot of time reading and educating myself about anxiety and just plain old getting to know myself.
It was a long process. It took me years to get to know who I really am. You wouldn’t think it would take so long because after all, I live with myself every second of my life. But I had spent so much time playing a “role” that it was hard to know what was really me and what wasn’t. I had to “play around” with myself a bit, trying on different personalities, different attitudes, different styles of clothing and listen to my feelings:
What made me feel good? What did I need to let go of? What felt easy? What felt natural? What way did I WANT to be. What qualities did I admire in other people that I could work toward?
Eventually, over time, the real “me” fell into place. I know exactly who I am now and I would say I am probably at the best place in my life that I have ever been. It feels great, its been a long time coming. And the best part about it? I’m not smiling all the time. I’m not laughing all the time. I am not “happy” and “nice” all of the time.
You see, during my time of growing and learning about myself I figured a couple of things out.
The first is that I am really not a “happy” kind of person.
I don’t “do” happy.
I’m not sweet and I really don’t think I am any kinder than the average person. Yes I feel empathy to a ridiculous degree and I cry over everything, that much is true. If you put a YouTube video in front of me of a girl being surprised with a puppy for her birthday, I will sob like I just lost my soul mate. Beauty of any kind hits me in my core. But I’m definitely not happy and I really don’t have any desire to be happy.
Don’t get me wrong, I will smile if I see an old friend, and if I am with the right kind of people who I click with, I will be the loudest one laughing in the room. I LOVE humor and I love to laugh. But for the most part, I am an 80-year-old crabby grandma trapped in the body of a 44-year-old woman and once I set granny free, my whole life became better. I started feeling free and light and what I think is really the best feeling a person can feel..and that is contentment. When you are living as your real authentic self, you feel contentment and it is a wonderful feeling.
We have been so brainwashed our entire lives to believe that if we aren’t “happy”, then something is wrong with us. And that if we aren’t happy, then we should fake being happy until we really are.
In one way or another, we are constantly being told that if we aren’t waking up with a smile on our face, excited about the day, then there must be something about our lives that needs to be “improved upon.” And if that is the case, we don’t dare let anybody find out about it. Have somebody know our life isn’t “perfect”? Horror.
The self-help book world is booming and it is not all from people who have diagnosable conditions such as anxiety disorders or depression. A lot of the people buying these books are people who are simply feeling like something is missing from their lives…who just don’t feel “happy” the way so many other people seem to, and they are looking for a way to “fix” themselves. This quest for happiness… this state of feeling like a “less than” affects people across the board, and for those of us with depression or anxiety, it can be a real contributor to the manifestation and continuation of our illness/disorder.
But I think the truth is that all of this happiness is a bunch of crap.
And I think its double layered crap. The first layer comes from the imaginations of Madison Avenue ad execs who know how to make money by selling us on the illusion of bliss, convincing us that if we buy whatever it is they are selling, we too can be as happy as the smiling people in their ads that are plastered all around us on the TV, in magazines and on the internet.
The second layer of the happiness crap cake comes from a world that sees smiling people as non-threatening…harmless. This applies to both genders but women and girls especially are frequently being told to “smile” because the idea of a powerful female is not very palatable to a lot of people. A smile helps keep a female….feminine. It softens them up – makes them less intimidating. In my opinion, unless its your mom or other close relative, chances are good that if somebody is telling you to “smile”, it’s because THEY want to be more comfortable, not because they want YOU to be more comfortable.
Whether it is Madison Avenue or those around us that are filling our head with the illusion of and importance of “happiness”, we need to quit buying into it.
Happiness in the glowing, smiley sense that people are trying to sell these days, isn’t something we can buy and it’s not something we can be “told” to be. It’s a feeling that has to come naturally, and it is one that I don’t believe was meant to be our every day default setting.
I believe that somewhere in the middle of happy and sad is a sweet spot that human beings should be reaching for. And I think a lot of us of are there and just don’t realize it because we have been convinced there is some place mentally “better” that we should be and we are always looking for the next person, the next idea, the next new “thing” that will take us out of the middle and to where life is nothing but easy smiles all day long.
But think about it…..
Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to always be smiling and happy all the time? There are a few personality types who seem to thrive on it; my daughter is an ENFP and that girl is a walking rainbow, but I think most of us need to get off the “happy ride” after a while and just “be”. Any time I do anything I consider “fun” or feel anything remotely close to joyful, I want to go lay in bed for two days and not talk to anybody because my brain is so overloaded. And I spent years of my life faking happy energy every hour of the day. Is it any wonder I ended up confined to my house because my nerves crashed?
I don’t think human beings were meant to be “happy” all of the time any more than they were meant to be “sad” all of the time.
I think where we are supposed to be is that place in the middle where sometimes there are really good days and sometimes there are really bad days, but most days we are just living our lives, surrounded by people we love, hopefully spending our days in a way that satisfies us, living for the NOW, not the “some day”.
I don’t think we are supposed to consciously think about whether we are happy or sad. I think we are simply supposed to let our emotions guide us and if we are feeling down, let’s look at our lives and see what is going on that we need to pay more attention to, and if we are feeling pretty good, then let’s do more of whatever it is we have been doing lately.
(Always seek professional help if you have feelings of being “down” that last more than a few weeks or feel very intense.)
Dictionary.com defines happiness as
1. the quality or state of being happy.
2. good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy.
Let’s stop chasing daily joy and good fortune and focus more on the “contentment” side of happiness. It’s a less glamorous form of happiness, it is true, but contentment is doable. It is attainable. It is easy and natural. It is loving ourselves as we are and being satisfied with what we have, come what may. Contentment doesn’t require you to smile until your face hurts and it doesn’t require you to look like glowing airbrushed models who are most likely not happy OR content. Contentment is real, it is lasting, it is satisfying. It requires zero competition with anybody else, and it won’t exhaust you.
Nobody feels joy and bliss every day of their lives, not even ENFPs like my daughter. If that is your goal, it will only lead to disappointment and feelings of being let down. Aspiring simply to be content makes the sad times easier to manage, it makes the good times a bonus and it keeps you present in your life appreciating what you have, not focused on what you think you need to have in order to be “happy”. You are a human and you are real. Your expectations about what a “happy life” is, should be real as well. Take the pressure off of yourself to be “happy” all the time and focus more on just being “you” all the time.
If you are aren’t at a place yet where you would call yourself “content” that is okay.
It is okay to not be content – to feel just “blah” or even feel like your world is being rocked and not have any idea who you are or where your life is going. That is normal. But don’t get fooled into thinking that just because you don’t feel “happy” or “content” that must mean you are unhappy.
Sometimes we aren’t meant to “be” or feel any certain way. Life isn’t always supposed to make sense. Sometimes in life we are just meant to ride the wave and see where it takes us. We are meant to spend our time learning, observing, taking things in, discovering who we are and trying to figure out how we fit in this world. I rode a wave for an entire decade during my “self discovery” period and it was an awesome time in my life I wouldn’t change for the world. I was not “happy” or “content” during that period of time. I was actually quite unsettled but I knew I was growing into a finished product and that period led to this very content person that I am today, enjoying my very average life here in the middle. Giving up chasing “happiness” was one of the wisest thing I ever did.
But chasing contentment? I highly recommend it.
For a more in-depth article on this topic see this article from The Guardian.
This post was written for the purpose of general emotional well-being support and should not be considered medical advice or for those living with depression or long-lasting or severe feelings of sadness or “the blues”. If you are living with these types of feelings, please seek professional guidance. You are not alone.