The Lost Art of Being Happy – And the Paradoxes that Can Sometimes Keep Me Stuck

I recently turned 30 (yay!) on January 10th, 2017. I had a lot of build-up in my head about it in different ways – mostly excitement, though, but maybe a bit of dread at the anticlimax of it as well. 

As a measure of the milestone of 30, wanted to do some taking stock, sitting back, and evaluating of my life. Honestly, it’s pretty darn great, all things considered. I have a lot of the things I’ve worked very hard to get, I am privileged in a lot of ways, I work to stay informed and educated and humbled by the goings on in the world, and I have the love of friends and family, and for right now, everyone’s relatively good health, despite some ups and downs. But sometimes I’m just not that happy. I complain more than I wish I did. I get hurt much more easily than I wish I did. I focus on the negative more often than my heart desires. I want to do less of that.

This last paragraph is very similar to how a book began that I just read as part of my “30th birthday” milestone adventure. I know I’m late to the party, but I just read The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, on my trip away for my birthday. Shame on me for thinking it was going to be silly fluff and for putting off reading it for so long. What it turned out to be, in fact, was a collection of well-written and interestingly put-together “in-disguise” counselling techniques, in an accessible and fun way that anyone can read and try out in their own lives. (Part of me dismays that I didn’t brand my own book this way. But alas, hindsight is 20-20.) Gretchen hit the right spot in the market at just the right time and I can only hope that one day in my life I will be just as lucky. Must keep writing!

I don’t know if most people even recognise that a lot of what the book puts together are some of the most basic (and advanced) counselling skills and techniques.

It covers (without calling it these things, of course) – Behavioural activation. Reframing. Cognitive distortions. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Behavioural experiments. Self-love, self-acceptance, values-identification, and identity building. Life-balance, mindfulness, gratitude, and increasing social connections. The “wise mind,” distress tolerance, and emotional regulation. Conflict resolution, boundaries, SMART goals, and more.

Like. C’mon. This stuff is gold. It’s therapy in a book. Without calling itself therapy or needing letters behind the author’s name to sell a book. I am in love with this approach to writing about general mental health and can only continue to wish I got there first in my writing career. But man, great job Gretchen. My new spirit animal.

So on to my 30th birthday reflections. Here I was sitting, for my birthday, in Hawaii (yay!). I was absolutely having the time of my life, and enjoyed almost every single thing about this vacation (minus the delayed connecting flight and a 9 hour day at the Vancouver airport on the way home – although, even that, was still a lovely respite in it’s own way). And as I sat there, in Hawaii, I was feeling guilty. About feeling so happy. Guilty. For being happy. In Hawaii. On my birthday.

I mean, what?

Guilty about being happy. Even though I was reading a book about being happy. Even though my mind was wanting to engage with the book and celebrate the good times, to find ways to complain less, be more easy-going, and find ways to work a little harder to be more cheerful (because honestly, being cheerful often does take work before it sticks). Here I was, reading along, and saying yes, yes, yes! in my head, at the same time, I had this dropping sensation in my stomach of actually doing this in real life. I could do it in Hawaii with my husband, but how did this “Happiness Project” approach fit into my life outside of a vacation where the whole point is to be happy and relaxed?

So in pondering all of this, I have realised, the happiness paradox is this:

1.      Inclusivity: If you are outwardly happy, this seems to alienate people around you who are not happy or are currently suffering.

Everyone has had the sensation of seeing someone’s facebook posts about their happy relationship when theirs was currently having some serious trouble and wanting to change the channel. Everyone has heard about someone’s awesome vacation when they are stuck at work and wanted them to just shut up about it (see above…). Everyone has known someone who is experiencing a great career success and wants to pull away from them just that tiny bit because it makes them feel inadequate in their own life. The Christmas joys of others hurt when your loved one isn’t there that year. The list goes on and on. Outward celebrations of joy and success run a very high risk of hurting someone else – and this is my least favourite things to do. As a counsellor and as a general human Cheryl, I hate inadvertently hurting others, and so I know I often hold back on being happy to avoid running this risk.

2.      Caring from others: The happy person gets forgotten.

If you are using your mental energy to working to remain happy amid life’s many obstacles, you, of course, will appear “fine” on the outside. No one rushes in to message the person who is doing well and for whom things are going great. No one checks in and gives an extra hug or uplifting comment. Maybe you’re wanted around at parties, but only if you can keep the mood up – people don’t really want you talking about the great things in your life. You often are forgotten.

3.      Intelligence: The happy person appears unintelligent.

Because honestly, with everything going on in our world on a daily basis, what intelligent person can actually sit there and smile and laugh and be happy all the time, knowing that children are being trafficked, that wars are being fought, that injustice is still alive and well?

4.      Authenticity: The happy person seems inauthentic.

One of my number one goals as a human being is to be authentic, as much as humanly possible. It is a huge value I hold. This both helps and hinders me in many ways of course, but it’s who I am and it’s something I really value. If I go about working to be happy when sometimes I’m not (not the big things, but the little annoyances I can learn to let go, get over, and look past), then am I being untrue to myself and my real emotions? Am I in fact, being inauthentic by working harder to be happier, when it’s easier to fall into a complaint or a lament that matches my emotion in the moment?

5.      Connection: Happy people are hard to connect to.

Science and research show that some of the biggest things that connect us as humans are the moments we are real, authentic, vulnerable, and honest about all aspects of ourselves – not just the “happy.” In fact, the happy can separate us and breed jealousy and resentment. One of the best examples I have of this is another writer friend of mine, K.M. Langdon, author of Unsealed, who wrote a novel based on herself inspired by true events from her life. Reading this raw, vulnerable, and authentic version of herself in her book made me feel instantly more connected to her even though I have known her for over fifteen years, she bought my horse from me in high school and we spent days at the barn together, and she has a cottage on the same lake as my parents where we grew up hanging out together. She has always been “happy.” But even after only a few chapters in, the vulnerability of her character who wasn’t always so “happy,” who was based on her more real and true self - this brought a connection through literature that was instantaneous and much deeper than many of our real life “happy” times together. Puzzle me that. Vulnerability brings humans together. “Happy” doesn’t.

So to you, reader, I pose the question. If our hardships and vulnerabilities are what keep us together as humans, they are what keep us cared for, they keep us realistic and intelligent, and they provide that “me too” sense of authenticity and connection – where is the desire to be “happier?” Although my heart yearns to have a “big year” of happiness such as Gretchen was able to experience full of happy thoughts, happy experiences, and celebrating success and growth, I don’t know if I can give up the other things – connection, intelligence, inclusivity, authenticity, and caring from others. Or maybe I don’t yet know how to find that balance yet. Or maybe I haven’t yet discovered a way to celebrate my happiness and successes in a way that doesn’t alienate other people. I don’t know. More for me to ponder on my journey of 30. There’s a lot more here to still work over in my head. In the meantime, and despite the paradoxes I am outlining here, I still highly recommend giving The Happiness Project (and Unsealed!) a read.

Would love to hear your thoughts and comments!