The right to be happy

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness lately.

Perhaps it’s because spring is in full force in D.C. and I’ve begun crawling out of my turtle shell of winter and the types of thought-patterns that came with it. Perhaps it’s because it’s almost been a year since I graduated from college, and with that time comes a lot of reflection.

What did the founders mean when they stated that the pursuit of happiness was a divine, inalienable right? How have we as a country come to interpret that? How does that play a role in my every day life?

When I was little it was very common for me to happy, at least in the way that I interpreted it. I loved things — being outside, friends, dinnertime, sports, etc. Things were fun until they weren’t — getting in trouble, getting hurt, having a crush, etc. But I certainly didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing a path to happiness and what that meant. I sort of just experienced the emotions as they came.

And then gradually as I got older I noticed people peppering their speech with “happy”isms. Like, “Do what makes you happy” and “Find your happy place” and such. There was such an emphasis on feeling happy, and if you weren’t, you were clearly doing something wrong. And then I reached a point where I began to feel very differently due to the changing of the seasons and the existential crisis that is post-college life. Not only was I not happy, I wasn’t really feeling anything.

After a period spent in that mind-frame, I remember thinking that when I reached the other side, it wouldn’t be a happy world of happy. Instead I just had a desire to experience the complex state of emotions that constitute normal life. And in going through a period of dulled emotion, I began to realize the importance of periods where I had felt sad, or frustrated, or angry. They were experiences that had also shaped my life. Life wasn’t just about the “happy” moments, it was a mosaic of every true emotion experienced that I could later reflect on and impart personal meaning from.

Here is a little, sub-par, Microsoft Paint chart that illustrates what I mean. Faced with the spectrum of human emotion, are we meant to be fully planted in the yellow all the time?


I think there is sort of a wild, crazed desire to “be happy” in America that often translates to doing a lot of things that make it harder to us to actually feel good. “Happy” is what has fueled the entire advertising industry and rampant consumerism. “Happy” has been translated into a car, new clothing, body image, experiences, etc. We’re constantly running around putting happiness at the top of our list, and then panicking when things aren’t so happy. When I reached the end of college, and especially this year, I’ve realized that to emphasize happiness above all other things is to ultimately set yourself up for failure.

But what are you saying, you ask me. To give up on being happy?

Well, not necessarily. I’m just saying that that thing we’ve been telling ourselves, that life should be happy all the time, is not realistic. It’s not realistic because a whole bunch of shit happens — called life! Life happens. And it isn’t pretty all the time, or fun, and is often monotonous, and sometimes amazing, and cruel, and everything else. And you have to learn to be okay with that.

I say this as I read an article about the new “disorders” added to the DSM-5 that include grief. When we label human emotions as disorders, we only add more weight to the American industry of happiness. Buy this! Do this! See this! Are! You! Happy! Yet! NO?! PILLS!

I say this as I remember that most Danes, when asked what makes them the “happiness nation in the world”, seem a bit confused, and then offer that it might be because their expectations are set lower.

I say this as I remember the Swedish concept of lagom, which roughly translates to “just right”. A concept that seems to have no bearing in modern America as we swing wildly from overindulgence to under-indulgence. Look at our food systems, for example. “Everyone either seems to be on a strange diet or eating cheeseburgers all day,” a foreigner once mentioned to me about the U.S. We’re never just right. We’re never just right because apparently it’s not okay to be just right. It’s not sexy. It’s not fun. It’s vanilla.

If there is one piece of advice I’d give to this year’s graduates, it would be to seek contentment for that first year.

Bear with me.

Don’t compare yourself to others too often. Social media is probably the #1 destroyer of self-esteem for most people. Do your personal best. Don’t give in to the pressure of having an awesome life, 24/7. Don’t settle for things that you can change that are taking away from your experience. Don’t panic when you go through rough periods, or when life just sucks. Okay, panic a little, but know that it, too, shall pass. Do what you need to do. Try to loosen the grip of what society tells you you need, such as Stuff and Things and That One Thing You Probably Should Have, Otherwise You’re a Loser.

Hint: seek things that are free and don’t have advertisements, like friends,  being outside,  doing a favor or deed for someone else, or volunteering. Seek simple. Find what makes you tick from the inside.

Do things that are hard, because you don’t learn that much about yourself when everything is easy.

So as you can see in my little chart, perhaps the focus should be setting a personal calibration, a zero if you will, to contentment. Then we can realize happiness is just as much an emotion to dip into as any other feeling, and that it shouldn’t be the starting point.

Whereas happiness always seems to be focused on external factors (“If I could just have a boyfriend, if I could just have this job, if I could just have more money”) contentment conveys a sense of inner thinking that paves the way for self-expression, self-realization, and ultimately, self-improvement. You should never stop changing or pursuing new things, scary things, weird things. But also remember to stop every once in a while and be in the space you’re in.

Yesterday I took a long walk on the way to yoga, winding through the leafy neighborhoods surrounding my former elementary school. I was both excited for an upcoming class and to spend time thinking to myself as I walked. The sun was still up at 7:30, the air was slightly warm, I was slightly tired, and nothing remarkable happened on my walk. I was so content. It was just right.