Dear Happiness, Are We There Yet?

First lesson of self-awareness/personal growth/spiritual awakening/therapeutic process/etc: happiness is a process, not a destination.

Second lesson: see first lesson.

All other lessons: see first lesson.

It’s simple enough, but it’s so difficult to remember, isn’t it?

I’ve been talking about happiness, and its other derivatives, a lot in the past few days. A client shared that they didn’t know what they wanted now that they felt happy and at peace within themselves. In turn, I spent a gruelling hour in my own personal therapy exploring why in the world I always feel so restless when things are going well, and I feel happy and at peace within myself.

The simple answer is: because I forget that happiness is a process, not a destination. Do you know what I mean by this? Maybe I should explain. You know how in almost every single story there is, the ending involves some kind of version of “and they lived happily ever after?” Turns out, extensive and consistent exposure to this kind of narrative makes most people chase an ideal, which is actually an illusion. Not only that, it implicitly tells us that happiness is a place to get to, and once we get there, everything will be fine, and all pain will disappear. The weddings, the sunsets, the kisses, the hugs, the smiles…. All of the things we’ve watched over and over again, end up giving us the belief that once we get the wedding, and the sunset, and the big kiss, that we are done. That’s it. We reached the goal, and now we can stop fighting and struggling. The happy ending is here, and we’re in it. Right? Not so fast, my friend!

What ends up happening is that we reach all those milestones, and we’re still not there. I mean, we couldn’t possibly be there, because things are still hard. We’ve got the dream job, but the boss is awful. We had the perfect wedding, but the marriage is going terribly wrong. We had children, but it’s incredibly difficult. We graduated from university, but we’re unemployed. We’ve got a gorgeous partner, but the sex is boring. “We’ve got this, but….” We do this to ourselves, over and over again. We keep chasing that sunset with the belief that we will stop the chasing once we get there, and then we get there, feel some relief, and soon realise that there’s still some chasing to do. There’s still some struggle, some chaos, some pain, some sadness, some anger, some frustration, some depression, some anxiety…. Where’s the perfection we were promised? We keep chasing, we keep getting, we keep feeling frustrated, we go back to chasing, and another cycle begins. Why?

Most of us were, and are, conditioned to believe most of these things. That there is a perfect ending somewhere. That happiness is somewhere in the future, waiting for us. That once we get there, the fight is over. But the terrible truth, if you are conditioned this way, is that there is no “there”. There is only “here”. And “here”, is the only place where happiness can really exist. We fall in and out of happiness, because we fall in and out of the present moment. It’s not that we fall in and out of process, because we are always in a process of some kind, but we fall in and out of consciousness of that process. When we fall out, we tend to go back to our conditioning. We go back to the fairytale, because we forget that the fairytale isn’t real. There is no happily ever after, because freaking Cinderella and the Prince had to actually figure things out after they got married. Did they like the same food? Did they like the same hobbies? Was the sex good? What kind of petty behaviours did each of them have? Did one of them maybe enjoy drinking a bit too much, with all those barrels of wine at their disposal in the castle? We don’t get to see any of that. And that is where real life happens. In the small, day to day, moments. Life happens in the process, because life is a process. Not a destination. Life is not static. It only stops when we die. And so, until we die, we are always learning. We are always living new here and now moments, and therefore always able to be in new sources and experiences of happiness.

Happiness is a process. It’s a daily practice of being conscious about who we are, being aware of the cause and consequences of our actions, of being responsible for the most minute details of our lives. It sounds tiring, doesn’t it? I know. Many people call it “work”. “I’m doing the work”, you’ll hear many people say. It’s not easy, but it gets easier. And it’s not easy, because it is a choice. We can choose to be happy. It won’t just fall on our laps. We have to do something about it. We have to apply for that job. We have to buy that plane ticket. We have to attend many viewings to find a house we love. We have to say hello to that cute person. And then we’ll feel great moments of ecstasy, desire, joy, and yes, happiness. And then other moments will be filled with boredom, disappointment, frustration, sadness. We momentarily forget that just because we get something, it doesn’t mean that the work stops. The work goes on. It goes on so that we keep the job, the house, the relationships, so we can finish the races, the degrees, the books, the pieces of art.

So, in short, I would say that, in fact, we are actually there now. But the now keeps moving, and so we need to keep moving with it. The fact that happiness is a process means that it is in constant motion, in flux. It is a verb, it requires action. It’s not whether we are there yet, it’s that we are always there. Or, at least, we can always be there.