I receive more than one weekly article in my inbox or news feed promising tips for living a happier life. Whether they come because happiness sells or people genuinely believe more happiness is right for us, as a mother, psychotherapist and human working hard on the being part, I want them to stop. Relentlessly telling us we’d be happier if we just did, thought, ate, drank, or bought that, isn’t only wrong, it threatens the very essence of our lives.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I work hard to improve the quality of my life: decrease suffering, increase acceptance and letting go, practice patience, kindness and compassion, connect and open up evermore to the places inside me and the diverse and challenging world around me. I want a meaningful life, not a happy one.
For nearly 39 years I unknowingly chased a life in which I could finally be happy. It wasn’t a choice. It just was, like my breath. I knew a life well lived is a happy one. I learned it as I learned to walk and talk, say mama and dada. Happy is what we are all supposed to be, whatever we have to do to get there. I now think this is a big problem. The damage it wrought me was nearly catastrophic.
About 15 years ago, I fell in love with self-acceptance. It became a primary driving force for my life, one I can’t escape regardless of how much I rage against it. Rage, because for me the work of self-acceptance has been a slog through shit-filled trenches, hobbled by a broken leg or two and no light to see by.
I didn’t know that yet in my mid-twenties. I was bright-eyed in my discovery, poised on the cusp of a new way of being, and full to the skin with assuredness. A choir of angels sung down on me and a field of wildflowers waited for me to run through it. I meditated. I did my psychotherapeutic work. I created art. I attended retreats and heard teachings of ancient wisdoms. I was so very excited about what I knew was going to be a magnificent and wondrous life.
I was stunned when I fell flat on my face into that trench of shit-filled mud.
Over the next 10 years my life looked and felt like one major depressed episode after another. There were a lot of days—years of them—when I didn’t want to exist. I felt most days like a failure. I grieved my life as I lived it. I looked back frequently at that moment poised on the edge of wildflowers and wondered how I fucked it up.
I had an assumption so implicit I didn’t know it was there, like a fish doesn’t know it swims in water: If I were living right, it would feel better. Since I felt badly, I must be doing something wrong.
As I worked towards self-acceptance, I worked against my wretched life. I believed with enough slogging I’d one day cross into the land of Happy and there relinquish my distress, the neuroses driving me and my loved ones nuts, and become a person who wakes up smiling at 5 AM, seizes every moment, and perfectly balances life’s demands with a perpetual glow and a vase of fresh flowers in the center of my dining room table. I judged my life against this illusion, unaware that like an oasis in the desert it’s unreachable because it does not exist.
There is a lot of messaging in this country for us to be happy; as a baby I picked it up and put it in my mouth along with all the pebbles, buttons and discarded paper I found. Media is ripe with promises that our happiness is right around the corner, whether it’s in the form of a guy, a girl, a life lesson, god, a moral purpose, a career, or the latest gadget. There are psychotherapy modalities meant to help us be happier. There are also sports drinks, drugs, perfumes, clothing, meditations, and gym memberships designed to make us happier. It’s taken for granted that the best life is a happy life.
Happy looks so comfortable, and like many of us, I spent the whole of my uncomfortable life not wanting to be uncomfortable.
I came into this world deeply feeling and deeply thinking, born into a place with no room or understanding for someone like me. As a child, happiness was expected of me, and when I felt sorrow or rage I learned to fake it and take my pain into a cavern inside. Thus began my instruction in being the problem.
I grew into a young woman with a fractured sense of self, trying desperately to claw my way out of the misery of me into the comfort and ease of anyone else. Into this, self-acceptance felt like a gift handed down from god, balm for my raw and fraying soul. I would find me and through me, my way to a happier life. By the time I stood on the edge of those wildflowers, I was already doomed. I was dedicated to taking back my birthright and utterly mistaken about what that birthright was.
Shame is corrosive and damaging, the only human emotion I know with no redeeming qualities. Standing in the face of suffering it says, “there’s something wrong with you.” While I believed a good life is a happy life and living should make me happy, every moment of experiencing it otherwise was a drop in the bucket for shame. Millions of moments later, the bucket outgrew my body. The only way out was dying.
As I pick the shame out of me like slivers, I realize how much of my depression and suicidal ideation was a result of my mistaken beliefs. I spent 20 years of my life hating the person I was stuck in because I didn’t know there was nothing wrong with how I felt. Ever.
How I felt was normal for someone who experienced early childhood trauma, grew up confused and ashamed of her internal sense of self, and then took on the courageous task of reclamation, facing impossible truths and doing extraordinarily hard work to heal the bruises inside, wake up, and slog her way through the manifestations of her personal suffering and her unskilled, habituated reactions to the suffering around her. I worked my ass off and not one person said, “Oh yeah, that shit does not feel good.”
More importantly, had I been born into a healthy environment, raised in a home where my needs were appropriately met and I was held in unconditional love and positive regard, I still wouldn’t have felt like I thought I should. I’d spent my life eating fools gold. Happiness doesn’t exist as a state of being. It is an emotion that exists within a kaleidoscope of others. That it feels better doesn’t actually make it better.
Happiness doesn’t push us. It doesn’t force us to delve deeper within ourselves, to ask unanswerable questions, to stretch until we can fit a whole universe inside ourselves. It doesn’t beg us to be kinder or teach us to have empathy and compassion for the person we secretly hated. Happiness is a joyful rest stop in the otherwise arduous journey of our lives—it is necessary and valuable for keeping us here, but it doesn’t make us become more.
Pain and discomfort move us. They are our clarion calls to action. They keep us shifting in our seats trying to figure out why we can’t be comfortable where we sit. I don’t regret my abusive childhood, the addictions I sought refuge in, or the decades of suffering so devastating they made death desirable. Through it all, I kept seeking. Sure, I was searching for the exact wrong thing, but the misery of that kept me trying to see beyond it.
What I’ve found is deeper acceptance of all the parts of me. Over the last 5 years the entire experience of my life has changed. It’s not that it has stopped hurting; I’ve stopped expecting it not to hurt. I let go of the illusion of a happy life and abandoned its pursuit. It has made me infinitely happier.
I have happy moments. I also have moments when rage ignites my body and demands I destroy the world. I threw a full baby bottle as hard as I could last month because I couldn’t break down walls. I have grief that cripples me and curls me into myself. I recently stitched myself back together in bath water, the only way I could contain the broken pieces while I mended. I suffer loneliness in a house of people who adore me, whom I deeply love and sometimes hate. I have joy so big I can’t stop myself from dancing then and there, even when there is the middle of a grocery store. I laugh so loudly everyone turns to look.
I need everything that isn’t happiness more than I could ever want for happiness, and I wanted for happiness so badly it almost killed me. Now I want a well-worn life; one that looks like the corners of books my daughter chews up. I want there to be no question I lived it. I want a meaningful life, and I don’t need it to be happy anymore. My life is my birthright and I have taken it back.
From the edge I’m currently standing on, I see flowers and piles of shit. I’m open to both, but I need the shit more; it is the source of all my coming transformation. I want to be uncomfortable. Oh, I’ll fight it. Like I used to wrestle my sister for our favorite doll, pulling hair, kicking shins and biting if I have to. But my commitment to growth is my spiritual path, so slogging through shit is what I do. Going willingly and without expectation that it will ever change is so much easier. I can smile and mean it now, holding this moment of happiness in the open palm of my hand, knowing it won’t stay, moved to tears by how happy it makes me to be so utterly fine with that.
Stacey Curl, MA, LMHC, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Lacey, WA, who has committed her life to reclaiming her authentic self, opening to the fullness of who she is (especially the yucky stuff), cultivating mindful awareness of her everyday existence, and helping others do the same. She recognizes how much lovelier all of that sounds than it can sometimes be, and brings buckets of humor into all of the really hard work.