Test Case

A self-help book editor uses what she learns at work and in life to help herself.

Is Happiness Even the Point?

Does seeking happiness actually hold us back from wisdom?

If you had talked to me two months ago, I would have told you that I was the happiest I'd ever been in my life. Things were going great; I was creatively engaged both in my personal creative endeavors and at work, I was rediscovering the joys of yoga, I was connnecting with old and new friends, I felt confident, looked good, and I was firing on all cylinders. I even had the presence of mind to notice how well I was doing, and to let that knowledge sink in.

But then, perhaps a month ago, the sense of everything being perfect faded and I noticed that I was struggling again. One thing that happened was that a situation came into my life that always triggers my deep insecurities and worries (more on this later). When I saw this happening, I despaired. "Oh no!" I thought to myself, "I thought I was over this!" I found myself procrastinating and distracted at work, feeling less secure in my creative talents, and feeling like my connections with others were flimsy and superficial at best. I had moments of anxiety, deep worry, and angst. I'm not depressed, it's more that life turned out not to be as easy and carefree as I assumed it would be from here on out.

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At first, I was upset at losing my newfound peace. Does it mean that something's really wrong with me that I couldn't sustain that? Am I destined to always struggle like this? Should I just move to a mountaintop somewhere and be by myself, is that the only way to maintain my equilibrium?

But I realized finally that no, there's nothing wrong with me. The happy, peaceful time was a welcome respite from my normal worries and struggles, but if I had stayed there, I wouldn't be learning the lessons I'm currently learning about how to stay balanced in those times when things aren't going so well. Without the struggle, I learn nothing and have stopped engaging with the workings of my psyche.

It made me wonder if our culture's seeming obsession with the pursuit of happiness misses the point entirely. Not that we shouldn't seek balance, but happiness? Why is happiness so important, and is it, in fact, even sustainable? And if we were happy all of the time, how would we learn to surf the waves of our emotions, and to gracefully dance with our shadows?

At the risk of making myself too vulnerable I'll share a secret: dating is my Achilles heel. It brings up all of the worst of my internal demons. When I wasn't actively dating, I was happy. Now that I am, I find myself struggling to stay balanced. I could choose to not date anymore, and I'd probably be happier. But then I wouldn't be engaging with the insecurities and worries that dating brings up for me. Dating doesn't make me happy, but it makes me more skilled in coping with my neuroses. And I think THAT'S what we need to be pursuing with our lives: learning to be more skillful at coping with our minds.

Of course, becoming more skilled will likely make us happier, but not necessarily. If I find a life partner, will I really be happy? Some of the time, yes, but the work - both internal and interpersonal - that it takes to create a strong relationship will likely be difficult at times, too. But I'm willing to have that experience because I want to learn the lessons that creating a strong relationship will teach me. Is that the same thing as pursuing happiness?

Those times of happiness - of feeling confident, strong, joyful, and balanced - are wonderful times. We should sit with them and let them infuse us with their glow, so that when times are harder, those times of happiness can help sustain us. But to expect those times to last is dangerous and, to my mind, useless. We learn nothing by being happy. We learn everything by engaging with life, especially when it's hard, confusing, or makes us sad.

What about you? What does happiness feel like to you? And what are the situations that make you less than happy, but that help you learn and grow?

Melissa Kirk is a writer and editor who works as an acquisitions and developmental editor at New Harbinger Publications, a self-help psychology publisher in Oakland, CA. 

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