All of our efforts to find or create happiness turn up empty because happiness is something that has to find us.
One of the most obvious phases that I went through recently was that of being a guy that gardens. Growing up in South Florida as the son of a very Floridian garden mom, it almost felt like fulfilling my birthright when I put 8 giant white dahlia bulbs in the ground in front of my house and wished for the best. The soil in front of my house is dark and rich and full of earthworms who continue to eat the bad dirt and turn it into new better dirt making it a pretty good environment for someone who is likely to forget the every day needs of the items that have been planted within it. Much to my surprise, all 8 of those bad boys came up strong and produced 10-15 giant white flowers at a time. I was a natural, obviously.
When winter came around and the last of my flowers turned brown, I cut the top 2/3 of the plant off and resigned to waiting to see what happens in the Spring. Much to my surprise, 7 of the 8 plants came back bigger and stronger than the year before, eventually spreading into full bushes of 25-30 blooms at a time each. The time was right for me to take to instagram as a garden dad. Ask me for gardening advice, it’s in my blood.
Truthfully though I’m not very dedicated to the craft, at least not like my mom and the always beautiful gardens that she keeps. For three decades now I have watched her cultivate an environment of happiness for her flowers and as such reap an environment of plentiful blooms for her and the various bees and butterflies in her neighborhood to enjoy and benefit from.
I remember being in a therapy session a while back with one particular therapist who preferred the ‘sit and listen’ method to actually trying to dissect anything that I was saying. While he sat and stared at me I talked through the idea of happiness and whether it’s even possible to find it and eventually reached the conclusion that trying to find happiness is the wrong endeavor. Happiness is something that shows up on it’s own, and sometimes leaves just as quickly as it arrived. I decided that instead of seeking happiness, we should be making an effort to cultivate an environment in which happiness can find us more easily. I could have saved myself $125 that day by just talking to an empty chair. Unrelated but I made a joke to that therapist once about how I was making the payments on his Tesla parked out front, assuming it wasn’t his… but it was his so the joke ended up not being funny and led me down the road of wondering now if my therapist thought I was an asshole like everyone else. These are generalities, of course, there are only 2 or 3 people who are totally convinced that I am that and that’s alright.
The foundation of that conversation about finding happiness was him asking me if I consider myself a happy person. The answer to that question is no, and I have learned to accept that it’s not a shameful situation to feel unhappy. This doesn’t mean that I’ve never been happy or that I’m not happy right now, it just means that overall at a very base level I have never identified as someone who has an intrinsic or effortless joy. I have to work for it, and part of me wonders if intrinsic joy is actually a real thing that exists or if the people that appear to have it have just adapted better than I have to everything this life has to throw at us. It is a lot of pressure to have to feel happy all the time, or to base your overall success in life on an emotion that is hard to grasp and equally hard to hold on to.
In a lot of ways I used to view happiness as a type of finish line at which I’d arrive someday. If I worked hard enough and stayed close to my faith and did the right things as a husband and father then one day I’d wake up and be like “ah yeah I’ve finally made it to happiness!” But the reality is that there is only one finish line in this life and everything else is a constant process or hard work and setbacks and steps forward and more setbacks and adapting and growing. We have to keep doing these things until our ashes get packed into a fancy little box for our kids to awkwardly put on a shelf somewhere in their house. Let it be known that if I ever die, god forbid, I would like to be buried somewhere nice so my kids don’t have to carry me around when they move or whatever. It won’t really matter much to me at that point but I figured I might as well put it out there.
So often we tie our ability to be happy to our purpose, but what if you’re someone who doesn’t feel a deliberate sense of purpose? Is it possible to be happy if you are just an average guy with an average job in an average town who is going to work for 4 decades and then die? I think it is a dangerous game to try to tie your ability to be happy to the purpose that you have applied to your existence because sometimes such a purpose doesn’t seem to exist.
I don’t know about purpose, at least not from a cosmic standpoint. Do things happen for a reason? Maybe. Does everything happen for a reason? No. Of course I can’t answer these questions with any sense of authority as I’m just guessing like everyone else. I think it weaves a dangerous web to tie meaning to every small thing that happens to you as it opens you up to believing that you’re being rewarded or punished for every action throughout the day. Did you have a big win at work? Must have done something right. Car won’t start? Must have fucked up somewhere. The next time someone tells you that everything happens for a reason in order to try to make you feel better about something bad that happened, as is usually the situation in which that phrase is used, remember that that’s some quasi-Christian self-help bullshit that probably isn’t going to actually help you cope in the long run. If your car won’t start, it’s because your car is mechanical and mechanical things break. Same applies to your body and whatever various health issues you may develop. Mechanical things, all of them eventually in need of repair or disuse.
All of these words to make the point that I don’t think it’s a very solid strategy to tie your ability to be happy to whatever assigned purpose you believe you have in this world. I have gone through several stages of purpose in my life and have carried the yoke of burden assigned to each of them until I couldn’t any longer. I believed that by certain points in my life and purpose things should be a certain way for me or my family and they weren’t. They continue to not be. Did I fail at my purpose or was tying my joy to a results-based purpose a futile practice to begin with?
In my view, we have to cultivate an environment where happiness can find us most easily. Like my mom understanding the various environments in which her flowers will bloom… we have to keep setting ourselves up to be able to recognize when happiness arrives because there isn’t any way to force it to happen. I have some very toxic habits that make it tough for happiness to find me and on occasion I feel like that’s how it should be. I feel justified and comfortable in my loneliness and dissatisfaction with how things are and push others who care about me away in order to maintain my little bullshit bubble of deliberate discontent instead of opening myself up to the elusive feelings of joy that I get to experience sometimes.
Few things in this life have delivered joy to me like the genuine laughter of my kids. There are days where they work so hard to try to make me smile because I can’t get out of my own way and that is truly the most remarkable thing I have ever experienced. Sometimes I don’t let myself see or appreciate that incredible act of nature. My two year old daughter likes to sit on the kitchen counter next to me as I make my breakfast in the morning and try to get a jump on my day. I share my eggs with her while she dances to whatever music I have playing, she plays tricks on me and giggles as she watches me react, it is my favorite thing in the world. All of this happens while my phone lights up and my email expands and contracts and the news drones on about whatever chaos exists but to focus on any of that in that moment is to willingly ignore the absolute joy that is sitting on the counter in front of me playing peekaboo and trying to steal my bacon because she already finished all of hers. The happiness has found me, and it’s my job to embrace it. We must cultivate an environment where happiness can find us, and we must make the most of it when it decides to show it’s face.