Living in a culture where there’s an abundance of ‘how to be happy’ seminars and books promoting ‘happiness’, it is logically to think that finding happiness is a desirable, if not necessary pursuit. Everywhere you turn, from the booming self-help industry to the field of positive psychology, emphasis is placed on being happy.
Pleasure Seeking Beings
It is not uncommon to hear expressions like ‘all I want is to be happy’, ‘to find happiness’. It makes sense. As pleasure seeking/pain avoidant beings, why wouldn’t we want to pursue a life of happiness?
And yet, in this pursuit of happiness there’s an underlying paradox. How does one chase an ephemeral feeling? Something that is transient and fleeting?
As beings who are capable of experiencing the full spectrum of emotions, what do we do with our feelings of sadness, feelings of loss and of heartbreak? Where do these feelings belong amidst a culture that strives to be happy? Have we in our obsession to pursue happiness, devalued our more painful and challenging experiences?
Living an Enriched Life
While I’m not making a case that we should all sit around and dwell on how hard our lives are and make sure others are aware of it too. Surely nothing good can come out of that. But perhaps a case could be made that it’s the unpleasant emotions such as pain and heartbreak that have the potential to enrich our lives in a valuable way.
“We should be wary of pursuing happiness as the main goal of our life, not only because happiness is one of the most elusive and unpredictable of emotions, but also because so many people report that their most valuable experiences of emotional growth and personal development have come from pain, not pleasure”. – Hugh Mackay
Connect with Being Human
I came to recognise that these unpleasant emotions are an opportunity to go inside ourselves and to connect with what makes us human. Rather than escaping or suppressing these emotions, to feel them fully. Often, we don’t give ourselves the permission to be weak. To be vulnerable. But it is this very quality of ‘humanness’ which makes us relatable to others -far more than a life of perfection could.
“In our culture, we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.”
-Dr. Brene Brown
Strong versus Weak
I used to think that to show one’s strength and stoicism through hard times was an admirable quality to have. Who would want to hear about my personal troubles? No, what a bore I would be. So instead, in my false perception to think that I was doing the other person a favor by not boring them, I spoke about how great life was and would deal with my suffering in private.
Intimacy in Being Vulnerable
It wasn’t until a friend once mentioned to me, “It takes vulnerability and intimacy to share of yourself. Also, the less desirable moments. That in doing so, you allow a deepening of friendship to occur”. It seems so obvious now, but at the time I really had to shift my mindset on it.
To realize that showing your weakness could also be seen as a strength. That it actually required courage to show more of oneself, but as with most things that require courage also had the promise of greater freedom. Freedom of feeling you have to always be in control. Freedom from what others will think of you, if they saw who you truly were.
An Invitation to Honor Ourselves
Now when I am feeling an emotion of sadness, I don’t suppress it and neither do I identify with it. Just like emotions of happiness, I know this emotion will pass too. So instead, I acknowledge that it’s there to serve a purpose. To remind me that I’m human who gets to experience a wide range of emotions, including this one. To remind me that feeling sorrow or pain allows me to relate to others in a deeper way when they go through something similar.
That it’s an invitation to enrich my inner world and therefore, my engagement with the world. For when feelings of discomfort arise, we are given the choice to open or close ourselves from what gave us pain in the first place. It takes courage to remain open and raw to the elements that life brings. But in doing so it allows us to give honor to ourselves -fully and completely, rather than compartmentalize our lesser than desirable feelings.
A New Adventure Awaits
Perhaps rather than the pursuit of happiness, we could recognize the value of sorrow, loss, and pain as much as we do joy, excitement and love. That when we let go of the pursuit of happiness, we might find ourselves on a journey that is about connection, compassion, relating and vulnerability. The traits that might ultimately lead to a more joyful and fulfilling life.
It is to be useful, to be honourable,
to be compassionate,
to have it make some difference
that you have lived and lived well.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson