When Happiness Is Terrifying

Happiness hit her like a train on a track
Coming towards her stuck still no turning back
She hid around corners and she hid under beds
She killed it with kisses and from it she fled
With every bubble she sank with her drink
And washed it away down the kitchen sink

Everyone wants to be happy. Right? As the popularity of books like The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin has shown, the secular world is increasingly prioritizing happiness over monetary success or moral achievement. Whereas the Protestant Work Ethic measured a person’s worth on a barometer of workaholism, nowadays the pursuit of happiness is seen as worthwhile and even noble. The assumption that everyone wants to be happy, however, is flawed. Those who tell depressed people to simply “lighten up” are ignorant of how mental illness actually works.

Sometimes, happiness is terrifying.

For context, I define happiness as the feeling or state of being content and satisfied with your present life. When I define it as such, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been truly happy in my life. This doesn’t mean I’ve always been sad, but I’ve always been unsatisfied. When I was a child, I meandered in and out my days, mostly numb to the external world, only looking forward to the next time I saw my father. As a teenager, I found that my morals and values were beginning to clash with everything I’d known, and I spiraled into a period of confusion in which every damn thing I did felt wrong. In college, I looked everywhere — the restroom of a dirty frat house, the sanctuary of a religious cult, the arms of a lover — for happiness. Through much trial and error, I arrived at me, Rebecca version 2014. For the first time, I feel like I have a solid grasp of what actually makes me happy. The problem is that pursuing those things is terrifying.

Why? Because when you stop fleeing the past and chasing the future, you have nothing left but the present. For someone who has spent the majority of their life relying on coping mechanisms to avoid the present, that is scary as hell. What do you do with yourself when you don’t have a perpetual catastrophe to deal with? How do you act when you develop healthy friendships and relationships that don’t function on a cycle of shame and disappointment? Who are you when you are no longer defined by your struggles?

Alive.

So maybe it’s not happiness that’s terrifying, but living with every cell in your body, every breath you take, every beat of your heart that is. For those who are accustomed to floating through life in full armor to protect themselves from anything that might hurt them, removing that barrier is the first, unexpectedly difficult step to living.

I said I wasn’t going to make any New Year’s Resolutions, so how about I make a toast? Here’s to 2014, and here’s to feeling alive.

Do you consider yourself happy? Does it come easily to you?

Santé!

R

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7 thoughts on “When Happiness Is Terrifying

  1. As someone who has difficulty finding happiness, I tend to the topic rather often. It was just the other day that I was reading Brave New World and a particular quote struck a chord in me, a quote pertaining to happiness.

    “And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.” – Huxley, Brave New World, p. 195

    Maybe it will do the same for you as it did for me, maybe not. For me however, it does seem to nicely sum up what most of my “happiness” feels like. Granted, I will give you that there are distinct points in my life where I did feel a nice unsoiled version of happiness, maybe that’s true happiness.

    • You just reminded me that I have to reread Brave New World! Loved it the first time around.

      I’m not sure I’m understanding your comment, though. Do you mean that your “happiness” feels ungrand and almost monotonous? Or do you mean you pursue “spectacular” instability? I guess I can understand both sentiments. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned to appreciate the ungrand happiness instead of constantly chasing the exhilaration of the latter. It’s done good for me so far.

      • It really is a great, quick little read, that was the first time I had gotten the chance to go through it. Speaking of “happiness” you have pretty much hit the nail on the head for me. Time quickly chips away at it and I feel as though I have no longer earned it. In terms of instability, I think that in instability we are challenged, and it is in these challenges that we may find out more about who we are. It also so happens that I tend to enjoy instability and the new experiences it imparts, though they aren’t all enjoyable. I definitely think that you’re on the right track in learning to enjoy the littler, simpler forms of happiness, they are often the easiest to come by so long as one knows where to look. I can’t help but feel that in pursuing solely a grand happiness, if you will, we may be disappointed once it arrives. Most of my grander moments of happiness only reveal themselves in retrospect, in the context of other memories. So if I could boil this down to anything, I think that I would have to say that we ought to enjoy the present and all its instabilities, and relish the happiness that good memories bring as it comes, in time.

        • “Most of my grander moments of happiness only reveal themselves in retrospect, in the context of other memories. So if I could boil this down to anything, I think that I would have to say that we ought to enjoy the present and all its instabilities, and relish the happiness that good memories bring as it comes, in time.”

          So much this. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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