if day has to become night

On Goals and Happiness

A Sentence

Happiness is not a goal; it is an outcome of engaging with both the positive and negative aspects of my life.

A Paragraph

For as long as I have had a recognizable sense of identity, my goal in life has been to be happy. This is an unworkable goal, and I used it for a long time as a defense mechanism to avoid necessary conflict. In order to stay happy, I intellectualized negative feelings to the point that they were an ignorable background noise in my brain -- until they were no longer ignorable. Eventually I learned that happiness is a path that must be walked actively. Many steps come only after engaging with, understanding, and resolving negative feelings by stepping into my life. It is useful, and it is difficult, work.

A Page

The particular idea of who I am goes back only ten or twelve years. Any further past and I have wide impressions: an easy ten-year-old desire to be, so absurdly generally, a scientist; the sharp sense of freedom while driving alone late at night with a new license1. I can see the beginnings of myself, but the patterns and systems of my brain, my sense of being, do not feel coherently connected to who I am now. At eighteen I picked up the first thread of my personality that I can follow through to today -- when asked what I wanted to do, or to be, I would say that I only wanted to be happy. That was my goal; I am not goal oriented.

I carried this goal, happiness, through school2 and along through the beginnings of my adulthood and career. I'll say at the outset, here, that happiness is a good direction and an awful goal. I'll say also that I was more earnest than smugly anti-establishment; I inherited a certain casual everything works out attitude from my mom that I intellectualized to the point of being deeply unhelpful. It's true, too, that everything does work out, one way or another, and that I've been lucky. I come from a background of white- and male-privilege. I'm grateful for what I have -- what I've been given and what I've earned.

Being happy, not letting things bother me, being okay, was a foundational part of my identity. This is aspirational and it's not entirely workable. In practice it looked like this: spending an enormous amount of mental energy to dismiss my feelings when things were not okay. It meant ignoring problems, rationalizing, and overindulging in patience. It meant, especially, avoiding emotional conflict.

I did not often step into my life when it was hard and when I needed to. I wrapped discontent, sadness, and irritation in an intellectual mantra: I don't need to feel this. It will be okay. This was my process for existing; I have a habit of over-thinking and under-feeling3. In my mid-twenties this slowly stopped working, and I descended into a semi-functional madness. My sense of identity was rapidly crumbling. I reached a breaking point, and I felt that I had broken. I did not wish to die, but in the morning I would pull the covers over my head, and hide, and think about not existing.

I had found that wanting only to be happy was not enough. I had founded part of myself, really, on avoidance, and it was hollow ground. I had absented myself from the responsibility I have to really exist, to take up some space in the world. I had not exercised or even really discovered the tools, finding myself finally miserable, that I needed to grow.

I do not feel broken today. In my late twenties I began to be reassembled4. This process continues. Here is what I learned: happiness itself is not actionable5. Being okay is a direction to travel and, importantly, is an outcome of the structure of my life. Feeling bad is an incredibly helpful, painful, signal to understand how I need to change; where I need to assert myself, and how to step into my life.

I've kept the pieces that I like: optimism, patience, kindness. I've added to my process for existing. It's still very intellectual6, and I do a lot of work to understand and incorporate how I feel. Sometimes it's very easy: I'm irritable when I'm hungry -- I should eat. Sometimes it's enough to recognize feeling uneasy because life is uncertain, and that it will pass. Sometimes I have to step in and have a conversation with someone that is wildly uncomfortable. I have a mental checklist that, so importantly, starts when I actively engage with the thought or feeling that conflicts with being happy7.

This optimistic thread of my personality began partially as a naive defense mechanism to avoid conflict, and I've had to learn a lot about the work that must be done for it to be a useful part of myself. I'm still not particularly goal-oriented. Having goals, and growing, are both skills that I develop slowly. I am happy, generally, and importantly I know what to do when I'm not. I don't know that this is helpful advice, only that it's been a gradual realization for me.

Thank you for your time and for your attention.

An Addendum

I have glossed, a little unfairly, over my process of getting better. If you feel as I've felt, or think as I've thought, I understand and I am sorry and it sucks and it is difficult. You may try some things that I've tried: Listen to Krista Tippett talk to wise folks in On Being; Definitely find a therapist; Talk to your friends; Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; Listen to Esther Perel; Meditate, even if your brain doesn't quiet down; Read, as my friend does, about Stoicism; Be kind to yourself.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Verse 52 from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman

1: This, most, when crossing over a highway; I could follow the out-rushing tail lights anywhere. I never did.
2: Becoming something like a sophomore-and-a-half over the course of a disparate couple of years that I attended the University of Illinois. Another story.
3: Duh.
4: I am only partly responsible for this. I've had countless help from a countable, but large, number of folks. Friends; a therapist; my partner; a cat who honestly might not know the difference. I am so grateful.
5: Duh.
6: And often exhausting.
7: Talking to other folks about it helps, too. As does meditation and self-acceptance.