By Melissa Betrone
Sometimes the pursuit of happiness feels like a punishment. We hear every day about some product or service designed to bring us closer to this feeling–a glade plugin, a diet plan, an app, longer lasting lipstick, a trip to Disney World. Messaging surrounds us, reminding us that happiness is the goal, and that we’re not quite there yet. If we just try harder, think positively, meet the right person, get the perfect job, live in the perfect house with the perfect kitchen we will be happy! It’s a constant, persistent reminder of what I am not.
I’m not even sure happiness is part of my operating system. On my best days, I can practice my mindfulness meditation, follow the instruction to “touch the joy of the present moment,” and feel…content. Aware. Able to notice what is happening in that present moment. But joyful? Happy? Not so much.
On my worst days, and believe me there are a lot of these, I am filled with despair. Waking after sleep is a coming to to dread. The fight or flight response engages immediately, before my feet even touch the floor. I can’t conjure one single thing to look forward to. My morning coffee is a dependence not a luxury, choosing clothes an impossibility, and walking the dog is a blind trudge through a blizzard, uphill, both ways. The list of tasks I must accomplish in order to leave my house and go to my job is a sisyphean infinity of overwhelm.
But somehow, I do and go and get there, only to find yet another list of tasks that need doing, none of which interest me in the least. Exhausted, I reach for my bag of chocolate and start feeding my mouth, my tongue, my teeth, my belly, in the hopes that some chemical (dopamine?) will activate in my brain that will tell my muscles to move my fingers over the keyboard of my computer and answer those emails, and call up that spreadsheet, enter that information into the right form. I field meeting invitations, updates to software and processes, complaints from co-workers, the news of yet another colleague leaving to advance their career somewhere else, or even better, to retire.
Lunch time (at last!) finds me too tired to take that walk outside that I know I need so badly, so I warm my leftovers in the microwave and find a vacant space where I can sit in the dark and distract myself with my favorite smartphone apps and hope that no one finds me. An hour goes by and I am fed but not rejuvenated in any way shape or form. I return to my desk, and face the same onslaught of monotony so I cheat and look for other jobs elsewhere, but they all sound like the same collection of monotony and hopelessness that I already have in front of me, the one that I already know, the one that I can endure from this de energized state and still get paid.
I leave work and am filled with despair. I go to my meditation group, and during the dharma sharing portion of the evening I say the words out loud: I can’t touch joy, I can’t touch one-ness, all I can feel is the separate self that we are told doesn’t exist, that is but an illusion. I am so far away from calm and when the bell sounds and a voice tells me to breathe in and notice a feeling of peace it feels like yet another reminder of a language I can’t speak or understand, of a VIP club and I’m not on the list.
“Fuck you, joy, fuck you, happiness,” I say, and fuck you too, dharma, with your promises of the fleetingness of feelings, the “this too shall pass like the clouds in the skies.” I don’t believe it, I’ve been mired in this despair for so many days, nights, weeks, months, that I can’t even conceive what it’s like to feel any other way. “The way out is in,” said Thich Nhat Hanh, so I look inside, but logic can’t touch the immensity of the bleakness that I find. I sit, with this weight, with this gray mass of hopelessness, and wonder how much more of it I can take.
We call this depression. Here in the west, when we ask for help with this, we get counseling, medication, and/or a myriad of other therapeutic modalities. If we don’t ask for help, we self soothe with alcohol, marijuana, exercise, over eating, under eating, hard drugs, retail therapy, yelling at our partners and children, parachuting from airplanes, making art, following gurus. You name it, there is a way forward for each of us. But whatever way we choose, and there is no one right way, happiness may still remain out of reach.
I’m coming to an understanding with myself about happiness, and joy, and the understanding is this: while happiness might be a goal for some, enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence even, it doesn’t have to be my goal. I don’t have to bludgeon myself day after day, chasing a feeling that I might not ever achieve. If it helps me to feel better to not even try to be happy, then sign me up. I can set the bar wherever I want. And right now, my bar is set to finding a way out of survival mode, finding a moment of relief, and expanding that spaciousness one milliliter at a time until I have a liter of not-depressed, and maybe some day a kiloliter full of not-depressed. And if anything in this post resonates with you, or this sounds like someone you love, I invite you to join me in customizing the destination.
Melissa Betrone has held many jobs, including truffle roller, sandwich maker, flower grower, and tire washer. She writes from Lancaster County, PA, and dreams of total transformation of systems of oppression.
One response to “Pursuit of Happiness…”
I’ve been thinking about your post, Melissa. I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability. While it can be painful to read, I think many people can relate. I know I have been there in the past. Once you’re without some of those strong emotions for awhile, it’s harder to conjure them up but I do remember them as painful and as you describe. I’m happy to know that you are “doing the work” in therapy and have seen some softening of those feelings. It’s a process. I like your suggestion, maybe happiness isn’t the goal for everyone. I’ve always thought of happiness as a surfacy and fleeting emotion. I think joy and contentment are states of being I strive for more than happiness. Maybe it’s semantics and those words mean different things to different people (kind of like virtue in prior posts.) It is interesting to me that it’s in the declaration of independence. Not happiness but the pursuit of it. I really appreciate your sharing…