In 2008 my father was dying, I was pregnant, my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, two doctors told me I had lymphoma, my three-year-old son had been kicked out of daycare and my dog seemed to exist only to torment me.
And I was happy ... most of the time, anyway.
That year was easily the worst year of my life, but I stayed (mostly) happy by recognizing the gifts in my situation. And believe it or not, there were many.
My dad lived 600 miles away from me and the cancer that surprised us all had left him just six months to live. I chose to see this as a gift. I had been told exactly how much time I had left with him. Everybody dies, I reasoned, but many people are ambushed by tragedy. They don’t have time to get comfortable with grief. I was lucky to have not been caught unawares.
And, I reasoned, if my husband had not been deployed, I wouldn’t have felt right about going to live with my father during his last months. I wouldn’t have been there with Dad when he took his last breath. Dad wouldn’t have gone with me to my ultrasound appointment and so he wouldn’t have met, technologically speaking, the granddaughter he would never hold.
Besides, it didn’t matter that my son had been kicked out of daycare because he and I found a new daycare when we moved to be with my father. Those doctors who thought I had lymphoma also told me that additional tests for the condition (which it turns out I didn’t have) would have to wait until after my baby was born. There was nothing I could do and so there was no use in worrying. And I found an excellent dog training facility that not only took my beloved labrador off my hands for awhile, but sent him back to me better behaved than ever and with the same sweet personality.
That year I simply refused to accept sadness. I just couldn’t afford it. With a newborn coming, a three-year-old to raise and a husband who wouldn’t be home for many more months, depression was not in my budget. Somebody had to pour the cereal, feed the dog, kiss the boo-boos and take out the trash, and that person had to be me. These were the thoughts that tethered me to joy when the creeping self-pity threatened to pull me into darkness.
You see, I know Depression. She and I go way back. I know that her hold looks like an embrace but that it is really a painful binding. I know how she casts all of life into bas relief, forcing the highs to feel shallow and the lows to feel permanent. And I know that, once in her pit, I can climb out only with the help of prescription drugs and professionals. (Both of which I readily recommend to anyone facing depression, by the way.) So in 2008, despite having some really good reasons for feeling bad, I resisted my bitter old friend, though she beckoned me like a Siren, and urged me to come and crash on her rocky shore.
I opted instead to cling to Happiness, my new friend. Happiness is a challenging yoga class an hour after gorging yourself on Combo #4, wearing a too-tight sports bra and pants that let your muffin top spill out. Happiness is wanting to curse the bendy, trim, 22-year-old on the mat next to you, but pulling yourself (at the urging of the instructor) back to gratitude, and remembering how lucky you are to have strong arms and legs. How fortunate you are to afford yoga. How good your deep breaths feel.
No one can always be happy. That’s why we instinctively reject the Polly Annas of the world. We know that sometimes the glass isn’t only half empty, it’s just empty. But happiness is knowing that the glass is only empty for now; that it has held water before and it will hold water again. Happiness is recognizing that even the empty glass has value.
Happiness is so important to us in the United States that our Declaration of Independence promises everyone an opportunity to pursue happiness — and that is precisely where we all go wrong. We set our sights on happiness and then we go after it with the intensity of a bald eagle, certain that if we try hard enough and swoop low enough, we will get it.
But once we attain whatever it is we sought in the pursuit of happiness — the advanced degree, the good job, the fancy car, the big house, the fit body, the attractive mate — we learn that the abundance we claimed and gained has not made us happy. In fact, we often find ourselves less happy than when we started. We don’t find happiness because happiness was with us all along.
Happiness is the moment between the moments. It is the absolute trust in my dogs’ eyes. (I have two dogs now and the second is just as wild as the first.) It’s the explosion of azaleas in the springtime and the smell of my children’s heads when I kiss them goodnight. It’s the dinner party at a friend’s house that stretches past midnight because no one wants to leave. It is holding my father’s hand as he peacefully slipped from this world, and seeing the look on my daughter’s face when she met her father for the very first time.
Happiness can’t be faked or forced, but it’s there, I promise. You just have to stop trying to find it.