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Is Life Supposed To Be Happy?

My friend averageinsuburbia wrote a post last week about the nature of happiness.  A co-worker had loaned her a book, with the commendation, “It’s a hoot!”  Turns out it wasn’t a hoot.  It was totally depressing.  When she mentioned this, her friend “reared back and said, ‘Who told you life was supposed to be happy?'”  Naturally, this interaction ran through her mind when she woke up one recent Sunday, feeling “so crushingly sad, about everything and nothing at all”, that she couldn’t eat:

“It takes a lot to turn me on food, so when I am not even tempted by the cake I’ve hidden in the freezer under bags of peas and corn, I know something is wrong.”

After she was feeling better (and the cake was gone), she wrote about it.  Cause that’s what we do.  At the end of her post, she asked, “Is life supposed to be happy?”  

What a fascinating question.  

Whether or not life is “supposed” to be happy is strictly a matter of opinion, depending on personality, religion, life experience.  I don’t think I believe that things are supposed to be one way or another.  I’m still mulling this over, but I’m thinking that what matters is what you will into existence for yourself.  What matters is how much you are willing to fight for happiness, and what you are willing to sacrifice for it.

Averageinsuburbia said, “I kinda thought that was what we were striving for, ‘Pursuit of happiness’, with the goal being happiness.”  Personally, I have spent most of my adult life not knowing HOW to pursue my happiness.  To begin with, I didn’t know what would make me happy.  And if I ever got a glimpse of what it might be, I sure as hell didn’t know how to go after it.  In the meantime, I mostly ran in circles.  I wasn’t always unhappy, but I’ve never felt a “Dream Life” kind of happiness – dream job, dream spouse, dream kids, dream house.  Maybe we don’t all get to have that kind of happiness.  I’ve known people like that, who can’t wait to get to work because they love it so much, and their personal life just brings them so much continual joy and…you know.  But most people I know are just like me: we have our moments of true, giddy happiness, and basically our lives are pretty okay.  Maybe it ain’t great, but it’s not too bad, either.  

For the most part, I’m not happy or unhappy.  I’m just living.

It’s only been in the last year that I have come to understand that I can be more.  That there are things I can do – and that I’m capable of doing them – that will bring a real, sustained happiness and contentment to my life.  For me, that “pursuit of happiness” is a pursuit to be fulfilled.  And though being fulfilled involves my career, creative outlets, financial security, relationships, et cetera… ultimately, that fulfillment is wholly internal.  It’s how I feel about myself.  I don’t think you can be truly happy, in the kind of rainbow happiness that arcs over the whole of your life,  if you are unhappy with who you are.  Or if you don’t like yourself.  Or you don’t believe in yourself.  If you don’t believe that you are, or are heading toward, who you could be.

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I originally just intended to write about a comment on her post.  All of the comments were wonderful and interesting, bringing up such variables as contentment vs happiness, serious vs petty problems, the concept of “supposed to”, comparing our lives with other’s, happiness as an illusion, and the healing qualities of chocolate cake.  But the most intriguing comment, to me, came from averageinsuburbia herself.  It was actually a list of questions, which really caught my attention.  I started answering on her blog, but it just got too long.  Besides, I think her questions are well worth sharing here.

Here is her comment, broken down with my responses.  Obviously, my answers are based on my own life experience, and don’t take all situations into consideration.  And like any opinion, they’re certainly open to debate.

“One thing that really bothers me about reading a depressing story is that I feel afterward that I don’t have a right to be unhappy.”
Whether you had a cushy, easy life compared to someone else’s has no bearing. Should you feel sad for them? Well, that’s compassion, so sure. But their misfortune shouldn’t stop you from finding joy in your own life.  Likewise, their hard life doesn’t negate the validity of your darker emotions.  We all have “the right” to feel however we feel.

Of course, often we don’t appreciate what we have, and being reminded of that makes us feel kind of bad for complaining about our trifling little hardships – we feel guilty.  But we’re only human, so you have to cut yourself a break.  You wouldn’t feel the way you do if you weren’t a nice and compassionate person in the first place.

“When do you accept a situation and say “I guess I can live with it” or decide you can’t live with it?”
That is an individual choice. Mostly, we avoid the choice. We don’t like that we have to make it; we don’t want to make it.  We want things to go our way without having to put in any extra effort, and we resent that we’ve been “put in the situation” of having to make hard and miserable decisions.  So we don’t really accept it, but we don’t put our foot down either.  Instead, we silently martyr ourselves – we sacrifice our happiness to the status quo.  Only nobody knows it but us.  We may think we’ve made ourselves abundantly clear, but as long as you “live with” whatever it is, then what point are you making?

I guess you know when you actually CAN’T live with it. I chose to stay married for 2 years longer than I should have. I chose to leave that marriage when I could NOT live with it any longer. In the meantime, I chose to allow myself to be unhappy.  Sure, I had plenty of reasons, but the truth is that choosing to stay was easier than choosing to leave.  Until it wasn’t.

“How far do we go to find happiness? How many people are we willing to upset to find happiness?”
How far are you willing to go?

How important is their happiness to you? Are you willing to sacrifice their happiness for yours? Are you willing to sacrifice your happiness for theirs? Is there a place to meet in the middle? Have you expressed to them what would make you happy? Have you been honest with yourself about what will make you happy?

So…

I saved one question for Friday since it got a little off topic and, per usual, I got too long winded.  In the meantime, what do you think about all this?

Is life supposed to be happy?

How do you define your own happiness?

What’s your criterion for “putting up with it” or “putting your foot down”?

How far do we go to find happiness?

How much of yourself – what you already are and already have – are you willing to sacrifice for what you could be and could have?

Items of Interest:

Who Said Life Was Supposed To Be Happy?  by averageinsuburia

To Be, Or Who I Was Meant To Be: That Is The Question by Mind Margins

Happiness is A Feeling that You Have to Bless Yourself With (aisjournal.com)

Stop Comparing and Start Being Happy (thetruthwarrior.wordpress.com)

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32 Comments Post a comment
  1. Live is full of ups and downs. Sometimes we feel happy sometimes not. If someone feels persistently unhappy then they could be clinically depressed so might need medical assistance to start to feel better. Either way, life is full of experiences, some that we enjoy, some that we don’t, some that teach us things, or maybe that we learn nothing from. Ever found yourself in the same pattern over and over? I have.

    Personally I always find a silver lining in whatever cloud. We all create our own reality to some degree. if you think the worst is goign to happen, it often does. If you think optimistically, it helps to look for the silver lining if things don’t work out the way you planned.

    Someone once said to me that the problem with human beings generally in this affluent world we live in, is that our problems are not big enough. Compared to people living in poverty, or being abused, or fleeing persecution, or having no money, or access to education or living without hope. I have lead a pretty fortunate life so if I’m having a bad day I try to remember all the things in my life, I have to be grateful for.

    Then you can find happiness where five minutes before, you thought it didn’t exist. its all about perspective.

    May 16, 2012
    • Hi and welcome! Thank you so much for your wonderful comment. I have strong opinions about perspective, too! I started to write about many of your points, but this was too long already, so I had to leave so much out. I was hoping that they would come up in the comments, so thank you!

      This idea of happiness is such a big topic, with many different aspects to consider. I just talked about the big picture happiness in my life. Maybe if certain things had gone differently for me, I might already feel that kind of “whole life happiness” that I don’t feel right now. But, that’s neither here nor there, is it? I am in this place right now, and that’s where my focus must be – where I am now and where I go from here.

      May 16, 2012
  2. The only thing worth fighting for in life is happiness. I think that we should all be able to find true happiness without hurting anyone else in the process. Now this is relevant of course, I’m sure it hurt my ex when I left him, but in the long run our relationship never would have created happiness. I am now happy, and hopefully other people can find the same. (written on less than a coffee…try to follow my gibberish, hahaha)

    May 16, 2012
    • It’s not gibberish at all, haha! I agree that it’s nice and ideal not to have to hurt anyone else, but as with your example, that’s not always possible. Sometimes you have to make painful choices that are right for your life. We have this one chance to live, so what we do with it is crucial.

      May 16, 2012
      • Exactly! I think it’s good to be mindful of other people, but at the end of the day you have to look out for yourself. You won’t be any good to people if you are deeply unhappy.

        May 16, 2012
  3. t #

    I can’t remember the exact book, nor the exact words, but C.S. Lewis made mention of the idea that happiness was simply a temporary “fix” on our way to Joy. The former meant to be only temporary, so that we don’t get distracted from our real journey towards the latter.

    As usual, I think Mr. Lewis had it just about right. AND he wrote it with a British accent, which is always a plus in my book.

    May 16, 2012
    • Hi t, welcome to you, too, and thanks for commenting. C. S. Lewis said a lot of great and powerful things! That’s something that I thought about, too, is my spiritual journey. I agree with Mr. Lewis. I think we have this one chance down here to make the most of what we have, and be the best that we can be. I mostly haven’t done that.

      Also, good point about the accent 🙂

      May 16, 2012
  4. Great post! You’ve really brought a great deal of wisdom to the question.
    This is a subject I’ve spent a lot of energy on…having also had to decide about leaving a marriage. That was hard! And then some years of depression and much confusion followed. Thankfully, the depression lifted but some of the confusion remains. I’ve been reading books by Martha Beck and LOVE what she has to say about the matter. Her take is, part of what we’re here for is to heal the world, to align ourselves with the infinite love of God. And the way we do that is to find our true path. She has a number of exercises to help you find what that is, and how to get there which is great because for me, just saying “I’m an artist” isn’t quite enough. Not all people will be happy with you if you follow your true path, but then, that is their journey. We are not responsible for other’s happiness. Not in that sense. Ultimately, we will do the most good when we are coming from the place of our greatest joy. Why would God not want us to be happy?
    Having said that, may you all experience great joy!

    May 16, 2012
    • You reminded me of something I saw on Facebook today: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” I wonder if your meaning would be “artist” and your purpose would be what you have in mind for your studio – using your art to reach out to people, teaching them about the world and ecology, sharing and helping others grow.

      It’s true, people aren’t always happy for us when we follow our path. There are so many reasons for it: they’re jealous, they feel left behind, they are generally negative, etc. But you’re right, you have to take care of yourself without regard to how those other people will handle it. Not to say step all over them or hurt them on purpose, but you can’t allow yourself to be held down by people who don’t really have your best interests at heart. “Ultimately, we will do the most good when we are coming from the place of our greatest joy.” So very true!

      May 16, 2012
  5. You, and the other writers/commenters seem to have found the answer. For many of us, life is a parade of quiet desperation. It’s what we do with it and how we feel about it that counts. I’ve written about have few friends, and yet, I’m happy with that. I’m not living in a refrigerator box, but, we’re poor. Would I be happier with a million dollars? I don’t know, but I’d be willing to give it a try.

    May 16, 2012
    • Sometimes I think, “if only I had the money…”, and I do wonder if I would be happier if I had the funds to do whatever I wished. But I think that, no matter how rich I was, I couldn’t get away from myself. Of course, that may not matter if you’re rich 😉 I’d be willing to give it a try, too!

      For many years, I was living a life, not of quiet desperation so much, but of quiet nothingness. Not much interaction with people, go to work, come home, go to work, come home. You are so on target – it really is what we do with it that counts. We have to participate in our life, and try our hardest to focus on the good we have. It’s not always easy, that’s for sure.

      May 16, 2012
  6. I’m glad you have continued the conversation on happiness. I’ve really found it enlightening to read what others have learned through their experiences and you, my dear, are one wise lady. I could comment on everything you said but that would lead to another post! I will comment on your mention of the realization there were things you could do, even small things, to make yourself happy. For me, a lot of unhappiness comes from a feeling that I don’t have control of my own destiny which is total hogwash! There are things I can’t change, but there are many, many things I can change. This goes back to what Melissa said about finding your true path. This is OUR responsibility and something we actively have to seek. There is no neon sign pointing the way. Maybe people who seem to be happy all the time instinctively know this.

    May 17, 2012
    • That’s what happened to me – I was just commenting away, and then I thought, “I can’t do that to her!” But, it’s such an interesting topic with so many angles.

      I can relate to feeling I don’t have control, even though I have control over myself, what I think, what I feel and what I do. The reality is I don’t take control. I do nothing because I don’t know WHAT to do, or I’m overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, or – the most common for me – it just seems useless, so I don’t even try.

      Here’s the thing: that’s just who I naturally am. I’ve never been an upwardly mobile, brimming with confidence, I can do anything, hear me roar kind of person. I fear change; I am sometimes unhappy, but safe in my rut. Also I’m lazy and a hermit and an introvert and all kinds of things that can make it harder. To fight for my “fulfilled life kind of happiness” that I was talking about, for me means fighting my natural tendencies, forcing myself to engage with the world, take risks and dare to strive for more than I actually believe I can be, have or deserve.

      Maybe you’re right, that people who are naturally inclined to find their true path, who naturally strive toward the best for and in themselves are also naturally happier. I know I’ve been happier since I started making a real effort to find out what I wanted from life and go after it.

      May 17, 2012
  7. This is one of those topics entire books are written about, and everyone has a different answer. Happiness is something we all think about a lot, and it seems to be what we all want and expect out of life. I’m not happy every single moment or even every single day, but I’m okay with flashes of happiness, no matter how brief or long-lived they may be. I can’t imagine being always happy. I think we need sad times, too, and all the other un-happy times in our lives. I seem to learn a lot from the things and times that make me unhappy.

    Or maybe happiness isn’t even about the moments in our lives, but more about the being. Like, when you’re being true to yourself and living an authentic life, even if it means you have less money and less security. When you’re sharing your “gifts” with the world, or creating something beautiful, or just being a good person to others. When you’re being yourself, and not worrying about tomorrow.

    May 17, 2012
    • I kept thinking that as I was writing; I kept going down side streets and stopping myself because there’s only so much space here and so much people are willing to read. We all have our own experiences that shape our view of happiness.

      I also can’t imagine always being happy, probably because I’ve not felt that before. I’ve had long stretches of contentedness and general happiness, but I’ve never been fully satisfied with myself. I’ve never thought I was living up to my potential, I’ve never chased my dreams, or anything like that. Maybe it’s a simple self-esteem issue, but I think it’s more than that. I am an idea person, but not a carry-out-the-idea person. I’ve always known I could be more but would not fight to be more. That makes me feel bad about myself.

      “It’s more about the being…living an authentic life…sharing your ‘gifts’ with the world, or creating something beautiful…” I have always felt that there is who I am, and who I was meant to be. I don’t think I’ve been happy with my life or myself, because I was too afraid or lazy to bridge that gap.

      May 17, 2012
  8. “I have always felt that there is who I am, and who I was meant to be.”
    I feel a blog post coming on just from that one sentence . . .

    May 18, 2012
    • Yea! Keep it going! We’ll do a round robin with this topic. It also got me going on communication and taking ownership for our problems (today’s post). Averageinsuburbia may have started something…

      May 18, 2012
      • Taking ownership for our problems is a great topic. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week as well. Can’t wait to read your thoughts on it. Thanks to Averageinsuburbia for getting this going!

        May 18, 2012
        • Please, y’all, call me ‘Gretchen’. Angela, it’s now your turn to write on this subject!

          May 19, 2012
  9. This is such a great post! You and the other bloggers have thrown such wonderful insights into this very difficult topic. I think a lot of it has to do with appreciating what you have. Happy people seem to be thankful for a whole lot, and I think that’s what helps put things in perspective for them. I also believe that these people choose to be happy. Which isn’t easy all the time. So when I meet a happy person, I don’t think ‘how lucky that life has worked out nicely for you’ but I appreciate the journey that this person is making, and it makes me want to strive harder myself.

    May 20, 2012
    • And there’s more insights to be had, too! This is a big topic. You should write about it too, that will make four of us, as Angela posted hers today!

      That’s such a great point about appreciation and the gratitude perspective. I didn’t even consider that angle at all, but I’ve noticed that in happy people, as well. I agree about choosing to be happy, too – especially the it’s not easy all the time part. I have forced myself to be happy before – fake it until you make it, and all that. It does work, at least in the short term.

      May 21, 2012
      • This topic is HUGE! I was talking to the husband about your post a few days ago and he threw up some angles that I hadn’t even considered like what happiness even means. I wish I could do a post on this too but first, I need to untangle all the different thoughts I have on this topic 🙂

        May 23, 2012
        • Yeah, I really only just answered the questions that she had in one of her comments. The comments here have sparked so many more thoughts and angles. Angela at Mind Margins asked, “what does happiness even mean,” on her post about it, too. That’s the real question, I guess. I am trying not to let myself write about it again, but I’ve got all these thoughts swirling around in my head, too…

          May 26, 2012
  10. To tell you the truth, I used to have more to say in answer to the question of whether life is supposed to be happy. The only answer I have now is that I don’t know what life is supposed to be. I don’t know if life is supposed to be anything. I don’t know if we’re supposed to even worry about what life is supposed to be. I think that for most of humanity’s existence we didn’t have the luxury of thinking about “supposed’s”.

    I can say with some confidence that life doesn’t have to be happy to be good and worth living. I can say that for billions of people it isn’t happy as most Americans would define the word. People find meaning in life even in the worst circumstances, even when they’re starving and barely making it from one day to the next. People in those kinds of circumstances still love their children, their spouses, their mothers and fathers and grandparents even though they aren’t “happy” and the word itself may not form part of their lexicon. I can say that whatever we think life is supposed to be, we’ll never really know with total certainty, and that it will be what it will be, whether we always like it or not.

    For all my uncertainty, I still think it’s an important question, and I love this post.

    May 23, 2012
    • I certainly considered people who live in impoverished countries, abused and tormented people, but I didn’t dig into that angle. I went through a range of emotions as I read your comment, including sadness to guilt. This is the first time I’ve felt guilty for wanting to have a happy life, which is ridiculous. But that’s mostly what I felt as I read your comment. I’m still thinking on this, but I think you’ve got a great point about finding meaning despite “the worst circumstances”.

      May 26, 2012
      • Michelle, I’m sorry. I really messed up if I made you feel guilty for wanting to have a happy life. That’s not what I meant by what I said. I’m going to quote a couple of things you wrote:

        “I don’t think I believe that things are supposed to be one way or another. I’m still mulling this over, but I’m thinking that what matters is what you will into existence for yourself. What matters is how much you are willing to fight for happiness, and what you are willing to sacrifice for it.”

        “For the most part, I’m not happy or unhappy. I’m just living.”

        “Whether you had a cushy, easy life compared to someone else’s has no bearing. Should you feel sad for them? Well, that’s compassion, so sure. But their misfortune shouldn’t stop you from finding joy in your own life. Likewise, their hard life doesn’t negate the validity of your darker emotions. We all have “the right” to feel however we feel.

        Of course, often we don’t appreciate what we have, and being reminded of that makes us feel kind of bad for complaining about our trifling little hardships – we feel guilty. But we’re only human, so you have to cut yourself a break. You wouldn’t feel the way you do if you weren’t a nice and compassionate person in the first place.”

        I think you covered the guilt question perfectly in these snippets from your post, and I agree fully with everything you said. I think it’s normal to feel guilty sometimes when life is good and we’re happy, knowing that many people aren’t happy. But I also agree that another person’s misfortune shouldn’t stop us from finding joy in life. I also know that there’s no point in comparing pain and misery–except for the far, far extremes, I’m pretty sure that pain feels like pain no matter who’s feeling it. The same circumstances can cause different levels of sadness in different people. I think the same goes for happiness, and that’s really what I was trying to say… that while I don’t know if life is supposed to be happy (which is something you said as well), it can be worthwhile even without the notion of happiness that predominates in our society. That’s really all I meant to say. I find comfort in that because it means that we don’t always have to be happy, we don’t have to feel like failures for not always finding happiness. Life can be generally good, meaningful, and worthwhile even when we aren’t happy. This is as true in the U.S. as it is in parts of the world that most of us think of as blighted. People find meaning and love in all kinds of circumstances.

        It actually bothers me most when people assume that anyone living in difficult conditions must necessarily be miserable (which is not to say that they’re happy or necessarily NOT miserable). I once spoke to someone who thought it was stupid that two of her students wanted to move back to El Salvador. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to return to such an impoverished country. “But it’s home,” I said.

        I’m sorry that I was a downer in that first comment. I apologize for making you feel guilty. No one should feel guilty for being happy when they came by their happiness honestly and without hurting anyone. I’m pretty sure that describes you.

        May 26, 2012
        • You didn’t make me feel guilty! I did, but I didn’t mean to blame you for it at all. Honestly, I don’t exactly know why I reacted that way. I just did. And I knew that those feelings basically contradicted everything that I had just written in this post. But I guess we can’t help what we feel.

          To be perfectly honest, I feel that you have sometimes struggled with various things, and I read your words and my heart ached for my friend. I forgot for a moment that I don’t personally believe that life was “meant” to be happy, and only could think that I wished a friend was not unhappy. And that morphed quickly into a sadness that so many people live entire lives without feeling a true and abiding happiness. It breaks my heart. And then I felt guilty for wanting something that others may never have. I understood what averageinsuburbia meant. How can I ask for more?

          So, I guess I can trace those thoughts. But it was good for me to consider it all. Please don’t feel bad! That you so much for caring enough to clarify. I believe I knew what you were saying, but just reacted oddly to some of it 🙂

          May 26, 2012
          • And looking back on it now, you didn’t say anything to make me feel that you were writing from a place of unhappiness, either. I don’t know why I took it that way. I thought you had some terrific things to say, and was planning on using them for another post next week. Sometimes I’m just crazy.

            May 26, 2012

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