Recently, I have been thinking about the preconceived notions we have about happiness and its essentialness to life. I began exploring this idea several years ago. Today however, as I sat on my couch with a cup of tea, an empty house, and a bunch of congestion from a cold this idea quietly began to percolate again. Happiness isn’t enough. I was watching a show about a man who had to give up his dream of being a teacher to run his father’s pizza shop after his father died. He struggled with it for a long time. Then an idea came to him to express himself through his pizza instead of living his father’s legacy. He struggled for years to make this idea come to life. He lost relationships and worked long hours. He was unhappy for a long time. Then his work resulted in finding not only an expression of his creativity but balance, a new appreciation for what he lost in this pursuit (his relationships). He mended fences and now is passing this gift on to his son, allowing him to express himself through his work. So now he found balance, meaning, and purpose. Had he never gone through the pain of change, he would never have found this beautiful gift. What is happiness?
In my profession I hear story after story of unhappiness. Sometimes this unhappiness lingers for long periods of time. I have seen people instinctively move towards it and I have seen people struggle as they try to avoid it. Sometimes they avoid it with pills prescribed to them, or sometimes by jumping into different relationships. They may avoid it temporarily by drinking, or obsessing about a job or hobby. We have a million ways to attempt to avoid unhappiness. I’m guilty of trying to avoid this feeling myself in a myriad of ways. Usually the things we use to avoid the feeling keep us permanently in it. As I have matured, done my inner work, and embraced some terrible feelings I have seen the fruits of them. Now, there are less and less “off limits” feelings that I don’t allow in.
The fruit of unhappiness (which can be my catch all phrase for complex feelings like grief, guilt/shame, despair, loneliness, discomfort, insecurity) is meaning. Meaning is not a feeling, it’s a sense of purpose in the chaos. It’s a sense that this is happening for a reason, the reason is an inner reason, not an outer reason. The inner reason is the ‘gold’ that comes from the inner work we do. It is not necessarily happening for some outer world benefit, although that can happen too but is not the goal, it’s just the cherry on top. The meaning may not be fully understandable for a long time, or maybe the full meaning will never be seen in this lifetime for you. Sometimes it can only be seen in enough tiny pieces that we know it’s there. Meaning might be the creative expression of something that took years to bring to a place of almost perfection. This can look like the culmination or passing down of wisdom gained from one’s life’s work. Or meaning might be trust in your inner guide. Meaning might be an inner resource gained from the experience that helps you for the rest of your life. Meaning is complex and must be searched out. Meaning is just beyond the temporary pain and resides in the inner gold. The inner gift that would otherwise never have been gained had you not gone through the tough thing.
When I see people search for meaning in the pain, the pain becomes bearable and even dare I say? Sometimes fun… Once we know what’s being produced (or at least what our tiny human brains can comprehend of what’s being produced) from the pain we aren’t afraid of it anymore. It is like going to the gym. Once you know that sore arm or leg means a stronger arm or leg later than you relish the pain. You go to your friend and say “I’m so sore!” with glee instead of fear or dread. When we search for meaning we become less afraid of the tough times because we know they create something inside us that we can use, some resilience or even some enormous gift.
I’ve been seeing this more and more lately in my work. Someone tells me a story of something terrible, but then something good that came from it that they didn’t see. I have to point out the inner meaning, then the thing they went through was less terrible and more meaningful. When we embrace unhappiness instead of trying to outrun it, follow our inner guide, we get to find this meaning. Meaning is so much more nourishing to our souls than mere happiness. It enables us to warmly embrace all of life, to be fully human. We can be present in the mundane, the despair, and the joy. When we understand this we also don’t feel anxious about other people’s unhappiness. We know that if our child or spouse feels unhappy that it is just meaning in the oven, once baked they will enjoy a more mindful and present life.
Yes, I have seen people embrace and lean into unhappiness and their return on investment is well worth the price paid. I read an article once that stated something to the fact that wanting our children to be happy was too much pressure for them. I agree. We should want for ourselves and our children to have a fully human existence. One fraught with pain, struggle, the overcoming of the struggle, building of resilience and self confidence, that eventually leads to following one’s destiny with bravery. Our children shouldn’t rely on us to make this happen for them, we should teach them they are capable of making it happen for themselves. They can embrace the struggle and find meaning from it. Let’s not model striving for a perfect and happy life. Perfect and happy doesn’t exist anyway. It’s a false idea that keeps us distracted from finding the meaning.
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Reno NV Therapist / California Teletherapy