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Special or Happy?

Years ago, when I was seeking a divorce, my lawyer asked me one day in the middle of my frustration and fear regarding custody of my boys if I wanted to be right or I wanted to be free.

It was one of the best questions anyone had ever asked me, and I didn’t have to think about my answer.

“Free,” I said. In that moment, I gave up on my rather naïve ideas about justice and cooperation in the process of divorce. I stopped worrying about being right. I understood no one but me was interested in the best situation for the kids. I fought for as much freedom as I could get, not for myself, but for them.

The memory came vividly back to me when I read this article by Arthur Brooks from Big Think. The author describes an interaction with a successful but unhappy financier, who remarks she would rather be special than happy. Her definition of special has to do with professional success. Ordinary people, she says, can be happy. She wants to be more special than that.

Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash

I thought about that choice, and I wonder, are special or happy the only two choices? Is there some rule stating one can’t be special and happy?

Why do we believe we have to give up something to be happy?

I’ve written a series of posts about happiness, inspired by the work of Martin Seligman, PhD. I went back and reread those posts.

Can ordinary people be happy but extraordinary people can’t?

Are ordinary people happy?

Is ordinariness shameful? Is happiness a goal only for those who can’t be special in any way, a kind of booby prize?

I don’t believe happiness has anything to do with being ordinary, extraordinary (as defined by whom?) or somewhere in between. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I wonder if we’re losing our ability to distinguish between temporarily satisfying our addictions, expectations, and compulsions while numbing our pain and fear, and feeling true, enduring happiness.

Happiness, after all, is a state of being rather than a state of doing. To some degree we must allow it – give it time, space, and a safe place to exist. It’s not something to pursue or try to create. It’s already within us, somewhere.

(This creation of space, by the way, is a pillar of minimalism. If everything is important, nothing is. One discards until what’s truly important is revealed.)

I jotted down this statement: I’d rather be dutiful, loyal, responsible, a good parent/partner/daughter/sister, rich, powerful, in control, right or successful, than happy. I didn’t think hard about it. I have chosen everything on that list at one time or another in my life. I haven’t chosen happiness or seen it as a choice, and I’ve been unconscious of my belief that happiness can’t coexist with my standards of integrity.

Happiness just doesn’t seem like a worthy goal to me. It’s not culturally sanctioned. Ambition, power, wealth – those are worthy goals. Those are things that matter. Obviously (so obvious it goes without saying directly), those are the roads to happiness. One can be happy, but it must be earned, and happiness is not the goal, just a nice bonus. The real goal is productivity. The shadow side of productivity is consumption.

But productivity is a moving goalpost, and it doesn’t make us happy.

It occurs to me we talk about happiness or unhappiness as a blanket state of being, but it’s really more like Swiss cheese. I feel chronically unhappy about some aspects of my life, and chronically angry about others. Yet every day I also feel periods of happiness when I allow it and take the time to be present in the moment.

When I allow myself to play in the garden, I feel happy.

When I allow myself to settle down with a good book, I feel happy.

When I allow myself to be creative, I feel happy.

When I allow myself to be who I am, I feel happy.

Gardening, reading, being creative, and living authentically take time, intention, discipline, and energy. Discipline. Can you believe it? It takes discipline to remember I’m not a human doing, but a human being. My intrinsic worth as a being isn’t tied to productivity or consumption. The treadmill of productivity is easy. Stepping off and relaxing takes discipline. And that’s not only me.

The nature of addiction (physical and mental dependence) in any form is that it gradually pushes everything else out of our lives. Our addiction consumes our time, energy and money. Anything not in service to the addiction is discarded, including relationships, health, free time, quiet time, and creativity. Our addiction becomes our primary relationship and those around us quickly learn we’re not available for anyone or anything else.

Workaholism and perfectionism are addictions, along with productivity, toxic positivity, substance abuse, eating disorders, over-exercising, and sex addictions.

Happiness is power. That which takes us away from our happiness is disempowering.

Why do we live in, perpetuate, and enable a culture that relentlessly and brutally disconnects us from happiness?

That’s easy. Our individual happiness does not benefit capitalism, because happiness can’t be bought or sold. Capitalism benefits from an unhappy population brainwashed into believing productivity and consumption will make us happy. Who benefits from violence, division, hatred, manipulating our fear, restriction of choice, and disconnecting us from the simple pleasure of happiness?

Those currently in power and determined to stay that way, both governmental and corporate.

Who allows and enables that power-over stranglehold?

We do.

But we could change our minds.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash