Last summer I spent four hours one afternoon, sitting in a faux colonial coffee shop with one of my best friends. She asked me, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?” The question sent my brain into a frenzy and I felt a bajillion things pop up simultaneously, from the most recent memories to my long term goals, weighing them on an invisible scale. Then I said, “Which aspect are you asking about?” She looked at me knowingly, because we’re both INFJs on the Meyer’s Briggs test which, in normal people’s understanding means we’re both over-thinkers. Subconsciously, I always have a handful of categories I divide my life into: family, friends, work, relationships, my learning curve, health…and the list goes on. Every now and again, I assess those categories in ways not unlike a number scale to see where I’m at. Only when all or almost all of them are at high levels do I consider myself “happy.” But because of this insane standard, I rarely ever consider myself completely happy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t do this to myself on purpose. This happens at the back of my mind on its own, with its own secretary and everything. I’ve wished so many times this wasn’t the case so I could just feel happy without first consulting this list and double checking that the numbers add up. Even during moments when people should be happy in the most traditional sense—birthdays, theme parks, romantic dinners—I’d often find myself literally thinking, “Am I happy?” “Am I having fun?” Which, you know, immediately kills any semblance of a buzz I might have been having. There’s simply no winning with me.
The only time I think I came close in recent years was last summer when I got an amazing internship, I had just moved to New York City for the first time and got incredibly lucky with a gorgeous apartment and a roommate I am still good friends with till this day. I liked my job, I loved the city, my boyfriend visited regularly. My numbers were finally at some decent levels. I was happy. But as soon as that happened, in my characteristically masochistic manner, I then immediately felt terrified. No one is ever allowed to be this content with all aspects of their lives. In the wise words of Charlotte York from Sex and the City, “Nobody gets everything they want.” Being happy meant there was so much at stake, that there was so much I could therefore lose, and when that happens I would have to wait until the next rare moment, almost as rare as those meteors that fly near the earth every once in a hundred years, for all my “levels” to be “on par.” I was being utterly ridiculous.
I recently read an article in The Atlantic citing renowned Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. He said, “It is the pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” The article goes on to explicate the difference between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of meaning, the former requiring selfishness in order to maintain a satisfactory level for oneself but in turn is rendered less satisfied than someone who pursues meaning. The latter is often an act of selflessness, and the article uses parenting as an example. Parents are often not very happy creatures, yet their existence is meaningful because they must provide for another. But alas, even when these people were feeling bad, they feel more satisfied than those who lacked meaning. To once again quote Frankl, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
I’m always at my most stressed when there’s something in my relationship with my mom that needs to be fixed, or when I have plans to apply to a bunch of jobs but all I do is just sit here. But when I finally have the chance to start doing something, start solving the problem, start learning, I feel…well, not happy, but a hundred times better. THEN, weeks, months, years from then, when I look back at myself trying so hard at whatever it was I was doing, THEN I feel…no, not happy, nostalgic; but I am happier in general for having gone through it.
Tolstoy once said that the happiest moments of our lives are the ones we’ll never remember. That’s because we were so absorbed in the moment, so utterly happy, that we literally didn’t have any faculty left to record it with our minds. I like that. I’d like to think that I’ve had a bajillion times that I was happy, but my overly calculative brain was just too busy to jot it down because maybe it was just too busy finding meaning.