Do you enjoy your job? How are things going with your spouse? Are you earning enough money? Have you lost weight recently?
No matter what answer we give to what I call the “wedding questions”; the questions you inevitably get asked when people you don’t know very well pretend to care about your life, the response you’ll get after stumbling through some awkward answer is always the same.
“The most important thing is that you’re happy.”
Somehow it seems, if I am happy then everything is ok. But what is happiness? How do you define such a concept? Is happiness something that we control that we can choose for ourselves or something we have no control over? What if I hate my job, I don’t even recognize my spouse after years of fighting and bitterness, I am underpaid and fat? What then? Have I lost my ability to be happy?
I suppose it depends on what we believe. If we believe that happiness is the collusion of a series of uncontrollable factors to fit into an imaginary mold we have created, than if I am underpaid, fat, divorced and hate my job I cannot be happy. And that is ok if we let it be at that, but then we ask one of the most insidious questions we can ask. Don’t I deserve to be happy?
This question has many assumptions, why do we feel we are owed happiness? In what contract, constitution or code is there written that we are owed happiness? But I am a good person, don’t I deserve to be happy? Firstly I have never met anyone who does not believe they are a good person. Even criminals who have robbed their own mothers have told me in the most convincing manner that deep down they are good persons. Believing you are a good person and being a good person are not entirely the same thing. Secondly how does our being good give us the intrinsic right to be healthy, to have a great job or to benefit from the love of a psychologically healthy family?
Nothing guarantees us the right to be happy. And yet on an unconscious level we believe we are owed happiness, and that is why we are unhappy. We measure our life with this ephemeral, subjective and fleeting feeling, and consequently set a goal which is impossible to achieve or at least to maintain. How can we, really and truly expect that in an imperfect and transient world like ours, all the uncontrollable factors in our life line up to conform to the images we have conjured in our heads? Isn’t this the premise to setting ourselves up for a life of continuous disappointment?
Then perhaps being happy is not the most important thing. Maybe happiness is a nice feeling which we should enjoy while we have it but be serene if we don’t. Maybe meaningfulness in pain and suffering, and service, the bettering of other’s lives even at great cost to ourselves are better measures of a life well-lived. Certainly, contrary to happiness they are much more achievable and sustainable states of being and while meaningfulness and service have led to many a soul on paths of growth and depth, few have undertaken these painful journeys while “happy”.
Maybe at my next wedding, I should ask people how happy has their beloved happiness actually made them, or perhaps I should smile and take another sip of my double whiskey.