How To Be Happy (Also “Why” …If You Need That)

The other day I was on the phone with a client, and was going over next steps for their branding project. I finished with the words, “…and then we’ll move into your website, which is the most exciting part!”

The client responded teasingly, “Susie, is anything NOT the most exciting part for you? It seems like everything is your favorite thing.”

I had to give that some genuine thought. On the one hand, I guess it’s worth evaluating my sincerity – am I creating false enthusiasm, here? After all, this project will represent an awful lot of work for both of us. But on the other hand, dag nabbit, it really is exciting! I shrugged him off and said, “You’re onto me – everything is my favorite thing. It’s just a good way to live life.”

And it’s true: I believe that the most fulfilling lives are those lived in a state of perpetual marvel.

This isn’t exactly the first time my incessant optimism has been pointed out to me, though – and not always in such a nice / teasing way. In fact, overall I think happy people (ironically) get a bad wrap, for a couple of reasons.

For starters, take it from me: trying to find the positivity in everything can really gnaw at the people closest to you. (As my dad once asked my mom in exasperation, “Will you please stop trying to put a silver lining around my black cloud?”) I think some people wear their unhappiness as a badge of honor, as a proof of their human legitimacy… so being told to look on the bright side offends their sense of self.

Secondly, it doesn’t help that having a cheery outlook on the world tends to be associated with naivete (see: just about any role Ellie Kemper has ever played). I was once in a book club with a bunch of women a generation or two ahead of me – and when I always liked all the books they hated, they said, “Wait until you have some more life experience under your belt.” As if cynicism and negativity were somehow synonymous with maturity? Because, I suppose, if ignorance is bliss then bliss must also mean ignorance???

Along that same vein, I think there’s also an implication that overly happy people lack the emotional fortitude to deal with disappointment or frustration. That their contentment, in all its pristine glory, must also bear an inky ‘FRAGILE’ stamp: Like a sweet little puppy, this person’s psyche must be frail, weak, in need of protection.

If you’re a subscriber to this particular belief system, buster, have I got news for you:

You could not be more wrong.

I emphatically reject the notion that happiness is (a) a sign of ignorance, or (b) a sign of weakness, if only by virtue of the simple fact that – write this down – HAPPINESS IS HARD. It takes conscious energy and relentless attention. Happy people aren’t puppies, they’re goddamn warriors.

As humans, our natural propensity is toward unhappiness… we are psychologically predisposed to be doubtful, judgmental, and combative. So people who are able to overcome those powerful evolutionary inclinations, and lead a life that’s driven more strongly by curiosity than fear? Those people should be revered; we should have holidays in their honor.

Lest I sound too self-absorbed, here, please note that I don’t even consider myself a member of this admirable crew. Despite my efforts, I don’t exactly pretend to be immune to unhappiness. I’ve waded through pools of depression so thick you could pour it over pancakes.

(It’s probably worth noting that depression, by definition, is something different than what I’m ultimately describing here – one’s a mood, the other’s a disease.)

Nevertheless, I am a firm believer that we are the architects of our own happiness – and I am in active pursuit of that happiness whenever possible. As humans, we need to learn to appreciate the value of our own joy – and seek it out, tirelessly, forever. If we don’t, we risk falling into the pit of absolute, crushing despair that is sometimes referred to as life.

As the poet Jack Gilbert writes, “we must risk delight.” In fact, we must be downright stubborn in our gladness – to fortify against “the ruthless furnace of this world.”

Let me give you an example: Not one but three family friends died this year. Two belonged to the same family – mother and son, and as present in my childhood as Mickey Mouse. The same day that I found out about the most recent of these deaths, we lost a client at work… and I also got into an unrelated but brutal fight with someone very close to me. To top it all off, I contracted the worst flu I’d ever encountered – rendering me completely bedridden for days.

Consider all the negative conclusions I could’ve drawn about that week, had I been in the mood to ruin my life: I could’ve assumed the universe was mocking me, while bestowing love and blessings upon everyone else. I could’ve said, “I am fortune’s fool while they are fortune’s darlings, and such is the eternal injustice and tragedy of my cursed existence.” I could’ve turned inward, finding that quiet but all-too-intoxicating indulgence that sometimes accompanies sadness. I could’ve luxuriated in the exquisite victimhood of it all.

To be fair, I did do that – for a little while. I’m human, after all. But it wasn’t long before I figured out how absurdly unproductive it was.

I know how this must sound to people who are currently unhappy. I do. In fact, it’s taken me a few weeks to even write this post because I’ve been going through bouts of unhappiness myself.

Re-reading it in that state of mind reminds me vaguely of having asthma attacks as a kid, when well-meaning adults thought it might help if they just demonstrated how to breathe correctly. “Like this, see? Do this with me.” I would watch them take deep, luxurious lungfuls while I wheezed pitifully, clutching my chest… thinking, Are you TRYING to taunt me?

I imagine the same to be true when a happy person gives a sad person advice. “All you have to do is look on the bright side! It’s so easy, see?”

But that’s the thing: I’m not saying it’s easy. It is decidedly NOT easy. It’s actually really, really, unbelievably, unequivocally hard. You might not even accomplish it. Or maybe you will, but it’ll take a lot of time.

But given the option, wouldn’t you kind-of… rather be happy? If it was in your control?

And if you could somehow know, with absolute conviction, that it was within your control, wouldn’t you do something about it?

So what are you waiting for?