Books, Just Write, Mental Health, What I'm Reading Wednesday

Happiness isn’t the goal.

“Happy” ≠ “healthy”. They are not synonyms. But I think we act like they are.

I’ve been trying to use my lunch break to enjoy some reading and recently just finished a book called “Why Emotions Matter”. The middle section of the book spends six chapters looking at each of the six most basic emotions we all experience. Each chapter focuses in on the value of one emotion, where we see it talked about in scripture, when that emotion can become an problem, and how to navigate each emotion with wisdom. While looking at these things in regards to shame or fear or sadness was helpful, when I got to “happiness” I started to realize how little I actually know about how emotions work.

We go through a day or a week and someone asks us “How are you?”. Generally speaking, if the primary emotion we’ve been experiencing lately is something along the lines of happiness, we respond that we are good. However, if any other emotion has raised to the top, our response indicates that we are not good. (Well, at least if we’re not just acting “fine” even if we’re not… but that’s an entirely different blog post.)

We chase happiness as the ultimate defining factor of life being “good” or even “healthy”. In reality, happiness is just another emotion that CAN indicate things are going well in our lives, but happiness can go wrong too. Each emotion has its place where it adds value to our lives AND has potential to become a problem in our lives. I think I see this easier in emotions like anger or fear or sadness, but I’ve never considered this with happiness.

The authors of the book described well the main challenge happiness can bring:

“Happiness is wonderful, but it’s also tricky. We want happiness to last, to be the default, all-the-time feeling in our bodies, even though that simply isn’t possible. It’s not how we’re made. Yet like addicts we chase the high, never permanently satisfied. We’re also pretty terrible at knowing what makes us happy. Again and again we fall into advertising traps or cultural narratives that tell us stories about what will make us happy, yet every time we end up hungry for more.”

Later on it in the chapter they remind the readers that happiness is just one of many emotions, one “voice in our body’s communication system” and that “all of our emotions matter”.

Suddenly it all made sense. Happiness doesn’t automatically mean “good” and something like shame or sadness or fear or even jealousy aren’t inherently “bad”. I can be sad and yet deal with that in a healthy way while wrongly chasing happiness as the ultimate goal.

I saw this play out in my life over the last few weeks. January into February really provided space to find some healthy rhythms for my life. In addition to physical health, I was finding an emotional and mental health better than I had experienced in years. So I got a little frustrated when that seemed to all suddenly change a few weekends ago.

Grief has a way of sneaking up on you and suddenly my generally happy day-to-day life was overwhelmed by sadness for a while. As the one year anniversary of a certain event approached, I began to grieve so many things, loss of dreams, loss or changes in relationships, a desire for some areas of my life to be different. As God would have it, I happened to be reading this chapter on happiness RIGHT in the middle of that time. What a helpful reminder that just because “happy” wasn’t my primary emotion didn’t mean my whole life was suddenly bad or unhealthy.

While that weekend brought grief and sadness and opportunities for perfectionism to take my heart captive, looking back I actually responded in good, healthy ways.

I processed my grief and sadness instead of ignoring it, letting it show me where some healing is still needed in my life.
I celebrated the realization that perfection no longer has the same hold on me that it once did.
I rested when my body signaled its need for that.
I did some work to figure out why fear was popping up in my life more than it was actually helpful.
I reached out to friends and chose not to be alone even when I felt alone.
I enjoyed the few happy moments that did come along even if they were shorter or less prevalent than they’ve been in recent days.

While many of those emotions are less enjoyable than happiness, life was (and is) still really good. One challenging aspect in all of this is that after my thyroid surgery and in the 18 month process of finding the right amount of medicine my body needed, often my emotions or experiences did indicate something was really unhealthy and out of balance in my life. Sadness could so quickly lead to depression. Increasing fear often indicated that worry that anxiety was around the corner once again. Fatigue or muscle pain could be a signal that I had too much or too little medicine. These hyper-sensitive signals trained my brain to think any time some of these things popped up it was bad… because for an extended period of time that was true.

I’m thankful for a season now of re-training my brain… of enjoying a happy moment without fear of when it may end… of letting shame draw me into exploration of where my identity feels threatened… of sitting in my sadness realizing some things in this sin-stained life are just hard and worth grieving… of truly celebrating victories and growth and health in grace without over-focusing on areas I still need to grow.

All of this and more is helping me re-define the true, abundant life that Jesus promised in John 10:10, not necessarily a life filled with only happiness, but rather a life of health and joy and peace despite what hard things may be happening around us or difficult feelings rising up in us.

happy

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