The Key to Happiness. It’s what we’re all seeking right? That missing link. That missing piece of the puzzle. That one thing that we don’t quite have a grasp on, but if we could find it somewhere we could “be happy” for the rest of our lives.
I looked up “key to happiness,” hoping Google might surely have some answers: learn to let go, accept yourself, be present, eat healthily, love, be grateful, et cetera.
All of those things are important, but I propose to you a very simple truth:
The key to happiness is learning how to be unhappy.
First thing’s first, we have to understand what we mean by “happy.” Happiness is not a blissed-out state where everything is perfect in your life forevermore, so a) what does happiness mean to you and b) does any pursuit of what is meaningful to you or what makes you happy involve struggle? As we’ve discussed before, happiness can’t just mean the absence of struggle, but rather the connectedness we feel to our values and the things/people/activities/paths we find meaningful in life.
There is no perfect. There is no forever calm/contented state, and negative emotions (despite their potentially painful nature) are necessary and useful to us. Inevitably, in the pursuit of meaningful things—growth, change, development, connection—we will experience pain.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. We will experience pain in our lives, no matter what we do, no matter how much money we’re born with, no matter how healthy we are, no matter how many friends we have. Suffering, however—suffering is the resistance to, and active avoidance of, an inevitable pain that makes it so, so, so much worse. Our lives and development are defined by constant growth and change; change (even when it’s for the better) is something different and thus uncomfortable/painful. Think of the best and most amazing things you’ve done in your life. Was there any struggle or pain involved in that process? Even when excitedly moving forward, was there something bittersweet about what you were leaving behind? Under the best of circumstances and doing what we love the most, we still experience uncomfortable emotions as well as amazing ones. If we are unable to tolerate the inevitable distress associated with growth/change and events outside of our control, then we become slaves to our impulse to find comfort and safety which will actually make us very uncomfortable and very unsafe.
Think about spiders. Weird, I know, but trust me and I promise this will lead somewhere.
Think about the range of people having affinity for or aversion to spiders; some people may not even give spiders a second thought, and others may be deathly afraid and experience panic at the mere suggestion of one. The people who accept spiders as a part of life don’t necessarily love them or want them all over their bodies all day. The difference is that they are willing to tolerate spiders as an unavoidable part of life. They know that can control some things to help limit spiders in their home (close windows, clean cobwebs, check for holes/cracks), but they can’t always guarantee that all of those measures work or that when they leave their homes and enter into the larger world outside their control that they won’t run into spiders there. So if they happen to see a spider, they don’t like it, it’s not their favorite thing, but they can tolerate the situation and figure out their best course of action forward. Meanwhile, the person who is basically phobic of spiders will spend a lot of time thinking about spiders, startled because they thought they saw one out of the corner of their eye, terrified because a friend invited them on a trip to Hawaii where they heard spiders were as big as your hand (it’s true!) so they turned that great opportunity down.
Depending on the severity of the phobia, this person might go to great lengths to set up life in such a way as to avoid any and all contact with spiders, becoming obsessed with avoidance. They put all of this work into arranging things so they don’t have to be uncomfortable in the presence of spiders, but they end up just being very uncomfortable with the constant work to avoid said spiders. Ultimately they don’t control all aspects of the universe, and one day they will have to deal with a spider. They create all of this distress trying to make sure they don’t experience distress.
Now compare negative emotions to spiders. They can be scary. They can cause pain. They feel outside your control. They can show up in unexpected places, and they aren’t exactly what you plan on. That being said, they are also inevitable, completely necessary to the functioning of a larger system, and—most importantly—are temporary. If I go through life terrified of being hurt in a relationship so then I avoid relationships, I am not avoiding pain, just trading in for a different kind. I am trading in the pain of relationships for the pain of isolation. If I am petrified of “failure” so I never try anything new or put myself in challenging situations I am trading in the pain of making a mistake for the pain of never having tried or feeling stagnant, watching everyone else move forward while I feel paralyzed and stuck. There is distress either way, but one path is in service of my values, goals, and meaningful pursuits, while the other path is only in service of avoidance that eventually causes more pain and only takes me farther from the things that matter to me.
I’m not saying pain is out there so let’s all go run after and give up on protecting ourselves. Acknowledging that pain as an unavoidable part of life doesn’t mean I’m resigning myself to a life of pain, it means I recognize it as a part, a temporary and necessary part, of a larger system. I can still try to minimize and limit my exposure to this uncomfortable thing, but inevitably that uncomfortable feeling will present itself, and if I can tolerate (not enjoy, not like, not agree with) that discomfort in the moment then I open myself up to pursuing the things that I value and the things that are meaningful. If I’ve convinced myself that the pain would be too much to bear and the prospect is just too scary, then I will arrange my life and take action from a place of fear as opposed to a place of value or meaning, so double-whammy, I will not feel connected to anything meaningful and I will be in pain anyway!
I need to be able to recognize that the uncomfortable emotion is simply an inevitable part of something bigger. It is appropriate. It is understandable given the context within which it is being experienced. Moreover, it is temporary. If I can learn how to sit with—not run away from, not avoid—sit with, work through, tolerate, distract, hope, connect, grieve, write, breathe, cry, or whatever else I need to do in the face of an uncomfortable negative emotion, then it stops having all the power in the world over me, and I am free to more openly and explicitly pursue the things that actually matter—and that is what makes us happy.