“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” — Viktor E. Frankl
I try to visit the Ritter Park rose garden at least once per month. I love observing the various transformations of these bushes through each season. I enjoy noticing how their blossoms alter and progress through the seasons, and I even relish their stark, cut-back, bloomless appearance in winter. Throughout a large portion of the year, most bushes are not picture-perfect, but that doesn’t take away from the positives each visit offers me.
I have regard not only for the miraculous seasonal changes provided by Mother Nature, but also an admiration and acknowledgement of its caregivers. I have often encountered these tireless keepers of the garden tending to the the plants in all seasons.
“It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important…You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.” — Emily Esfahani Smith
I was reminded of the talented rose gardeners while listening to a podcast while jogging through Ritter Park recently. The interviewee held the basic belief that happiness is an elusive and ephemeral feeling that is not sustainable for long periods of time. This self-proclaimed expert maintained that shame and feelings of “less than” are associated with not feeling happy all of the time, but living a meaningful life is far more satisfying and sustainable than buying into the belief that one should always be happy.
I turned off the podcast and let my mind search for greater understanding as my feet continued their thump, thud, thump along the crushed gravel of the Ritter Park path.
I recalled that at one point there was a brief spike in marketing purpose-driven books and other media content, but many of these outlets pitch the “if you do this, then you can lead a happy life” mantra. This philosophy focuses heavily on receiving and acquiring for the purpose of gratifying personal needs/wants rather than giving to or focusing on the needs of others.
The podcast had a point: There are hard times in life. You, or a loved one, will get sick. You might lose your job. This may require learning to live in a new way, perhaps even in a new geographical location. Income may be lost, gained, and even lost again. Accidents will happen. Loved ones will die. I am told that even pandemics can occur!
None of us can always be happy. In the words of the band R.E.M., “Everybody hurts, sometimes.”
Reflecting over the past few years, I realized the level of uncertainty, fear, and sadness many of us have experienced due to COVID-19. However, as I mulled over the podcast interview, I realized that at some point this past year, something changed within me. In spite of experiencing some fairly significant discomfort due to changes and losses, I find myself once more satisfied with my work during this, my 35th year in education.
If you had asked me last year, or even the year before, if I was content with my work, I would have told you that I was ready to quit, ready to walk away from it all, and look for a new path.
“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” — Carl Jung
However, this year, in spite of facing numerous challenges, my continued role as a teacher once again seems fulfilling. What has been the difference?
The podcast thesis hit the nail on the head: it’s the meaning I derive once more from my work, which had been greatly reduced throughout the virtual experience. This school year, I can once again witness firsthand the difference my job makes, especially when a student’s face lights with the joy of newfound knowledge or greater understanding.
While not every day is filled with those illuminating moments, and I am certainly not happy in every moment, I know what I do benefits the students — that is the difference.
Not everyone can have a career from which they derive great meaning, but there are other opportunities. From parenting to volunteering to personal pursuits, there are many ways we can create more meaningful living — even if you aren’t “happy” every moment. Consider parenting, for example. Most parents, if they are honest, will confess to not always being happy. However, most will say parenting provides meaning to their life.
“As much as we might wish, none of us will be able to go through life without some kind of suffering. That’s why it’s crucial for us to learn to suffer well.” — Emily Esfahani Smith
Part of our unique human experience is undergoing a wide range of emotions, so why should we believe we are “less than” because we are not, per se, happy? Perhaps if we put greater emphasis on the development of fortitude, perseverance, and stamina — which are especially important skills during challenging times --we might not feel like a “failure” when we are experiencing negative emotions.
Suffering is part of life. While not all suffering is the same, the fact that suffering temporarily robs one of happiness does not equate with a less-meaningful life. Rather than constantly searching for sources of happiness, we might all better benefit from participating in more meaningful activities, especially those that focus on contributing to others. Then, when the trials come, you can reflect back to those meaningful moments and know that once you get through this tough time, you can live with purpose once more.
We cannot always be happy, but we can have a life filled with moments that matter and make a difference.