DEAR KRISTIN: 2022 was an absolute bear. Lots of loss. Lots of pain. I know it might sound a bit strange to write to an advice columnist without seeking specific advice, but I guess it speaks to the kind of dilemma I’m facing. I don’t need advice for one specific problem. I’m looking for guidance on how to find happiness in the most expansive sense. I’m tired of being sad. Stepping into 2023, my No. 1 goal is to find happiness. Can you suggest a roadmap to help get me there? Sincerely -- WEARY
DEAR WEARY: The roadmap I will offer you is the one you already have: It’s the roadmap where you live your life one moment at a time. It’s the roadmap where you move in one direction at a time. It’s the roadmap where you stand at the solid center of each and every emotion you experience -- even if that emotion is raw, raggedy, and razor-sharp -- and you embrace that doggone thing with the authenticity and fervor it deserves.
I feel your pain, Beloved. I feel your sense of loss and weariness. But I also hope you can feel what I’m offering you: In addition to my empathy, I’m offering you my love. My support. My warm embrace. Let these things lift you up and settle you down.
My goal in writing this new advice column, in fact, is to have my words wrap themselves around your shoulders like a comfortable cloak, and to extend a comforting hand of gentle guidance and grace. (Hence the name of the column, “Take my Hand.”)
That’s what I’m asking you to do right now. I’m asking you to take my outstretched hand and let’s see where we can go together. I don’t want to push you towards a ready-made solution or prod you towards a prescriptive edict: I just want you to take my hand so you can step into this New Year vitally aware that all you have living inside of you -- the inner wisdom and the emotional clarity -- is all you’ll really need. It just needs to be awakened and activated.
So take my hand, sweet sister, and indulge me for a moment while I share some of my own ideas about this headlong rush towards happiness.
I’ll start with a question: Why do we create such a hoopla about happiness?
While I love happiness as much as the next happy-hungry human, I believe that the emotion itself is drastically overrated ... or perhaps I should say that its constant pursuit has become something of an albatross around our collective necks.
Let me speak from the depths of my own human understanding: As I live each day of my life, I try to embrace every single emotion I experience in its own, full-throated authenticity -- even the ugly stuff.
Happiness -- as tantalizing and as toe-tingling as it is -- is but one emotion in a veritable sea of emotions. Sadness is another emotion. Heart-stopping fear, white-hot anger, foot-stomping disgust, all of these emotions (and so many more) comprise the ocean of emotions we experience as we live our lives. Each emotion has its own reason for being, and I try to give each one its own space ... within reason.
If I’m feeling a moment of anger, for instance, then doggone it, I’m gonna feel that anger for all it’s worth -- but then I must decide what to do with it. The choice belongs to me. Do I let it linger? Or do I push it back out into the deep water where it belongs? This choice is always mine: I can feel my anger, but I will not feed it. Feeding it gives it more power and permanence than it deserves.
Let’s also look at how you’ve worded things: You say, “My No. 1 goal in 2023 is to find happiness.”
Be careful with this.
Consider a bit more expansive an approach: If your only goal in 2023 is to find happiness, does this mean that when you are experiencing the fullness of all of your other emotions, you are falling short of your goal? Try not to fall into that trap. It’s a dangerous one.
I’m not saying that happiness isn’t important and that it shouldn’t be sought: It is and it should. But if you make the pursuit of happiness (or even happiness itself) your only goal, you are giving short shrift to your other emotions. Why not try letting each one of your emotions breathe and stretch out for a bit? Then when you’re done feeling them, serve them their eviction papers. Tell them to get to stepping. Kick them off your front porch.
This is not always easy to do with emotions, especially the darker, denser emotions. Lord knows I know.
Grief is a good example. Grief can get downright greedy if you let it, as can sadness, its close cousin. Both of these emotions -- sadness and grief -- can slip in and overstay their welcome. They’ll ring your doorbell, head straight up to the guest room, pull out the sofa bed, and settle in for the long haul unless you’re careful. They’ll hunker down in your heart and stay there for as long as you leave out the welcome mat. They’re sneaky and pervasive like that. Develop an exit plan for them before they get too comfortable.
I need to be careful here. I’m not saying we can just suddenly stop being sad by mere virtue of our decision to stop feeling sad. It ain’t that easy. Depression, for instance, is a clinical state that must be treated by a professional; it does not move out simply because you tell it to move out.
But what I am saying is that once I’ve decided that I’m in too deep and the waves have become too high, I must remind myself that I can reach for a life preserver. I do not need to experience my heavier emotions alone.
I can double up on my therapist visits, for instance, or sit down with a trusted friend, or seek solace and guidance from my pastor. We each have our own flotation devices -- and the fact that they exist at all is a wonderful reminder that we are not alone. None of us are alone. Neither are you.
Though you didn’t ask, I’m going to share this with you anyway because it has to do with the subject of goal-setting in the New Year -- specifically, with how I set my own:
As I step into 2023, my intention is not necessarily to be happy in every moment, but to be fully present in every moment. If happiness happens to arrive, amen and hallelujah. But if sadness or pain arrive, I’ll respect their presence as well, simply because I am human and this is what humans do: We experience emotions. This intention to be fully present in each and every emotion is not so much a goal as it a mindset; it is a way of being and breathing and cherishing and choosing.
From this place of open acceptance, my sense of contentment and connectivity grow even deeper. When I stand in full awareness of my emotions, a sense of enduring joy unfolds.
This is the stuff that sticks. This is the stuff that is sustainable; this is the stuff that flows through me constantly, like a river -- even when I am sad or lonely or confused. Unlike this emotion we call happiness, my contentment is not situational.
So as you open up your wide, beautiful umbrella of emotions in 2023, consider letting happiness be but one spoke under that umbrella. Heck, it can even be the strong, sturdy umbrella handle if you want it to be. Just don’t let your pursuit of happiness take up all of your space and energy.
Let awareness and acceptance be the river that runs through you.