What Even Is Happiness?

And if we don’t know, why do we chase it?


Last year was arguably the best year of my life.

That’s not to say this year won’t be — maybe it will, so calm down — but in terms of being able to look back on things with the clarity of not being balls-deep in them in real time, last year, of all the years, was pretty rad.

And I was even pretty sure of it at the time, which is truly fortunate in the grand scheme of things, but I gave it a full calendar year before confirming. And then I also told my partner so.

I said just that. “Last year was the happiest year of my life.”

And, because he’s like this, he asked, “why?”

Of course making me laugh as I answered, half in shock, “you!” And then laughed a bit more before clarifying, “yeah, and trees and work and humidity and road trips and a whole bunch of other things, most of which wouldn’t have even happened if it hadn’t been for you. So sure, they’re worth noting, but mostly you.”

And I guess this answer satisfied him, because he didn’t have any further clarifying questions.

And yet, when I look back, I can see the pangs of fear I’d buried, day to day. The days when I had first moved down here to the south and he was out of town for two weeks straight, before I’d found work and was too immersed in my own journey to find friends, when I rode to the bookstore every. single. day. and sat and read entire books in single sittings. Partly because I was on a budget. But mostly to be out in public. To remind myself I was tethered to other people in some way.

Those moments were framed by fear. And something a little like “loneliness,” albeit not real loneliness — just more like that sad loneliness we get when we realize winter is settling in each fall. Something very still, and a little scary. Something we’re socialized to smooth over with other things. Something we’ll bury regardless, whether we sit in silence or go out.

I had my own business the year before

And was dating a different partner whom I thought, at the time, made me happy enough. The key here is “enough.” I always knew I wasn’t ecstatic, but I thought it was okay for then. Apparently I am woefully bad at knowing what makes me happy, because I aggressively charged forward with the business and the boyfriend, willfully ignored all the signs until I got to the point of watching myself do things entirely unfamiliar to me.

Like the morning I had a panic attack, when I was so unfamiliar with the concept of a panic attack that I didn’t even know that’s what it was until I later described it to a friend and she stared at me in horror and then clarified for me, spoken slowly and in short words, “KG. That’s a panic attack. You had a panic attack.”

This was the same friend that had to explain to me that my relationship was abusive. Which it was. Which is why I had a panic attack.

And yet, during all of this, I thought it was good enough. “Relationships take work,” after all. Businesses, certainly, take sacrifice. We’re terrible at understanding how that should look — and where to draw the line. What’s happiness, and what’s hateful.

“You don’t know how to be happy.”

My boyfriend of five years, the one before the panic-attack one, told me that.

Actually, he didn’t tell me; he told my mom. And then she told me. But when it came to their weird-ass work-around relationship, it was kind of the same thing. They both had a lot of opinions about me, “supported” by “conversations” they’d never had with me and things I’d never said. Not that I’m bitter or anything. Because I’m totally not.

For a long time I thought that assessment was outright unfair at best; wrong at worst. And then for a brief period of time, I thought maybe it was true. Now I’m back to asking:

What is happiness even?

And if we don’t have a good answer to that question, what does it even matter?

Happiness vs. Meaning

And, arguably… “meaning” vs. something further still…

In a 2013 study, Stanford professors recognized that the sole pursuit of happiness leads to “a meaningless life,” and that:

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

Victor Frankl writes that work means more than happiness. And Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, emphasizes the importance of pursuing mastery of something over passive leisure (the latter of which many of us identity as “happiness.”)

We impose happiness on ourselves. And worse, we impose it on others, upholding the phrases “I just want you to be happy” as the pinnacle of love (and the suggestion that “you just don’t know how to be happy” as a tremendous threat.) When they’re not.

But after a while they both felt like the same: being shoved into some adorable little box you had no intention of being in. Conventional, sure, but uncomfortable nonetheless.

Happiness vs… something else?

Or, in the least, happiness redefined?

I’m not even sure life inherently needs to have meaning. We hold that over our own heads, too. And not to go full nihilist on your ass, there are a lot of moments, increasingly, when I’m like “yeah, but where’s the data on that though?” Who decided this whole thing had to have meaning, how is that not just our ego barking in our ear and, perhaps most ironically: how is that expectation not setting us up for the same unhappiness we were trying to avoid.

And if we suspend that assumption — don’t chase happiness; don’t chase meaning — rather than closing life off, it actually opens life up. Because we don’t have everything in a chokehold of expectation, and let things unfold as they are, we exist a lot more lightly — and, perhaps more importantly, with honesty and in alignment with the way things actually are.

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