When was the last time you were happy? What does that look like to you? What does it mean? Happiness is such an elusive concept, but it’s something that every person on the planet desires. The pursuit of it is an unalienable right in our Declaration of Independence. Everything that we strive for, everything that we buy or buy into is ultimately for happiness for ourselves and those we love. Success, money, love… all promises to bring us happiness. But what exactly is it? How do we truly obtain it? Is it something that we’re meant to possess?
I’m currently reading an amazing book called First, We Make The Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson. It’s a book about her journey through anxiety, but it’s so insightful and is more about the human condition, in my opinion, than clinical anxiety. She talks a lot about happiness – particularly our perceptions of happiness – and how maybe… just maybe we’ve got it all wrong.
First, she challenges some of the therapy out there that instructs us to “choose happy” as if it were a choice and not a matter of luck, yet “happiness literally derives from the Middle English word hap, meaning chance or good luck (thus ‘happenstance’ or ‘perhaps’).” Wilson states that in our modern times we’ve twisted the meaning of this word such that it’s now “something we just have to work hard to get to the bottom of.” This view, in fact, is making anxiety worse because “the expectations of how happy you should be are so high, you always feel like you are falling short.” She instead points to research that shows that acceptance and commitment therapy and compassion-focused therapy are surpassing cognitive behavioral therapy by encouraging us to lean into all of our feelings – to actually feel each emotion as it comes and avoid repressing the more uncomfortable emotions. Being able to accept all of our emotions sort of clears a path to happiness, “among other different, rich emotions available to us. Happiness is a by-product of the process. Not the (mostly unattainable) end goal.” You’ve heard the quote “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” right? Well, maybe there is something to that cliche.
Secondly, she muses about the human condition – how we’re beings of discontent, and that’s how we’ve gotten this far. “You see, while we’re incomplete and restlessly aware of the very fact that something’s missing, it will keep us forever striving forward,” Wilson states. Theologians have called it “the divine discontent”. I’ve heard it called a “God-shaped vacuum in our souls”. Lucretius the Epicurean said, “It is this discontent that has driven life steadily onward, out to the high seas.” We, as a human race, are continuously striving for completion – for “the Something Else”, as Wilson calls it. It’s why we left the Garden of Eden. It’s why the Vikings sailed in search of new land. It’s why we as a species explored and discovered new lands until there were no new lands to find. It’s why we then turned outward and began exploring the galaxies and the universe. It is why there are over 4,000 religions. It’s why we have technology that allows us to talk to someone across the world on FaceTime. It’s why we’re able to board a plane and then get off 9 hours later on the other side of the ocean. Because of my faith, I believe it’s because of the original sin or Adam and Eve or The Fall – whatever you’d like to call it – but whatever the reason, whatever faith or religion you claim (or don’t), it’s still there. The yearning. The discontent. The striving for more. It’s in our very bones. Happiness is not our “default setting” – which, for me at least, takes a hell of a lot of weight off my shoulders. Not in a nihilistic way, but more of a “hey, maybe it’s normal to not feel happy all of the time” way.
Another thing that Wilson points out about happiness is how closely it is related to gratitude. Research has proven many times over that gratitude is essential to our happiness and mental well-being. It shifts our focus outside of ourselves. Wilson states that our brains only have so much power to focus its attention. It can’t focus on both positive and negative stimuli – not easily, anyway. By focusing on things we are grateful for, our brain is building it’s “happiness muscle” – it stimulates the hypothalamus, which is a part of the brain that regulates anxiety. Gratitude can also override the threat system in our amygdala. Want to be happy? Be grateful.
The final thing she points out about happiness that really stuck with me is some research she referenced that states that those who consider themselves “happy” operate on the belief that it’s more about the frequency than the quality of positive experiences. I feel like this ties back to expectations in that experiences don’t have to be perfect to be positive. If we loosen our grip a little and actively look for lovely (a term coined by Annie Downs, author of Looking for Lovely, which I also recommend), we are more likely to find it, and find it often. Again, the brain is like a muscle. Train it to search for lovely things, train it to be grateful, train it to accept that happiness is more about contentment than elation, train it to acknowledge all emotions, and (paradoxically, maybe) you’ll be more happy.
I’m constantly training my brain to Look for Lovely more often, and I’m going to share one of the tools in my wellness toolbox with you. I have these places called Diamonds in the Rough (I had a thing for Aladdin back in the day) around Albany/Leesburg. These are local places that I will go out of my way to drive past or be near because of the way they make me feel. I know it’s kind of weird, but they send a small jolt of pleasure to my brain, and I feel like I’m part of a book or a painting or a movie when I see them. It works for me.
1. The Little White House
There is a perfect 2 story white house a couple of streets over from my house. It has a black roof and a black awning over the porch and black shutters and a cute chimney. It has large, old trees in the yard with ivy creeping up the sides of them and is currently decorated with Christmas wreaths and ribbons and is so quaint I cannot stand it. It isn’t grand. It’s not a mansion. But it’s perfect. It’s absolutely my favorite home in the area. It looks like a place to raise a family. It looks like a home that has known love. I drive by it almost every day, and it always makes me feel warm. (Sorry if this is your home and this comes off as creepy. I promise I’m respectful and never get out of my car or do anything weird. Except take a photo from the road for my blog. But nothing else weird, promise.)
2. The Tree in the Woods
There is a spot in the woods off of Lover’s Lane that I am obsessed with. For 23 hours of the day, it isn’t anything special. It looks like any patch of woods in south Georgia. But for one hour a day as the sun is setting, during the “golden hour” as photographers call it, the sun shines in this opening in the trees onto this one gnarly tree, and it looks like magic. During this time, this tree stands out among its sisters in a beautiful way. It reminds me of fairy tales and fantasy novels I’ve read where humans are granted access to the faerie realm in a specific location when the sun or the moon hits a specific spot. I feel like God puts the sun in that one spot on that one tree just for me during this time. I try to drive past it during the golden hour as much as I can, but it’s rare that I catch it. I’ve pulled over and parked in front of it a couple of times until the sun has passed that spot and imagined I was in a completely different world where magic exists.
3. The Sheep Pasture
This is a pasture off of Philema across from Fred’s that I drive past every day. I drive by the open pasture in the morning when there is a faint fog settling over the grass and the sheep are grazing and I feel like I’m in Scotland for a moment. When the sun is setting, it’s absolutely gorgeous and seems like another country, whether there are sheep there or not. Next to this open pasture, there are pecan trees that usually have cows hanging out around them. It’s just a cozy view, and it makes me smile whenever I drive by.
4. The Basset House
This is the most hilarious of the 5, and one that I will go absolutely out of my way to drive past. This house on the other end of town has, I believe, 3 basset hounds. I don’t know if they actually live outside or if they are just outside during the day, but they can be found either in the driveway or in the front yard sunbathing. They are usually asleep, and they seem just as happy as can be chilling around their house. There are a lot of days (when the weather is nice and I know they’ll be outside) that I will slowly creep by the house just to look at these bassets and I will have the biggest, goofiest smile on my face. These dogs probably think I’m an idiot. Again, if you live here, sorry if this creeps you out. I just really love your dogs.
5. My Sun Room
This is the final Diamond in the Rough and the most accessible, because it’s in my own house. It’s a sun room that has many, many windows. It is my happy place. We have a hammock in there with 2 papasan chairs, a couch, art, books, and a shit ton of plants. I curate everything that goes in there and won’t let anything in there that isn’t functional or doesn’t make me happy (with the exception of the crap my toddler drags in there. And the sex statues that my husband insists we display, but that’s another topic for another day). It’s perfect on rainy days or days that I need to unplug. It’s perfect for reading and thinking. It’s soothing to my soul. I’ve noticed when the drawstring of anxiety is pulling tight that I can just take some time in my sun room and I’ll feel that I can breathe a little easier when I emerge. It’s a sacred space.
Where are your Diamonds in the Rough? I encourage you to seek them out this week. I urge you to pursue happiness – the content form of happiness, not the unrealistic and unattainable end-game happiness that we are told we should have. Find gratitude. Look for lovely. Enjoy the journey.