It started as a part-time job.
My Mom handed out food samples during the week for minimum wage. Working at a large, suburban grocery chain was supposed to be temporary just to help out, but pretty soon she had an offer to join the deli department. With three children to help support, this humble beginning turned into a 30-year-stay of grueling physical and surprisingly emotional work.
In her first 20 years, she had ripped open so many boxes she needed surgery on her fingers. At 5am on any given day, she might be waiting at the store to unload and unpack all your suburban household favorites. She regularly works on Thanksgiving and Christmas because they pay time and a half. And she still found time to make every soccer game, every band concert, every parent-teacher conference.
Like her father before her, she reminds me there is no substitute for hard work.
My Mom is the single greatest reason I am who I am and where I am. (Thanks, Mom.)
But this is not a new story. This is the MO of her generation: anything and everything in the name of family & opportunity.
RAISED TO BE HAPPY
I’m lucky to have such a great role model. Like many Millennials, my parents worked hard so my life would be better than theirs. So I could be a chooser, follow passions instead of paychecks, and ultimately so I could be happy. Having parents who work tirelessly so that I could want more and raising me so that I would want more is a privilege few have, and it’s not lost on me.
Work hard and follow yours dreams, they said. You’ll be happy, they said. A friend noted we’re the first generation to be given this advice, but like many I simply inherited my definition of happiness.
From kindergarten to college, it meant playing soccer. It meant writing bad poetry and thinking it was really good. It was learning to play music. Eating processed sugary foods when I wasn’t supposed to. Driving at night. Video games. Falling in and out and in and out of love. Later it meant finding a job, taking long, exotic trips, and deep conversations with new friends.
But eventually we turn the page in the life instruction manual we inherit, and it’s blank. So we panic.
SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING
Our generation has follow your dreams tattooed on our backs. So I’m told.
But before we can follow our dreams we need to discover what they are. All while trying to be happy. And if we aren’t happy, we think we’re losing.
While searching we’re bombarded with self-help bestsellers and clickbait promises on being happier. We listen to the bloggers, quit our somebody-else’s dream-jobs, and circle the globe for a year searching for something we still can’t define. We draft bucket lists focused on experiences, checking off items like “travel to Iceland,” “find a job with my passion,” “see Hamilton,” “meditate every day,” and “plan a destination wedding.” We snap and share and hope appearing happy to our followers actually makes us happier, ignoring the fact that our outer circles aren’t really following us and our inner circles contain fewer people than we think.
Why do I feel guilty for not being happy?
Happiness is not sustainable because it’s a transient feeling, not a state of being. You can’t capture life in rapture. But I know my parents worked hard, and it feels as though I’m not fulfilling my duties as their child. So I react with rapid, unsuccessful attempts to find happiness.
Find relief. Surround each day with landscapes found on foreign postcards. Jump out of a plane with a stranger on your back. Secretly write your last Will and Testament to be safe. Maybe just visit Yosemite next time.
Chase a dream you found online. Write a list of things you want to accomplish. Accomplish all of them in a year and question whether you’re ambitious enough. Binge Netflix for 16 hours straight.
Take a Tahoe trip. Take the scenic route. Take a photo so it lasts longer.
Forget the photo. Try different blends and varietals and strains. Mix everything with hard-to-pronounce cheeses and meals requiring fresh cutlery with each plate. Tip well but not gratuitously.
Briefly chase greed but realize it’ll always outrun you. Read more.
Rediscover that photo 7 years later with Timehop. It’s digital but it still fades. Come to terms with whatever happiness you thought you had in the photo. Remember the dream you had last week where you were in a planetarium with your second grade class and a stranger told you happiness is like a meteor shower: “If you aren’t looking for it, you’ll miss it.” Wake up in drenched clothing.
Buy a cheap, analog watch to stop looking at your phone all the time. Listen for its precise ticks to remind yourself you’re running out of time. Become annoyed every time you hear it ticking when you didn’t want to hear it ticking. Buy noise-cancelling headphones. Use your phone to check the time.
Get a therapist. Sort out your problems with them. Start taking their advice. Take an improv class. Teach your friends the lessons. YES AND everything except your darkest thoughts. Fire your therapist. They’re not goal-oriented enough for you anyway.
View vanity’s dating profile but swipe left. Read more.
Every headline and its subtext says the same thing. Get happy. Be happy. Do happy. Share it and filter it. See? Happy. If nobody likes it do it anyway stop giving a fuck you’re trying to be happy.
Dream you’re back in the planetarium. I know, dude, happiness is a meteor shower. I’ve heard this one before. Watch the stars spread across the sky in time-lapse while that stranger whispers over the announcer about happiness again: “If you’re lucky enough to catch it, it probably already burned up.”
Form a #squad with envy but ghost them before you get too close. Read more, but physical books this time.
Smash every spider in your house. Hide the bluebird in your heart. Call upon friends in your time of need, but for the love of God don’t be too optimistic. They have their own misery.
My Mom recently called me and wished me a happy birthday. She told another story of how crazy her job is becoming. I told her she works too hard, but as expected, she doesn’t see it that way. She just couldn’t believe the years passed by so fast.
We all feel so rushed. So pressured to do better. To know exactly what we want in life and what makes us happy. And to do it. And to do more with our lives. To make our parents proud. To make ourselves proud.
A friend close enough to be family recently told me she wanted the best for me, and more importantly, that I deserved it. I’m sorry, I don’t deserve anything. Perhaps that’s part of the problem. We are constantly shown the standard emblems of success, thinking we deserve to do something similar, and it’s so easy to ignore the journeys that led to them:
We know that coworker who’s expecting kid #2.
We know that classmate who’s reporting on the refugee crisis.
We know that friend of a friend whose startup sold for $500M.
We know that one (or two) friend(s) who went to HBS.
We know that genius who bought their first property when they were 18.
But we don’t know what they did to get there. Or whether they’re happy. Or whether we’d be happy. We can’t compare.
I remember searching for happiness and questioning whether the searching made me happier. I recognized the opportunities I have, but more importantly, that I could never fully grasp how many times I’ve already won the lottery. My Mom says I worked hard to be where I am, but even a skilled gambler recognizes what huge part luck plays.
We landed in a game where the rules are always changing, nobody knows how to win, nobody wants to lose, and the only way not to lose, the only way to find happiness, is to keep playing.
But playing is tiring. Everyone I know is exhausted. And when we’re most tired we drown ourselves with consumption of entertainment or substances or whatever’s trending. We tell our brains and bodies to shut up. We numb ourselves of our longest-lived feelings, even in the moments when we feel them the most. We’ve gotten so good at making nothing out of something.
When I asked my friends to explain the difference between being content and being happy, the most common explanation is that compared to being happy, being content is “settling.” Again and again, I heard the same chorus: we should strive to be happy.
Few things make me truly happy. Some of them involve ice cream or whiskey but never both. Most of them are simple, like waiting for a train with the ones who know me best. A lot of them are when I’m alone.
Rarely am I sad. But being un-happy — that is, simply not being happy — has this perception of being just as bad or worse than feeling blue. Sure, there are peaks & valleys. I have good days, bad days, and roller coaster days, but the trendline is flat. And that’s OK.
What I feel most often is contentment. It’s not happiness or sadness or apathy but more like harmony. It’s not settling. It’s accepting. It’s a humble hunger that skips its second serving —
Don’t try to bottle it up. Enjoy it now. Trace an orange peel along the lip, curl it carefully, and drop it in. Take a sip and exhale. An audible hush. Let it be a butterfly that lands on your shoulder. A misty rain that tickles the backs of your ears. A widescreen long take of the wilderness. It’s calm. It’s pristine. It’s peace.
We have to give ourselves permission to just be OK. We have to learn to be content with being content.
At an event a few days after my birthday, I overheard a blissful partygoer exclaim why she was smiling: “I’m so happy… we’re making memories.” It made me smile, too.
I remember visiting my Mom at work when I was in second grade. We started walking over to the bakery, and she said, “if you ask nicely, maybe they’ll give you a fresh cookie.” I ran the rest of the way and asked with my most adorable “pretty please.” I wish I could’ve seen how happy I was after taking the first bite. My Mom smiled.
But what I remember more is visiting my Mom when I was older. She said, “if you ask nicely, maybe they’ll give you a fresh cookie.” I said, “no thanks, I’m OK.” And still, my Mom smiled.
I appreciate the moments when I’m making memories. I’m grateful for everything I have. But I’ve stopped trying be happy all the time. I accept what happiness comes naturally. But otherwise, it’s OK to be OK.