Why Some People Will Never Be "Happy"

Every time I turn around, there’s a new book out about how to be happy. It seems we’d have enough already, but the audience is not only vast but growing. To top it off, an acquaintance asks me if I’m happy and I find myself hesitating to answer.

It’s not that I’m unhappy. Far from it. But the word itself has certain connotations for me that I still have difficulty with at times. Somehow I associate “happy” with carefree, smiling, and having it all, with “all” defined as great family, great career, great marriage, great bank account, etc. So “happy” becomes a 100% scenario or nothing. According to this connotation, you can’t be a little bit “happy.” You have to have it all, as predefined for us. And “all” tends to be about things or conditions that are often outside our control.

See, I think I’m pretty happy these days. Life is good. Things are rolling along nicely. I’m having fun and I’m making meaningful connections and anytime I’m depressed, it’s just a fleeting moment or sometimes the natural mourning of something lost or a reaction to a major upheaval. It doesn’t last long though. I’m not down in the muck, and the sunshine feels quite nice up here.

But by the old definition, the one that was programmed into me as a child and teenager, I can’t possibly be “happy” because I don’t have 100% of my dreams or 100% of what others dream for me. I can’t possibly be “happy” because I’m not in a committed relationship right now and I’m not fabulously rich and famous. Okay, that’s a hard standard to meet, but I didn’t set it myself. It was set for me by the world around me when I was a child.

The definition isn’t just internal though. I encounter it often in the form of other women asking–in response to my saying that yes, thank you, I’m quite happy these days–“Really? Who are you seeing?” Men generally don’t ask this question that immediately equates happiness with marital status (trust me, marriage and happiness are not always synonymous), but the majority of female acquaintances do and they ask it before they ask anything else. After that, it tends to be “You’re happy? Have you sold any books lately?” or something tied to career success, which is another way of measuring happiness in our culture. You can’t simply be happy for no good reason. You must have data to point to!

So am I “happy?”

In a fun conversation with a friend of mine, I note quite a few similarities. She is admittedly “deliriously happy” and having the time of her life. Her career skyrocketed this year, with a salary in the mid six figures, and she has a very hot new boyfriend. I don’t have the mid six figure salary or the hot new boyfriend, so by some standards, that would mean I can’t qualify for happiness. Yet, when we described to each other how we felt about where we are in life and our inner sense of serenity with ourselves and what we’re doing, our story was the same.

Right after that conversation, I ran into a female acquaintance who asked how I’m doing. The last few conversations with her have progressed to the typical nosy questions about my love life, so I chose a different tactic.

“Are you happy?” she asks.

I smile. “Yeah, I’m enjoying my life.” There. No list of ingredients to be judged as short a little sugar or bread. Just my own definition of “happy,” publicly stated.