Know-It-All: How can I be happier, considering my history?

happy-sadDear Maha,
I am not clinically depressed or unhappy, its just that I feel like my “normal” happy baseline is lower than others. I don’t feel joy or excitement the way other people do. I feel that life is a burden, a series of trials and one thing to deal with after another. I know that this stems from my family life growing up. My father was a good person, but was not successful in his business and had money problems all his life. He was constantly raging about the system cheating him and that he was a victim. As a result, he put his discontent with life and the world on my mother, who is a patient and self-less person. My mother “martyred” herself to serve him and us , their 3 children, but she was never happy and could not carry the burden of the family. Now that my siblings and I are in our mid-20s, my parents have separated and it is the best thing for my mother, as we are a stronger family unit without my father. But this still saddens me and as the oldest son, I feel I need to compensate for the absence of a father in our lives and a companion for my mother, not only now, but for my entire life, because he was never there for us. I’m at a junction in my life, where I should be happy now and take every opportunity to seek a life partner and family of my own. I know I can’t let my parents mistakes dictate my life anymore, but I feel that I am as discontent as my father was. What can I do to overcome this?

Dear Discontent,

You’ve already taken the most important and hardest step: You have been self-reflective.

You are a good son who is doing the right thing by taking care of his family. You are also correct to note that whilst you are doing just this, you should equally be focussing on your own personal life. I don’t know if that focus must translate into going out and seeking a partner just yet, but I can definitely tell you that the time you spend on yourself should (either pre or in tandem of seeking out a life partner) incorporate working out the issues which you have so well articulated. Unfortunately, there is not enough room in a K-I-A response for me to do this with you, but from your short Q, it is clear that you are already sorting yourself out. Either continue to do so alone, with friends, or a therapist who would possess the tools to best guide your journey.

On to some of your finer points – first, you are responsible for your mother and siblings, but you are NOT your mother’s companion. This isn’t a Greek tragedy, so please understand the healthy limits of your involvement in and responsibility for your mother’s life (and vice versa). The love and companionship you should be sharing with a romantic partner should not ever come close to that which you would expend on your mumma, unless you are Freud who is CREEPY (and makes me want to yell). Second, we always have a choice to make regarding our history: let it rule our present and future, or leave it in the past. There are some who are far more comfortable in the dark dusty rooms created by painful history and they have no interest in opening a window or leaving this basement. Clearly, you are not one such person (or else you would not have reached out) and so on this point, I will a second time encourage you to keep sorting yourself out as I did in the above paragraph. Finally, of course you are sad. There is something unbearable about the loss of the family unit and a missing parent. That aside, any and all endings are – by their definition – sad. There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling this sadness and respecting that sense of loss. The trick here is to ensure that you do not sit in the sadness and ferment. Look at it, have a conversation with it, acknowledge that this sadness is a part of you and then leave it alone. When it pops up every now and again, treat it like an old friend rather than your guiding light; be mindful of this sadness because experiencing it is what will allow you to experience the flip – “happy”.

Which is the perfect segue. I do not believe that there is a right or a wrong in how happy one must be. In fact, I often find it infuriating when people throw around the concept of “JUST BE HAPPY” and expect us to JUST BE HAPPY as though happiness exists beyond our immediate experiences and history. Currently, a lot of this sort of nonsense if being chucked around, the flip-side of which is that if you can’t JUST BE HAPPY then there’s something wrong with you or you are not counting your blessings enough. Reality is, no one can JUST BE HAPPY all the time unless they are a murderous clown. This life is not an easy one (God did not promise us an easy life), nor is it often times a fair one (He did not promise fairness in this dream, but rather Fairness in the next), and it is most definitely not the cartoonish JUST BE HAPPY 24/7. What it is, with work, is an on-going commitment to seeking out moments of happiness, recognizing them and focusing on them, rather than on the moments of pain and distress.

Instead of JUST BE-ing HAPPY, and if you feel as though you need more happiness in your life, then start off by taking baby steps.

    1. Very seriously re-evaluate your held notion that you *should* feel things in a way other than how you feel them currently. You mentioned that you “don’t feel joy or excitement the way other people do”, which shouldn’t be an issue unless you walk around donkey-kicking the happiness out of those you love and hold dear or you inexplicably find yourself in a state of murderous rage. To whom are you comparing yourself and why? Is this something you truly believe? If it is, then skip to 2. If it is external, then remember me as example regarding how I feel things – if I were a colour, I would likely be crimson red with the occasional burst of violent blue; one of my best friends is a pale canary yellow which occasionally bleeds into ecru. Neither of us is incorrect in how we feel happiness, sadness, anger, etc. When I cry it is ugly and hard. Basically, I am disgusting and not at all like my Facebook profile pic. When my best friend cries, she is soft and gentle and like a little puff-ball who appears as though she will fly away if I touch her head. Neither one of us believes the other is wrong. We respect and love our differences because we leave room for our individual and unique colour situations to exist. Otherwise, life would be boring. Use that lens for your conversation with yourself on this point.
    2. Fake it till you make it: Set aside 5 minutes a day where you troll youtube for funny videos and laugh at silly little things. It has been confirmed that physiologically, laughter brightens our spirits, the benefits nearly impossible to entirely quantify.
    3. Investigate yourself: What are the things in this life which make you happier? Pursue them.
    4. Create a Blessings Journal: Jot down all of the good stuff about your life. Every day, write down one good thing about that day no matter how silly or petty it might seem (‘I took a walk’, ‘I shovelled the snow’, I built a sandcastle’, ‘I ate a pomegranate’ – these might not seem like much but do you know what their underlies are? That you are physically able to function. That you are mobile. That you have access to awkward fruit. That you are by an ocean where there are no bombs dropping. In other words, they are the blessings we so often overlook because they come and go as mindlessly as we walk and breathe). If a journal seems like too much work, then create a Note on your smartphone. The point is to actively sit and think and take notice of the good things.
    5. Count your blessings, and when you can’t remember them, sort through #2 above.
    6. Rinse & repeat.

    Best of luck on your journey, and remember to always keep your prayers strong and your mindfulness equally so.