Every spring, I have this ritual. When the snow in the hills turns crusty from the March routine of freeze and thaw, and the white islands of river ice break up into bobbing chunks, I want to get out. I want to wake from the sleepy saunter of winter. I want to feel alive.
That’s when I hear the river’s call. It’s time once again to speed up my soul with a splash of zaniness and cold water. It’s time to go skinny-dipping.
So my husband and I venture out to our favorite spot where the sunny days have melted away the shore’s icy fringe and a deep pool awaits. Once we’ve shed our clothes and laughed at ourselves, there’s always a nervous countdown to launch. Then, after a deliberate dash into the piercing water, I shoot up and scream. My lungs crinkle like tissue paper, and I can’t breathe for just a second. My heart hurts as my brain yells, “Get out!”
A hasty redress, and we’re warming our fingertips by the car heater vents. The dripping tips of my hair freeze in the cool air. I feel exhilarated!
I am so happy.
In this moment, that old cliché, “Happiness is a choice,” seems redundant and obtuse. I am already happy, and the only choice I made was to do something that made me feel alive. So, it leads me to ponder whether happiness really is a choice or a natural byproduct of something else. Where does happiness come from anyway?
I’ve struggled with depression enough to know that happiness doesn’t come from a store or anything I can buy. Nor does it come from a pill (although, I’m a big advocate of medication). So let’s bypass those options for a deeper look into the human condition. What kind of thoughts and feelings surround our core desire to be happy?
Sometimes we yearn to be happy because we’re so darn sad. I can get extremely dismayed at the effort it takes to live in this hectic world. The river of life becomes too cold, and the insides of my heart hurt at not being able to swim its current. Or, I become overwhelmed by my desire for more; like there’s got to be more to life than this. I feel resentful of the deep boredom flooding the landscape of my soul. Often, I just miss being my true self. The distractions of daily living have stolen my joy, and I ache to feel that solid connection between who I am and who I could be.
So what am I to do? Well, I’ve found a way out of that sadness. The answer is surprising. It’s not to stop wanting. Nor is it simply to choose happiness and act as if the emptiness isn’t there.
The answer came as I tried to explain my depression to a close group of friends. In the middle of my honest exposé of feelings and pain, I heard myself say, “But I really do love myself.” At that moment, I understood that the core of me had always loved me. It may not have loved what I was doing, how I was feeling, or where I was going. But I had always loved myself; despite the barrage of discontented murmurs which, I’ve learned, are common to most of us. I’ve always wanted something better for myself. And that desire stems from true love.
In fact, most of my pain comes from not being able to live in that love. I hurt when I’m not able to express that love or manifest it into my daily life. It’s like I’ve been standing on the banks of the river of life, watching it flow by instead of plunging in.
So what does it take to make the plunge? If I’ve got the impetus to be happy but don’t know how to make it real in my life, what can I do? Better yet, how can I find happiness when I don’t really feel that love for myself?
Here’s what I’ve learned: sometimes, to love who you are, you need to become what you love.
That’s why I’ve decided to become a steward of my own happiness. What does that look like? It’s me taking responsibility for my own joy and not relying on outward people or circumstances to make me happy. My new-found independence has brought me freedom. If I’m the one that’s so unhappy, then I’m the one who can change that. I have the power. To me, that’s really good news.
Becoming a steward of my own happiness also means guarding my soul against those things which would steal my joy. I watch carefully for time-suckers and energy-drainers. In a sense, I’ve taken that love for myself and made it a priority over all the to-do lists and everyday distractions.
Practically speaking, mining for happiness has unearthed many new aspects to my life. I usually ask myself, sometime during my day, “What can I do today that would make me happy?” That question has led me to cut my hair; a surprisingly empowering move. Then, that empowerment gave me enough self-determination to change my medication, which was an excellent choice. Now, I have more energy to do the things I love, like exercise, hike, and walk. Watching my body transform has given me a new sense of strength and accomplishment. All of these changes amount to more than just pumping emotion from a happiness well. Each day that I answer my question with an action, I’ve come to know myself better.
Of course, I’ve also gotten to know the obstacles better, as well. I see what gets in the way of my happiness. I have all sorts of fearful thoughts like, “this won’t last” and “this is too hard.” There’s also the numbing distractions. For example, I might watch a movie to get my mind off of boredom; but what I really need to do is create; sit down and write or paint.
I’m learning to be a creator of my own happiness. My choice for happiness resides in the reality that I have a love for myself which runs deeper than my daily cares, worries, and to-do lists. This is not an arrogant or selfish love. It’s simply the truth. That luminous love is always there; waiting for me to believe in it. By acting-out that belief and being a steward of my own happiness, I don’t have to choose anything. Happiness has already found me.
That’s where I find waters to swim in.