What Is Happiness?
My husband and I recently got a puppy for our 9-year-old son, Max.
Max struggles with anxiety. It got so bad earlier this year that we made the decision to pull him out of school in order to get him additional help. As the summer went on and my son’s anxiety got better, my anxiety got worse as I thought about him returning to school full-time.
Max had been begging for a dog (as most children do) for years and after doing some research, I learned having a dog would not only reduce Max’s anxiety, it would allow him to focus on the puppy and as opposed to his own anxious thoughts.
Max was beyond excited. He started watching videos on dog training and the best dog treats and food for a puppy. He talked about “bell training” and possibly putting the dog on a “raw diet”.
We brought Jabba (Max is a Star Wars fan) home on a Saturday afternoon and life seemed perfect. By Monday everything came crashing down.
Max came to me distressed and said, “I thought the puppy would make me feel less anxious and that I would be happy but I’m not happy. I don’t think I want the puppy anymore. I think we should get a different dog.”
As Max proceeded to debate the pros of getting a husky or maybe a golden retriever or maybe getting a dog that’s at least a year old because this puppy is a lot of work, I sat there in shock wondering what was happening. Two days ago life was full of joy and now it felt like the walls were crashing down on all of us.
Then it hit me. Max did something that I’ve done (more than once) and something we’re all guilty of at some point in our lives…he assumed a dog would make him happy.
It’s been a tough year for Max and our whole family and I know how hard it is for him to be back in school full-time. He feels overwhelmed, anxious and fearful and he was looking for something to make him feel better. He believed this dog would make him happy and erase his anxiety.
When Max realized he still felt a bit anxious and still struggled with the ups and downs of everyday life, he thought the dog didn’t do the trick so he started searching for other dog, thinking that a different breed or an older dog would do the trick.
Max’s belief that a dog would “solve all his problems” is a trap we’ve all fallen into.
You feel lonely, so you call up an ex thinking that will make you feel less lonely. Or you spend more money than you have on a new dress hoping it would make you feel more confident. Or you dive into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s at the end of a long workday hoping it would stop you from feeling like a fraud at work.
The reality is these are temporary quick fixes to a larger problem and sometimes it’s not even a “problem,” it’s an uncomfortable feeling you must sit with and process.
It’s much easier to buy that dress than to dig deep and uncover why you’re struggling with confidence. It’s less painful to down that ice cream than sit with a feeling you don’t want to feel.
As strange as it sounds, it’s easier and simpler to look outside of yourself and determine a goal to work towards. You set a goal, “I’m going to be a millionaire” or “I’m going to get married” and now you have a plan of action. You put all of your time and energy towards that goal, any uncomfortable feelings come up, no problem, once you become a millionaire, that problem will go away. No need to address it now because you have a way to get rid of that feeling.
There were two significant points in my life where I did exactly this. In high school I struggled (like everyone else) with feeling like I belonged and didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I had heard my entire life that college is the “best 4 years of your life”, so I didn’t deal with my anger or frustration in high school because I assumed in college I won’t feel this way any longer.
I even doubled down on that theory and decided to go to a college 3,000 miles from my home to live in an environment, which truly was the polar opposite of everything I knew. I lasted a year and learned one of the biggest lessons of my life: Wherever you go, there you are.
My environment changed, but I was the same and I took all of my pain with me.
The second significant point in my life was my own quarter-life crisis at age 27. My entire life I dreamed of working in the entertainment business. I would have this big fancy career and makes lots of money and every one would love me (you see a pattern developing here…).
At 27 from the outside I had the perfect job, but inside I was lost and deeply unhappy. The problem was I had put in so much time and energy into this career that I feared “starting all over.”
Again, I learned another huge lesson: you never go back to square one. No one can take away your knowledge or experience.
As Max and I stared at the ceiling together talking about the dog situation, I told him about my own experiences, and I let him know two things I know about life:
No person, animal, object, or goal is responsible for your happiness and no matter how hard you try - you’ll always have problems and feelings that make you uncomfortable.
“So what do I do? How do I stop feeling this way?” asked Max. My heart broke realizing that I couldn’t protect my son from the realities of life.
I told him you have to start by accepting yourself. You have to accept who you are and what you’re feeling. I know this sounds really woo-woo and not at all what you (or Max) wants to hear, but it’s important to understand you have to accept and dare I say…even love yourself.
You are who you are. You are who you are in California; you are who you are in the subway; you are who you are in the McDonald’s drive-thru; everywhere you go you are who you are. The sooner you learn how to love and accept yourself, the sooner you can start enjoying the complicated, flawed, slightly weird, never perfect person that we all are.
The other thing you need to do is accept that there will never be a point in your life when everything is going to perfect. There will be moments of perfection and there will be wonderful, happy days, but it’s always temporary… which is actually a good thing because you can’t know great happiness if you don’t know great sadness.
I explained to Max that no feeling is final, for better or worse, and the best thing he can do is not to avoid his anxiety, but acknowledge it and simply take the next step.
So, how did the saga end? Well, as I write this Jabba’s running around our yard chasing dandelions, discovering new and exciting smells and picking out just the “right” spot to poop today. Max is in school and has his good days and bad days.
Most importantly, Max is recognizing that Jabba isn’t responsible for his happiness and she’ll never make all of his problems go away but she can be a source of happiness and, when he feels anxious, he can pet her and play with her to relieve some of his anxiety.