I am often afraid to let myself be happy, because I think that I will simply stop being a productive member of society and I will lounge around eating peeled grapes and sipping piña coladas. This is actually very unlikely, given my temperament. I LOVE to work, when I can get out of my own way and stop stressing and worrying. Which brings me to my next point, which has to do with the concept of “ecstasy.”
The word “ecstasy” comes from the Greek ekstasis, which means to stand outside of. To me, the etymology of “ecstasy” is telling, because it emphasizes the fact that ecstatic states take us out of ourselves. Another way to interpret this is that we can jumpstart the process of becoming happier by standing outside of ourselves, by getting out of our own way. This resonates with my own experience, in that I find I am happiest when I am immersed in an activity that takes me away from everyday consciousness, when I give myself permission to pursue a beloved task wholeheartedly and with complete focus. This state is what renowned researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. (You can watch his TED talk on “flow” here.)
On bad days, I sometimes feel that happiness is very far away, that I must work hard in order to earn happiness like some sort of shiny trophy or award. Happiness is earning that promotion, or being liked by more people, or getting published. I am not alone in framing happiness this way. According to positive psychology expert Shawn Achor, (who gave a fabulous TED talk on the subject of happiness), we have the formula for happiness completely backwards in our society. Most of us work hard in order to be successful so that we may be happy. And when we are unhappy, we work harder, thinking that more success will relieve our unhappiness.
But it is a broken formula, says Achor. He points out that “success” is an elusive and ever-receding goal post. We rarely allow ourselves to feel lastingly successful, and therefore we rarely allow ourselves to feel happy. “If happiness is on the opposite side of success,” says Achor, “your brain never gets there.” I know this rings true for me. And the paradoxical truth is that, if we start from a place of happiness, we are often more successful and more productive in our work.
So my goal is to start with happiness. I know that it is a process and a life-long one at that. But I can start now. Today. And give myself permission to be happy regardless of my external circumstances, and regardless of how my hair looks today, and regardless of how well my writing is going. Because these external factors will change on a daily basis. And some days will just be terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. That’s a fact. But those, too, shall pass. And meanwhile, I’ll be working on cultivating happiness.