The Elusive State of Happiness

Kristen Houghton

What exactly is happiness and how do we achieve it? Is it a gift we give to ourselves or is it part of a reward system? The intangible state of simply being happy is hard to find and there are no maps or GPS trackers to help us chart a course.

My husband told me I don't allow myself to be happy. The word "allow" grates on my nerves and annoys me to no end. Who doesn't allow themselves to be happy?! I asked.

"You don't," he said. "Being simply happy is difficult for you and it shouldn't be. Everyone deserves to be happy but you don't allow it."

Stated like that, I grudgingly conceded that there might be a modicum, just a very small kernel of truth, in what he says. Happiness has always been an elusive state for me. It was always "somewhere, out there" in my future. There is some truth to the statement that I didn't allow myself happiness. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy my life to an extent. It's just that I always felt happiness was a reward for being good -- for meeting that deadline, for losing those 10 pounds, for being the good girl who does everything right. I couldn't really begin to be happy until my life had met certain conditions and those conditions varied according to where I was. Home, work, leisure -- every area had its own unique criteria for how and when I could be happy.

I truly believe we as women have a harder time permitting ourselves to be happy than men do. We're people-pleasers and, while that is great for our families, our co-workers, our friends, it is not at all good for us. Unlike men, we put our happiness last on our priority list. This is not to imply that our males are not giving creatures; they are and they are wonderful. But happiness seems to come easier for them than for us. Their happiness is definitely not last on their "to-do" list. Men take pleasure in small, everyday things. For some reason, women don't, won't, or can't. We are too busy being "the good little girl," who must make sure everyone around us is happy first. Or worse, we see ourselves as unworthy, not deserving of happiness until certain goals, usually totally unattainable and defined by others, are met.

Even Michelle Obama has said she always postponed her own happiness by placing her needs and wants last. That is no longer the case for her.

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"I have freed myself to put me on the priority list and say, yes, I can make choices that make me happy and that will ripple and benefit my kids, my husband and my physical health. That's hard for women to own. We're not taught to do that. It's a lesson that I want to teach my girls so they don't wait for their 'aha' moment until they are in their 30s like I was."

She gives a wonderful example about how women sacrifice what is important to them. After the Obamas' oldest daughter was born she completely stopped exercising to give more time to their new baby. Her husband's routine, however, stayed the same. Men, believes Mrs. Obama, prioritize differently. I understand completely what she is saying; as a young mother I did the exact same thing she did.Michelle Obama is right on target when she says that the happiness and well-being of her husband and children depends in large part on her own happiness. A happy, fulfilled person is able and willing to do more for others in her life because she is not frustrated by her own unhappiness.

Women can also fall victim to what I call the "Goldilocks Syndrome." Everything in our lives must be "just right" in order for us to be happy. Of course everything is never "just right." Life isn't like that. Ask any woman who has ever been the center of attention in a public setting; a work presentation or ceremony for example. Even if everyone assures her she was fantastic, she will be the one who notices the minute mistake she made or something she forgot to do or say. Nothing is ever "just right." Life is imperfect.

How we view happiness is a prime factor in achieving it. Are we looking for ecstatic, "jumping for joy" happy? Are we saying that once a certain thing "happens" we won't ever be unhappy again? That is fairy tale thinking. Despite whatever is going on in our lives, happiness isn't something we should be putting on hold. Happiness should be attainable. It should be a feeling of satisfaction and joy for the good parts of your life and the knowledge that you are not just hanging around, waiting for something fantastic to happen.But all too often that is exactly what we do.

Making happiness conditional will never work. Trying to reach some unrealistic goal set by someone else won't fly either. Conditions and other people cannot define or create happiness for us, only we can. It should be as natural a state as breathing. It should be, absolutely, but that is not how it is. What sinister marker in our DNA makes us gluttons for the punishment of sacrificing our goals or for believing we must postpone happiness until the exact right time?

If happiness is an intangible state of being, then, for some of us, it may very well be ever elusive and hidden from sight unless we begin to make our own happiness our priority. You need to be satisfied to satisfy yourself first.

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