Why do we make happiness so exhausting?
They say that a lot of cult members have a hard time walking away even after they’ve accepted they’re up to their ears in no good, because it’s too hard to admit they made a massive error in judgment. It’s basically the sunk cost principle—that once you’ve put a lot of time or money into a choice, you’d rather knowingly keep doing something fruitless, senseless, or unfulfilling than cut your losses and start over. That’s kind of what happened in that moment for me. I didn’t trans-form—but I had paid for transformation, so transformation I would get.I pretended I’d never heard that unhappiness comes from hanging on to the past, victimizing ourselves, and interpreting things based on our perceptions and judgments, and I visualized what it might look like if I suddenly awakened after a lifetime of living numb. Then I broke down in tears—deep, gasping, lip-quivering wails. I trembled. I shook my head, as if in disbelief and awe over the sudden leap in personal evolution. I put my hands in the prayer position as if recognizing the divine in the ordinary. Somewhere between sobbing and spewing incoherent confessions about the error of my ways, something strange happened: I felt vulnerably authentic.
The same ideas I’d read dozens of times in countless different ways suddenly felt more meaningful than ever before. I knew them inside and out—not just intellectually but also in my blood, in my bones, in my flesh. Gutting myself in front of a room full of strangers was infinitely more satisfying than holing up with a book, especially now that I was doing it as me, not some character I chose to play. After admitting that I didn’t want to be unhappy, that I wanted to love myself, and that I didn’t want to run away anymore, I completely exposed myself with one final admission: “I don’t want to be scared of you.” It’s draining and depressing to suspect everyone wants to hurt you, but that’s the way I lived—terrified of everyone I met or might meet.
In that moment, I wasn’t scared. I was so involved in this embarrassingly raw experience that I didn’t have a chance to judge it—or anything else. Immersed in our collective understanding, present in my body, and naked in their sight line, I felt that happiness was possible. If I quieted the voice in my head—the inner tormenter that analyzed ad nauseum—and let myself be part of the world around me, I could be eternally happy. All I had to do was stop my mind. Day in and day out. Indefinitely.
The next day, I walked down the street in complete connection to the present moment. I heard every sound—birds flying overhead, the low hum of construction equipment in the distance, children giggling as they ran through fields of dandelions just beyond the horizon (or maybe it was the housing projects). I saw the sights more vividly than ever before, when I multitasked walking and overthinking—who knew there were leaves on the tree near my house? I smelled every scent and nuance of scent.
For a while, everything was perfect—until I ended my pleasant, responsibility-and-people-free spring walk and planted myself back into reality. With a lot of people who weren’t disarmingly vulnerable. With or without them surrounding me, my life was still my life. I still didn’t have a job. I still had rent far higher than any I’d ever paid. I still had a world waiting to be filled with people, interests, and at least some things. And I still had an inner voice that I’d have to continue learning to tame for the rest of my life. What I didn’t have was $495—and for a minute I was pissed.
“The industry preys on the weak!” I told my sister. “They lure in the most vulnerable people—people dealing with heartbreak, loss, disappointment, and emptiness—and make everything sound so deceptively simple. Of course you experience gut-wrenching catharsis when you’re sleep-deprived and desperate for an answer.”
Somewhere between feeling indignant and scheming about the exposé I’d write for Time magazine, I realized how ridiculous it all was. I’d spent $495 to learn how to be happy and then felt angry when I realized my money didn’t hire someone else to live in my head.
In the end, that’s what it comes down to. No amount of learning, striving, or fighting can change the fact that only we can choose to be happy. Only we can decide what to do with our energy, time, and money, and only we can decide whether to fight our reality or let go and be present within it.
Only we can choose the relationships, the jobs, the homes, the cities. Only we can fill our hours. And only we can give ourselves permission to enjoy them. There will always be the possibility of something else, something on the other side of wherever you are. But the only opportunity to feel joy is here and now because tomorrow we’ll be smack-dab in the middle of another here and now. There have been times when I’ve felt peaceful and content and I’ve wondered, Is this all there is? Like, maybe that was just the Two-Buck Chuck version of happiness, and there was Dom Perignon still out there to be tasted. In looking for some greater happiness, I completely disregarded how fortunate I was to be content. In dreaming of far worthier experiences, I forgot how much power I had to shape the present moment, whatever it entailed.