A Perspective Shift on the 'Steps to Happiness' Narrative

04/24/2015 11:48 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

The promise of a happy ending to a good story tends to be what keeps the pages turning. Interest fades when the story projects a vision of destined demise. It makes sense that moments of bliss capture our attention when forecast with a series of competing unpleasantries.

It makes even more sense that our longing to sustain these moments would be, at times, whole-heartedly pursued. However, I believe our culture presents a choice in the narrative that accompanies efforts towards a pursuit of happiness. We either work to find it in a moment, and our mood becomes the measure, or we believe it exists in a context which would then bring up the question as to what context it applies. Some would say the context is specific and only applies to certain scenarios, which most likely negotiates unhappiness if those specifics are not found or achieved. Others may believe that their context is decided for them, and may then be subject to its consent. However, what if the context through which happiness is pursued was greater than the circumstances or environmental features that appeal to our senses in a concrete reality? Suppose there was a context, much like that of a good book, that invited one to see that whether happiness or anguish is felt in a moment, it is part of a larger story that seeks to be reconciled in the end.

If our desires were satiated continually, there would be a disconnect not only with our own human experience, but that of others. It is difficult to remain interested if pleasures are the only substance of a story, and there is nothing to resolve. The reality is that daily we plunge into experiences that could challenge, twist, frustrate, or possibly disappointment, perhaps to portray that glory lies in the struggle and the pages of time will reveal the beauty in how it all corresponds to an ending that is more than happy -- it is complete.

I can remember vividly a time in high school when I was first invited to think about the power of a narrative, and how it corresponds to context rather than working to maintain a moment. I was late to a class, and was stopped abruptly by a girl that I had talked to only a couple of times before. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes questioning, and her whole body outfitted with the heaviness of despair. "I come to school every day trying to be happy and by the end of the day I am depressed," she said and then went on to question, "What is your secret? Why do you seem okay?" It was a very shocking statement to grapple with as the bell rang and I fumbled to get my books in my bag. I can remember giving her a quick response, with all my teenage tact, which was simple, and yet has become something I think back on often. I told her that I start each day with quite the opposite approach. Rather than beginning with an attempt to maintain an ideal state of being in happiness, perfection, and pleasure that leads to disappointment upon circumstances that present otherwise, I start the day expecting nothing, as if opening a package and unfolding an array of unknown contents. Each piece may lead to a different emotion, but they all have a place and a purpose to be discovered. We have the choice of what to do with them and how to use them to work towards good even when something deeply disturbing happens. Therefore, I explained, I find myself in gratitude for the unexpected joys, and when there are things presented that are upsetting, I have learned to wonder and try to understand rather than discount their place. As I have gotten older, I have been able to see more clearly that even receiving a day is an undeserved gift, and appreciation can motivate us to value less of the content, and more of the blessing in receiving anything at all.

So, in a culture where depression and anxiety are high,and tragedy is predictably reported on the nightly news, is it true that "everything is awesome"? Is discouragement in life deepened by starting each day with an expectation that is likely to confront circumstances that will disappoint? The Lego movie's depiction of our longings poignantly portrays what is missed when this mantra pervades. However, I wonder if it is more accurate to say, that within everything there are parts of life that are not so awesome but rather painful and hard. Yet woven into these struggles, if cast within a context of purpose, there may be a more lasting joy experienced. Rather than seeking mood changes or momentary happiness, could a more peaceful state of being be found in a narrative that looks towards a redemptive end to the greater story? I wonder on an individual and societal level if this shift in focus would help keep the pages turning.

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