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Nancy Colier

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Happily Ever After?

Posted: 02/29/2012 9:20 am

In the online simulation game The Sims, when an avatar accomplishes all of her lifetime aspirations, she achieves "Permanent Platinum" status, otherwise known as permanent happiness. Once "Platinum," her mood bar cannot slip below a certain level, and her environment no longer impacts her happiness. She is frozen in happiness.

Interestingly, when I spoke with players of the game, without exception, all believed Permanent Platinum to be a terrible fate. Permanent happiness left them feeling stuck and disconnected from their alter ego, with nothing left to live for. Their reason for taking action, namely, to improve their mood bar, was removed. As a result, everything felt washed out and pointless. Most discontinued their permanently happy characters (aka, killed them off) and created new avatars, who could experience discomfort and once again aim to achieve happiness.

Despite this permanent-happiness-related depression, we in the real world maintain a Sims-ilar relationship with happiness. We view happiness as first and foremost a state that comes as a result of something we accomplish, attain, achieve or otherwise acquire. We add something to ourselves or our lives, and we get happiness as a prize. If we amass enough of the things we want in our life, we will be happy. On the other hand, if we fall below a certain level of things we want, we will be delivered into the dreaded... unhappiness. Consequently, we are constantly searching for that one magic thing that will deliver us into Permanent Platinum status -- the right home, relationship, job, haircut, whatever our personal carrot may be. It will be the thing that guarantees our everlasting happiness. And with any luck, after its attainment, we will no longer have to show up for our lives. Like in the Sims game, once we acquire this thing called permanent happiness, we will be free to stop paying attention to the now, and at last will have permission to go to sleep in our life.

Lucky for us real people, there is no such thing as Permanent Platinum stauts. Happiness is not something that arrives in a finished package, and certainly not something that we can hold onto on a permanent basis. In real life, happiness is a temporary state. We enjoy it for a while and then we lose it, and then it shows up again and so on, eternally. Happiness comes and goes like every other emotional state. In real life, external objects only bring us happiness for a finite period of time at which point, they change or we change. Change is the only thing that is permanent. If it's Zumba right now that is bringing us happiness, we might twist our ankle or the teacher we love might move away. Poof: Happiness is gone. If the object itself does not go away, the feeling that it was offering will change. If it's Magnolia cupcakes bringing us happiness, we might step on the scale after a few weeks of blissful red velvet happiness and poof: Happiness is gone again. If it's our new boyfriend who makes every step a dance on air, then the day arrives when the pavement appears beneath our feet once again. There is nothing wrong with any of this happening, it is in fact the natural evolution of life. Happiness is not a feeling that is sustained; it is not static. Happiness, when it comes from an external object (no matter what that object is), is always coming and going.

And yet despite the fact that happiness is consistently inconsistent, permanently impermanent, we judge ourselves as failures when we cannot maintain consistent happiness. People who are not happy are seen as failures; it is our fault that we cannot hold onto happiness. We are not trying hard enough, not living our life right. And after all, no one wants to be a around a Debbie Downer, you might catch what she has. Regardless of unceasing evidence to the contrary, we keep demanding and expecting that happiness be something that it isn't -- that life be something that it isn't.

Happiness -- as a goal in life -- is the wrong goal. Rather than chasing happiness, steadfastly defending the belief that somewhere, somehow, if we find the right thing we will indeed be able to hold onto happiness for good, we need to find a new goal for life. We need to uncover a state of well-being, deeper than happiness, a state that can survive the swings of circumstance, happiness and unhappiness, gaining and losing what we want and the feelings that make up every human life.

Well-being is an internal state, not dependent upon any external circumstances. It is a result of our attitude towards our feelings, not the nature of the feelings themselves and not the circumstances that are causing the feelings. It is the comfort that we bring ourselves when disappointment is the cloud in our sky, the gratitude that we invoke when joy floats through, the kindness that we offer whatever feelings pass into and out of our inner landscape, regardless of what they may be. So too, well-being is an ongoing process, not an object that we obtain. True well-being can only happen in the now, and devolves into an intellectual concept when applied to the past or the future. There is never a moment when we can assume we simply have it; well-being is sustained by paying attention to the moments of our life, being present and noticing what's here. The substance of well-being is our own compassionate presence -- a compassion for what we are living now.

The good news is that unlike happiness, the ingredients of well-being are entirely within us -- not reliant upon circumstances that are external, perpetually in flux and too often out of our control. At last, we can call off the search for something outside ourselves! Perhaps in the game of life, we can discover our own Platinum Well-Being Status, mindful that it is not a button that we press once and forget, but rather, a way of being that requires our attention in all of the nows that we get to live!

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