There are many times I’ve paused during a conversation with my boyfriend to write things down.
He sprinkles truth bombs as liberally as he seasons meat- and he’s frequently reprimanded me for under seasoning.
“You can’t go wrong with more flavor,” he’ll say as we stand in the kitchen, grabbing the pepper from hands and adding a few more generous grinds into the pot, “There’s no such thing as too much flavor.”
This says a lot about us, I think. The way we’re different. I’m oftentimes too afraid to charge into things head-first. I like to test the waters, dip my toe in, get a sense for how well I’d handle something. He dives right in, figures it’s easier to deal with something in one fell swoop than it is to slowly torture yourself with change. I schedule and plan and test and retest and evaluate and begin the process again. He figures it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I add salt one pinch at a time. He shakes the salt like it owes him an answer.
What this means is that often, perhaps too often for his liking, I come to him with a mountain I’ve constructed out of a molehill and beg for his help. He always reacts the same way. He patiently listens, nodding when I pause for validation, shaking his head with sympathy when I pause for approval of my indignation. I finish my rambling address of grievances. He lets silence set in for a few moments, as though to be sure that I’m done. And then, when he can be certain the mountain has been adequately climbed together, he’ll begin to speak.
It’s always with such gentle reasoning that’s so well thought out that you can’t argue with it- almost infuriatingly so. He has the brain of an economist and the patience of a clockmaker, so he’ll round out his responses with numbers and statistics and inarguable facts. Without making you feel dumb or invalidated in your experience, somehow, he calmly reasons you back to reality, forces you to take a step back, and then asks if it looks more like a molehill from this angle.
Somehow, he always manages to say a few lines that makes you wonder if he saw it on a t-shirt somewhere, or maybe a bumper sticker. Most recently, one of his lines was this:
“Happiness is made by you, for you.”
We he said it, I pulled out my phone, scrolled past the other notes with Ryan’s fortune-cookie-worthy sayings, and frantically copied it down. I wanted it to be indelible- not only in my memory, but in this world. There are so many quotes we take for granted: Eleanor Roosevelt’s “without your consent” quote, Ghandi’s “be the change” quote, MLK’s “darkness cannot drive out darkness” quote. But what about the ones lost in the world because no one heard them or bothered to write them down? I’ve made it my personal mission to add to our collective compilation of worldly quotes, one line at a time.
But the things that makes quotes great is that you must think about them. You can’t absorb them in a single reading, not like a shot of tequila or a dash of salt. You have to soak in them, simmer in them. Let the meat marinate and the tea steep. And the best of quotes propel you off in a certain direction, one that bunny trails off with such a bounding velocity you nearly forget where the trailhead was.
This is one of those quotes.
Because what he said this quote about was college. How I often wonder if college is for me. How I often question whether the degree at the end of it is anything more than an expensive piece of paper. How I often feel as though I’m pouring my time into something I don’t feel passionate about and decreasing the time I have to spend on things I am as a result. He said it about all of these things- a statement on personal responsibility and taking control my career path. He said it to hand the steering wheel back over to me, put me behind the reigns again.
But it transcends all of these things. It’s not just a piece of advice on college, it’s mantra. It’s something you carry with you in your back pocket, a way to approach life with intention and confidence. It’s something that you can bring with you into any situation, like a security blanket and a reminder all rolled up into one.
And how true it is.
So often we hand our happiness over to other people, other things. We place our happiness on moving targets that run away from us with the elusiveness of the unachievable. We pin it onto perfection, onto ideals that do not exist and yet haunt our expectations. We use it as both an excuse and a curse to wait: wait to be happy until we look this way, wait to be happy until we have this thing, wait to be happy until this one person says we should be. Deserve to be.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be happy if I am not pretty enough, rich enough, smart enough, accomplished enough? Who am I to be happy with my money when someone else has more? Who am I to be happy with my appearance when someone else is better looking? Who am I to be happy with my art when someone else’s is more desired?
And so we wait and wait and wait until we are that someone else before we can be happy. We wait until we are ten pounds lighter, a few thousand dollars richer, a degree more successful. But it’s a curse: there will always be something else out there, something else we pale in comparison to. We will never be happy this way, stuck in this cycle of comparison and dissatisfaction.
Why is this? Because we weren’t making our happiness for us, we were making it for someone else. Comparing it to someone else’s ideas and standards of happiness.
In fact, we likely weren’t making it at all.
Because perhaps the greatest secret of this hellish phenomenon is that happiness is not something that can be attained or purchased like a toy off the shelf. It is not a badge that appears once you reach a certain dollar amount or milestone. It is not a gift that is bestowed upon you by the gods above once you’re well-liked enough. It is something that is created, nurtured, and harvested when the time is right. It’s a garden that you plant, seed by seed, effort by effort, until one day you look around during springtime and notice it all has bloomed when you were too busy living life. It is created.
By you, for you.
And the beauty of this garden is that it will look different for each person who so chooses to plant it. Some prefer roses, others prefer tulips. Some like vegetable gardens, others like flowerbeds. Some respect hardy winter greens, some crave the frivolous, fleeting beauty of blossoms. Escaping the metaphor with another: some find happiness in a high-paying executive job, others find it as a freelancing artist. Happiness has many forms, each one its own unique take on life and existence. The happiness you so seek, the individual lifetime you wish to live, is dependent upon the seeds you plant.
Perhaps it is time for another great quote: you reap what you sow.
Happiness is not a passive existence. There is no such thing as passive optimism, no such thing as effortless joy. Not over a lifetime, at least. There will be moments when the happiness flows freely, like when you cross someone you love for the first time, or when you run into a long-lost friend. But over the course of years and years, on a daily basis we must choose to find, to seek out that happiness. We must interrupt our grievances with gratitude, put in effort until we get lucky, and sunbathe in the pools of happiness we come across in our journeys.
What makes happiness unhappy is when we expect it to just appear- when we expect it to come at a certain weight or paycheck or piece of paper. Because it will never come, and we will spend an eternity saying, “I guess I’m not worthy yet. I guess I’m not supposed to be happy yet.”
How silly of us to expect this, expect it to appear one day like a gift on the porch, as though once we open it every day after will be bathed in golden sunlight and puppy kisses. No. Happiness becomes happy when we find it hidden in every moment. When we see it in the leaky roof and feel blessed for our shelter. When we shrug our shoulders at the under-seasoned dinner and enjoy the company of the ones we’re sharing it with. When we relish in the journey instead of constantly seeking some far-off destination, soaking in the views along the way.
Happiness comes in the active creation of reasons to be happy.
I believe they call that gratitude.