What Challenging Times Teach Us About Happiness
One of the gold nuggets I learned this past year was that life is meant to be meaningful and not always happy.
Does this mean we shouldn’t desire to be happy? No, it means that the more we strive for happiness, the more these transient states will elude us.
Over the past several months, I learned this lesson amid a challenging season in my life.
I had a lot going on in my life that left me feeling stressed and not “happy.” Both my aging parents were suffering and in very vulnerable positions. It was painful to watch them suffer, and at the same time, it triggered all sorts of things that I thought were behind me. Covid touched my family in a significant way. I had two grandbabies with complex newborn health challenges. They both ended up healthy, but at the time, it was uncertain.
It was a time of realizing how fragile life was and that birth and death can and often do co-exist.
As I navigated this challenging time, I began questioning my underlying beliefs about the spiritual practices I had been engaging in over the past several years. I thought my spiritual practices, like meditation, gratitude, prayer and forgiveness, would result in more happiness.
I found that focusing on achieving happiness and inner peace increased my suffering. What was wrong with me? Wasn’t the spiritual path meant to make me happier and more peaceful? Was I doing something wrong? What was the point of all my practices if they weren’t to make me more comfortable and relaxed?
These beliefs left me feeling conflicted about my spiritual practices. I felt like I had become a spiritual cynic. Spirituality had let me down.
In a moment of desperation, I began to see that I was meant to integrate a fundamental belief I had acquired as part of my awakening journey into my messy life.
As part of our awakening journey, we realize that we have a dual nature – meaning we have a personality (ego) and a soul. Our personality is forever grasping, expecting and striving for happiness. This happiness feels achievable when life goes smoothly, and there are no storms.
But what happens when we find ourselves or someone we love facing challenges that inevitably arise in life? When we’re not happy because life feels hard?
The truth is that we can’t always be happy even when our personality would like that to be so.
What if we valued and focused on living a meaningful life and being resilient rather than striving to be happy?
When we focus on meaning, happiness and joy spontaneously arise when living in alignment with our more profound nature.
I worked for several years as a palliative care clinical nurse specialist. Did journeying with people at the end of their life make me happy? No, but it felt meaningful to me, and moments of joy would arise when I was gifted with a heart-to-heart connection with someone nearing the end of their life. There was a profound sense of what mattered when I knew my presence touched their life in a meaningful way, and their presence touched my life in a meaningful way.
I realized that I could recommit to my practice by shifting my focus from striving for inner peace and happiness to being resilient and living a meaningful life. I couldn’t practice being peaceful and happy, but I could practice building resilience in the face of challenging life circumstances and suffering.
Through my core meditation practice and a commitment to resilience, I successfully shifted my physiology and my mindset. I let go of the pressure and expectation to be happy and peaceful and focused on meaning.
An interesting thing happened as soon as I let go- I noticed that more moments of inner peace and happiness spontaneously arose amid the chaos and suffering.
As a result of these last few months, I’m letting go of my focus on happiness and focusing squarely on habits that lead to greater resilience and the meaning that arises when life is challenging.
Meaning expands our souls, and the outcome is a profoundly fulfilling life because we’re at peace that we’re not always meant to be happy.
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