psychology,spirituality

when chasing happiness feels like a dead end

Two months ago I could not see a thing out of my right eye.

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After undergoing surgery in December to repair a detached retina, the doctor placed a gas bubble in my eye to hold the retina in place while it healed. Which meant that I was temporarily blind in one eye. Without the benefit of dual vision, I had no depth perception or peripheral vision – I couldn’t drive, replace a pen cap or apply mascara; I walked into walls, my dog and my kids on a daily basis.

As I stumbled around my house and attempted to make an eye patch fashionable, I swore to myself: I will never take my vision for granted again. When this gets better and I can see, I will be so happy.

Have you ever fallen into this trap? When faced with difficulty, have you found yourself thinking, “If only I didn’t have to deal with this  _______  (diagnosis, spouse, job, house, friend, family member, child, boss, financial situation…), then I would be happy?” And eventually, that bad thing diminishes or passes, and you are thankful. But somehow the good feeling doesn’t last and new frustrations or difficulties arise that take your attention.

And it works the other way too, right? Not only do we tell ourselves that getting rid of bad stuff will bring contentment, but we also think that acquiring good stuff will make us happy: “If only I could ______________(get married, have a baby, get a better job, retire, get a new house, have a different spouse, have better behaved kids…), then I would be happy. “ And pleasant circumstances do make us feel happy – until our attention shifts to the next item on our list of wants and goals.


Because we tell ourselves the story that bad things make us unhappy and good things make us happy, we spend a lot of energy chasing pleasure and pushing away discomfort

This sounds perfectly reasonable, right?  Except it’s wrong.

Have you ever met someone with a chronic and severe illness whose inner joy and peace inspired you? Or a wealthy and successful person whose discontent and unhappiness led to constant anger and criticism? If circumstances were responsible for our happiness, these scenarios would be unthinkable.

In one well-known study, lottery winners were interviewed a year after their life-changing win and reported being no more happy than non-winners. What’s more, they actually reported less pleasure in daily activities (like going out to lunch or watching tv) than non-winners.

As it turns out, our circumstances – whether positive or negative – actually only account for about ten percent of our happiness. And that phenomenon where your happiness buzz wears off after getting rid of a bad thing or acquiring a good thing? Psychologists have a word for that: hedonic adaptation. Humans have an incredible capacity for quickly adjusting to sensory changes. Have you ever gone to a movie theatre on a steaming hot summer day and welcomed the frigid air conditioning as you sat down, only to find yourself shivering and uncomfortable a short while later? Even if you’re been outside in the heat for hours, your body will quickly acclimate to the cool air inside.

So while good things do make us feel happy – it’s only temporary. And when painful circumstances end, we are grateful – but we quickly readjust to the new normal, whatever that might be in our lives.

Having vision in both eyes feels normal again to me, but I still can’t read with my right eye. When I am intentional about remembering what my vision was like in December, I feel incredibly grateful for the massive improvements – but it’s easy for me to miss the gratitude in my frustration about my inability to read.

You may be in a low or a high place today in your emotions, your circumstances, or your life season. But here is the good news, friend. Your peace, contentment, well-being and happiness do not depend on arriving at some fantasied future in which you acquire a bunch of good stuff or get rid of a bunch of bad stuff. The one and only place where peace can be found is in this. present. moment. It is NOT out there and then, but it is only to be found here and now.

Here’s the truth of my life right now – it makes me angry that I can’t read. But being angry doesn’t change the reality of my life. I can be mad and stomp around and even throw my books across the room. But having a meltdown won’t change my vision. And it won’t really make me feel any better either.

Here’s what does make me feel better – looking around my imperfect life with my messed-up eye. Listening to my daughter sing to herself and her favorite stuffed ponies, feeling my toddler’s hands as he pats my face at six am, watching my husband tear up while coaching our son’s basketball team at a tough loss in their final game. It’s sitting in my closet drinking coffee and reading (with my good eye and the flashlight of my phone) early in the morning. It’s meeting God in the eyes and stories of those folks who sit in my counseling office. This is my life, and God is here, and joy is here, and contentment is here. Whether I feel it or not moment by moment, it is here.

If your life is filled with pain right now, these words may seem like vinegar. And you may be right. I have sat with too many folks whose stories of loss and trauma and abuse and heartbreak are unthinkable. And yet, for you more than anyone else, let me urge you to fight for moments of grace and joy even more. Even if it’s as small as noticing a rainbow reflection on your window during a torrential downpour, or a lily blooming in your garden, search for it. Look for that which can – here and now – allow you to take a deep breath and just be here now.

Long before psychologists came up with the concept of hedonic adaptation, the apostle Paul shared the antithesis of it in the book of Philippians. His approach to happiness sounded like this:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.

And so today, let me invite you to hold the circumstances in your life loosely. If your life is enjoyable and prosperous, then be thankful and ask God to teach you the secret of contentment. Invite God to show you where you can share the bounty of all you have received. If, on the other hand, your life is filled with pain, struggle or fear, then ask God to breathe his life and sustenance into you moment by moment and to provide strength beyond measure to cope with whatever unfolds before you this day.

 

 

originally published 3/2/16

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