As a kid, I heard a lot of talk about the importance of happiness. “I just want you to be happy.” It’s a bar, I suppose. I can’t decide if it’s a low bar or a high bar, but happiness is indeed a goal. As an adult who has been through some pretty highs and lows of the human experience, I know that happiness is not as simple as being happy. I also know that my sense of happiness is magnified when compared to the sense of unhappiness I have experienced. So that makes me wonder, what is happiness? Is it a level or an amount? Is it a deepness or a greatness? Or is it some mix of that based on an exact formula?
We see wildly popular and successful people spiral out of control all the time, ultimately ending their own life in an act of defiance for every standard they were striving for. Leaving everyone they love, who love them behind, to ask questions that can never be answered. Where did we go wrong? Didn’t we make them happy enough? I thought they were happy. They seemed so happy. Which begs the question, if happiness is a spectrum, is it met by an opposite and equal opposing side? If you are able to experience the strongest, most intense happiness there is, are you destined to also experience the deepest depths of emotional pain?
Of course, bipolar disorder exists. Previously labeled “manic depressive disorder,” the symptoms of such a difficult diagnosis are a magnified representative of my above dialogue. BPD effects 2.5% of the population and is often linked to genetically passed down mental illness. But like the range of alcoholism, is there “functional BPD”? I want to be careful not to undermine a very real disorder, and state that if you have “highs and lows” that are impacting your daily function, please seek professional help.
All of that aside, does everyone have a limit of magnitude on both sides of happy and sad? And are these limits capable of increasing and/or decreasing with experience? For example, will a famous rock star who has experienced everything money can buy be setting himself up for future grief? Will someone who has been hurt by abuse and turmoil in relationships be more able to soak all the way in to happiness once it comes around? And is it the gratitude of simple happiness that amplifies the feeling? And on the other side, does the absence of that surge make the mundane feel sad?
Most people I know who seem truly content are the people who are pretty quiet. They aren’t the ones posting on social media about how HAPPY they are, or about perfect their life is. They seem to be pretty happy in all of the moments. Nothing seems tragic in their life, even if you’ve learned later that they were going through some pretty heavy stuff for a while. They’re like a ship sailing through calm waters, gently swaying with the motions.
If you could choose, if it’s even a choice rather than a predisposition, what would you prefer? To experience the vast depths of human emotion, even if it means taking the bad? Or to feel a steady stream of quiet bliss, rarely ecstatic but never mentally desolate?
I’d love to hear some thoughts on this, so feel free to leave yours in the comments.