If Happiness is a Skill, I Need to Train Harder

Happiness is not an emotion. Happiness is not something you get rewarded with by checking off the right boxes. No, happiness is a skill. Happiness is a choice.

I don’t remember where I first heard about that concept. But when I did, it made a lot of sense. We aren’t working toward some unknown quantity of happiness if we cross X, Y, and Z off some existential list. If we do that, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. 


More than that, we’re wasting our lives.

Because when we live our lives that way, we will never be happy. We can’t be. It’s where the term rat race comes in, or the daily grind, or even keeping up with the Jonses. It’s the idea that our future will be happy if we sacrifice our today.

And y’all, that’s not how it works.

All you really and truly get by sacrificing today is a lot of wasted time, missed opportunities, and regret. Believe me — I know. I’ve wished away a good part of my life, as my parents always put it. And I’m not happy. I’m not 100% sure if I ever have been.

The Difference in Happiness and Joy

You may be thinking this is absurd. That everyone’s been happy before.  And you’re probably true. At some point in most of our lives (likely during our childhoods), we’ve experienced true happiness. The sublime. That state of existence where things are just…good.

Note what I said there: state of existence.

Not emotion. Because as we go from moment to moment, those good, gushy feelings that we tend to call happiness…aren’t. They’re joy. Joy at opening presents on Christmas morning. Joy when you kiss the love of your life for the first time, joy from hearing infant twins giggle as they play with your hairbrushes, and joy from running a half-marathon and taking a selfie with a Stormtrooper at the finish line.

But none of those is happiness. Because happiness is a choice. During each of those individual moments, we felt a rush of endorphins and a shot of dopamine and a desire to feel that way all the time.

But did we? No.

Could we? No.

Joy is amazing and intense and entirely unsustainable. But we can be happy all the time. That’s part of the difference. And also part of what what makes it really sad that most of us don’t experience it much at all, if ever.

Why Happiness is a Choice

Happiness is being okay with what you have, when you have it, while living life in a mindful and grateful way. It isn’t looking for tomorrow to be better than today. It isn’t yearning and pining for the Next Big Thing to come your way, better opportunities, more shinies or more screens, nothing like that. Happiness is living today like it is and being okay with that.

That’s not to say that you aren’t planning for the future. Or that happy people don’t have things they don’t look forward to.

But their emotional well-being, mood, and mental health aren’t depending on things being different. Or depending on things they can’t control.

That…is happiness.

And it’s hard. You have to work at it. Our default setting as people is not to be content with what we have. Most of us are not good at this. I am not good at this. 

And honestly, I think that’s why I am not sure if I have ever been happy. But I can work on that.

Happiness is a Skill to Train

You can’t get better at running without running. You can’t get better at writing without writing. Or cooking without cooking. Or painting without painting. You get it.

So why would being happy be any different? If all we had to do to be happy was choose to be, we’d all be walking on rainbows eating marshmallows all day. But just because you choose to do something doesn’t mean you can do it.

You have to work at it. Sometimes really hard.

And that’s where I am right now. I am trying to choose to be happy. With the grief in my life and unbelievable mental fog I’ve been living in, even that’s not easy.

But I am trying. Actually, maybe the real skill isn’t being happy itself, but making the choice to be. Because that’s what I am trying on.

Because looking at the coming holidays and then two weeks later mine and my mom’s shared birthday in January, I just want the next few months to pass and be over. That’s making me not so happy.

I have days where I can choose to see the good in life right now. My wife and I will be married for 9 years in two weeks (on Halloween), and I have the best doggo and kitty in the whole wide world. Some days, I can see that and smile and sit in that moment of being good with where things are.

Then it fades. Despite my choice of being happy, despite my not wanting to feel the way I feel, I can look outside and see the sun shining in through the blinds as I walk through the living room and say (and this literally happened, by the way) “Man, fuck the sun.”

That is not happiness.

But I recognize it’s not. And I can address that. Just as an athlete sees the problems in their last game and practices to improve them, I can, too.

If a football player runs speed drills so they can make it around the defensive line, then I can run happiness drills. When I see something beautiful (perhaps the sun), I can try to appreciate it and not literally get mad that it exists and is pretty outside.

I can appreciate that my dog loves me and is never happier than when her whole pack is together in the floor at night, rather than lying on the couch on my phone and getting annoyed she’s bumping her head into my arm to get my attention.

This isn’t easy. It’s training. It’s a skill to be able to see the things around you and appreciate them, to not want something else than what’s right there. To not take for granted that you’re alive and breathing and that’s a statistically improbable occurrence in and of itself. (I think it was Deepak Chopra who said that originally, maybe. It’s like the one cool thing the guy’s ever said.)

So yeah. Happiness is a choice. It doesn’t just happen to people. You choose to be happy.

And you have to work hard every single day to make that choice. You will fail. I will fail. But eventually, we will make that our default choice. It will be natural.

Like ordering water at a restaurant instead of soda, the more times you do it, the easier it becomes. Like running a 5k and moving into a 10k and forward. The more you run, the distances eventually become easier.

So I’m trying choose happiness. I am training daily to enhance this skill. I’m good at a great number of things, but not wishing my life away and being content with what’s around me aren’t numbered there.

I want them to be. I want to be happy. And I am ready to put the work in so that one day I can know what that’s like.

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