on the sheer effort of happiness.
As a teenager, I didn’t really enjoy being alive. Sure, there were highlight reels; moments dipped in amber light that still make me smile today; but for the most part, I struggled with a deep, deep sadness that has cloaked most of the memories I have of that decade. I’d often escape into online worlds to avoid being present in real life, and to date, one of my biggest regrets is not having enough pictures or making enough memories with my friends at school. I just didn’t want to be seen.
As an adult, it’s been a while since I felt debilitated by the sheer weight of my emotions. I have a few guesses as to why this is so, and it boils down to two things:
I have changed my perspective on happiness.
I allow myself to feel my emotions.
Yesterday morning, while I brushed my teeth, I thought about the phrase: “spark joy.” I don’t know where I first saw it or why it has occupied so much mental real estate lately, but it’s a curious concept. To spark something is to create something out of nothing. To spark something requires effort. During science class as a kid, I learned that if you struck two rocks against each other, you could create fire. The process of striking rocks requires friction, which is distilled effort.
Sparking joy means you create it for yourself. It also means some level of effort is required to do so. John Green once made a TikTok that made me laugh. In it, he shared how the little things his therapist told him to do, like taking a walk when sad, listening to music when angry, etc., actually improved his mental health. I’ve thought about it, and I think it makes a lot of sense. We put effort into maintaining our bodies. We don’t say, “because I’m human, I won’t shower, or workout, wear perfumes or make an effort to look good.” So why do we believe our emotional life doesn’t require effort to maintain?
I wish I had known this when I was younger. I used to believe happiness was something that came from deep within, and if it wasn’t manufactured organically, then anything I felt was a shoddy replicate, a forgery that would be exposed when placed side by side with whatever conception of happiness was believed to be real. I would spend hours asking myself why I felt so sad, but in the moments when I experienced some modicum of happiness as a result of an activity I was engaged in, like a book I was reading, or a horror movie hangout with friends spent laughing our lungs out, I’d feel a sense of dread that the happiness I was experiencing at that moment wasn’t genuine. As a result, I couldn’t fully live in the moment because I always worried about what would happen after it was over. My few moments of happiness were stolen by my fears.
It took a while for me to realize that my conception of happiness affected my ability to truly enjoy life. I thought happiness was a perpetual state of bliss, an eternal feeling that didn’t depend on my effort or circumstances to manifest. At church, I would hear sermons about how joy came from God and prayed desperately to have it until I started to believe that perhaps I never would, and that I didn’t deserve it.
Thoreau says that “Happiness is as a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” And Lana del Rey says that “Happiness is a butterfly/ We should catch it while dancing/I lose myself in the music, baby/ Every day is a lullaby/ Try to catch it like lightning.”
Maybe there is a happiness that blooms from deep within, and doesn’t depend on surrounding events to be felt, and maybe someday I would stumble upon it and write an article like this one, sharing how I was doing some chore when it dawned upon me. But presently, I have good reason to believe that happiness requires effort, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If I have to brush my teeth every day, so they don’t go gangrenous and fall off, then I should be able to listen to music that makes me feel good whenever I’m down, or call my friends and gist, or buy croissants and cheese balls, or think about the beautiful things that make life worth living, or watch a very cheesy rom-com, without thinking that I am deceiving myself and the happiness I am experiencing isn’t real.
I am creating my happiness in those moments.
I am making my life easier to live, and that’s 100% okay.
In 2020, while undergoing a major depressive episode, I stumbled upon 101 Essays That Will Change the Way you Think by Brianna Wiest.
In this book, Wiest emphasized living in the moment and allowing your emotions to course through you. Before this time, I had internalized the idea that only good emotions deserved to be felt. All around me, the norm was an almost fearful relationship with any emotions that did not inspire social comfort. As a result, anger was evil, guilt couldn’t be spoken of and envy was a ghost sitting in the back of our throats.
That book taught me that all emotions are manifestations of something else. Emotions are symptoms. You feel anger because you feel something is unfair. You feel fear because you crave control. Your anxiety is your resistance to the process, your final attempts at exerting a control you do not have. Your tiredness is a manifestation of your reluctance to accept the person you really are. Your envy is a strong desire for something you believe you shouldn’t have. Your annoyance is repressed anger. Your depression, biological factors aside, is everything coming to the surface, and your failed attempts at pushing them back.
Emotions are symptoms, and symptoms point us to the existence of a problem. All we have to do is listen to them. I am learning how to sit with my emotions and hear what they have to say instead of stuffing them in a box and throwing away the key. There’s nothing wrong with feeling things, even when they are negative, even when they are wrong. What you do with your feelings is what matters. Do you act on them? Or do you take your time to think about them and find out why you feel the way you do?
Trust me, it makes all the difference.
So these are my tips for how to live a happier life. You’re a creative being, so create happiness for yourself, and give your emotions space to breathe.
This week, I consumed the following media:
Little Women (K-drama): This story is about three sisters and their relationship with wealth. It’s a really interesting exposé on human nature. Lol.
My Liberation Notes (K-drama): This is a story about siblings living in the outskirts of Seoul (South Korea) and their journey as they explore singlehood, loneliness, depression, work fatigue, feeling stuck, etc. It is dialogue-led, not action-led, which gives it an easy soft spot in my heart.
Haikyuu! (Anime): This is a volleyball anime I have watched several times. I’m currently watching it again with my brother.
Copious listens to Asake’s album. Sunmomi is an amazing song.
I am also reading the script of the pilot of Quinta Brunson’s Abbott Elementary, following her Emmy win. It’s so much fun.
That’s all from me. I miss the times when I could read two books in a week. Life has been demanding so much from me, but I’m bad asf, so I will overcome. And so will you.
In any case, I hope you remain militant about your joy this week we’re entering. Actively create happiness for youself. Guard it with your life. Leave dementors that suck your joy. This is not Harry Potter, this is real life.
I’ll be rooting for you (as always)!
Thanks for reading 20 Something! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.