The other day, the idea of happiness inundated my thoughts and I couldn't stop thinking about what happiness means. I was not so concerned with the denotation of the word, but more about the connotation and how it correlates differently with different people and why. From there, I could not help but think about my definition of happiness and how it has changed since I quit drinking. What seems so obvious to me now, I know is quite foreign to anyone who has not yet experienced the difference between happiness while in active addiction and happiness in the absence of addiction. How do I articulate to someone still using, their perceived happiness may in fact, not actually be a reliable measure of the truth? This got me thinking about other aspects of our realities while using that may also be only a fraction of the truth. How we define fun, for example, is much different for the person living without alcohol than the person still using. Another example, and this one stings a bit, is how we define our friendships. How much of our reality while in active addiction is actually false? How do we know? And, more importantly, what do we do about it once we know the difference?
What is happiness? Can you define it? We all think we know what it means, but do we really know what it means to us? Do we actively seek out happiness, or do we expect or hope for it to emerge for us? My favorite comedian, Bo Burnham's last stand-up special was called Make Happy. He talked a lot about the illusion of happiness and how we try to convince ourselves we are happy when we may, in fact, be quite miserable. He talked about how social media is destroying any hope we have of actually finding the happiness we so desperately seek. There is a strong and undeniable difference between intrinsic and extrinsic happiness. One is given to us, the other is created by us. Like anything else in the world, the things that hold the most meaning are often the things we have to work to obtain.
When I was in active addiction, I pretty much lived for what my therapist taught me was extrinsic motivators. I truly believed nothing was worth doing unless I received something tangible in return. I needed to see a result or reward for my work. In my mind, it made no sense to work hard for no reason. Why would someone do that? I remember even trying to use this way of thinking in therapy. If I do this, then I get this? My therapist did not entertain my need for extrinsic motivation. She simply kept pushing me toward what I really needed but never before experienced, intrinsic motivators. The idea of working hard for a feeling was absolutely ridiculous in my mind. So what, I work my ass off and then get to feel good about it? That's stupid. How do I show someone my feelings? How do I brag about what I have accomplished if I have nothing to show for it? You don't, idiot.
In my defense, I didn't know the difference. I believed my worth was defined by what I could prove or show off to others. I thought I had to literally put my accomplishments on a pedestal for all to see in order for others to acknowledge me as a successful person. My happiness was derived from other people and other things. My happiness was wholly extrinsic. When I quit drinking and using nicotine I, for the first time, received an intrinsic reward and finally understood what my therapist had been trying to show me for over a year. I felt accomplished. I felt strong. I felt successful. I felt happy. What did I have to show for it? Nothing but a feeling and that feeling is worth more today than any material thing I have ever received. What is even better is when the feeling becomes an expectation. It is no longer something we strive for, it is something we deserve and because of that, we are more open to seeing from where happiness actually originates. It comes from within and only we can create our own happiness and joy. Nobody can give it to us and nobody can define it for us. Happiness is not a thing, it is a state of being that cannot be seen or shown off. Only we know what happiness means for us and only we know how to achieve it. Here is a good place to start. Stop looking for it and start learning how to feel it.