Nothing Will Interfere With My….Happiness

A Soap Opera Story

Once upon a time, when I was in high school, I was introduced to the magical world of soap operas by a classmate: Days of Our Lives, in particular. I remember my 17 year-old self naively asking her, “What’s a soap opera?” as I had never grown up with them in my family. She explained that it was a TV show that was never the same twice: 5 days a week there was a new episode and some of the characters had been on the show for years. She also said that Days, known for its outrageous and sometimes wacky storylines, was the best.

I remember watching it with her a few times and finding it disjointed and seemingly random, but still being mildly interested. I then forgot about it for a year when I went to first-year university and turned it on again in a moment of stress during my second year of post-secondary. I remembered one of the characters and I just kept watching, to get to know more.

This started a 7-year relationship with this show that took me all the way through to the end of grad school. It was my go-to stress-management strategy at the time.

OK, big deal, so I watched this soap opera which I rarely think of anymore since I stopped watching it years ago. I get the banality of this story.

But I still think of Days from time to time because there is a line from the show that I’ll never forget; it struck me as oddly funny, when I first heard it, probably because I was concurrently being trained in counselling and psychotherapy. Uttered by the show’s grand dame at the time, Marlena Evans, with a wistful voice and a faraway look in her eyes:

“Nothing will interfere with my….happiness.” 

This statement was uttered dozens of times over the years and I remember questioning the realism of that statement, especially since the character of Marlena was also a psychiatrist, whom I thought should know better.

But if nothing else, I’ve learned a lot from that quote, referencing it many times in my own sessions, as it has caused me to think about the meaning of happiness and its role in life. It also has some underlying messages and assumptions that I think that many of us can relate to.

Happiness Defined

There are a number of definitions of happiness, from both the field of psychology and outside of it, but perhaps the definition provided by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is simplest: A state of wellbeing or contentment.

Happiness Assumptions

Some of these expectations may sound familiar.

Universal Happiness

This expectation comes from the idea that that every one of us has a right to happiness. A common phrase is “the happiness I deserve.”

Effortless Happiness

Happiness should not require effort, because to try at it would be unnatural and wrong.

Happiness, Expected

Happy is an ideal state that we are all supposed to possess.

But What About My Happiness?

Also a common line from Days of Our Lives. Our happiness is important and comes before everyone else’s.

Happiness Is Queen (or King)

It is a higher state of being and it should be prioritized over other qualities or emotional states.

Happiness is a Steady State

A truly happy person does not have ups and downs in life.

Re-Imagining Happiness

This section is not a “self help guide” to happiness, but rather, points to consider in evaluating the role of happiness in one’s life.

The Happiness We Deserve?

The idea that happiness is owed to us is like a direct ticket onto the self-pity train if we start to feel less….happy. Gratitude for things—and the search for gratitude wherever possible–is a worthy antidote.

Happiness is Our Responsibility

This may sound like an unpleasant idea, but one of the benefits of assuming responsibility for our happiness is that we we can take charge of our efforts and take credit for when the fruit of these efforts ripens. We are the secret ingredient.

Happiness Takes Work

Happiness is not an accidental thing or something that “just happens.” How I choose to perceive things constitutes a series of active decisions, moment by moment, both conscious and intuitive. I regularly like to challenge myself to find gratitude in moments where initially there seems to be nothing to feel grateful for.

Additionally, I still get surprised about how “mistakes” can lead to happiness, particularly when we feel that we have learned something new and important as a result, or made an important change in our behaviour.

Happiness is Not a Possession

I’ve noticed that some of us have an impersonal or objectified relationship with happiness, as if it were a figurine that we take down from a shelf, admire and put back when we’re done. True happiness comes from our lived experience and is part of us—not separate. I see this as an important point because when it’s real and true to us, we’re more invested in it.

Life Happens

There are life circumstances that arise that will “interfere” with happiness – and this is normal and natural. Examples include the loss of a friend or loved one, challenging life transitions, the onset of illness, or unexpected or tragic life events. Pain, sadness, grief, are expected human responses. The time it takes to move through the emotions that such experiences engender will vary and support from others can be crucial. Asking for help is often a big part of the prescription here! There are other options too.

Happiness is Not Necessarily Dependent on Circumstances

For years I have been humbled by the writings of the late Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and survivor of the holocaust, who, despite living through unimaginable horror, maintained that human being still have control about how they choose to see things, no matter what the circumstances:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

This quote has always helped me aspire towards choice, wherever possible.

And this is NOT to say that one should stay in horrific circumstances and simply work on one’s perspective. If you find yourself knee-deep in emotional suffering, a crisis, or horrendous circumstances, reaching out to a counsellor, loved one or other trusted helper or professional who understands and can assist with your specific situation is an important first step (and why articles such as this one are general and should never constitute specific advice).

Expect Undulations

Happiness is not a steady state. Life has happy moments, sad moments and lots of in-between. We can work at not being pulled entirely off course, but still there will be undulations in how we feel. Life is in constant flux.

Happiness Is Not the One and Only

I have never approached happiness as a “finish line” or ideal that must be upheld. To do so would be to ignore other thoughts, feelings and body sensations which bring richness to life.

We All Matter

Happiness is not a contest, where only the individual can win. Some of my happiest moments have been when happiness has been shared, not won. And yes, taking time for self-care is an essential thing, but it need not be practiced at the expense of others!

Appreciating Equanimity

Equanimity is a little-discussed practice. The dictionary Merriam-Webster explains it thus:

Both “equanimity” and “equal” are derived from “aequus,” a Latin adjective meaning “level” or “equal.” “Equanimity” comes from the combination of “aequus” and “animus” (“soul” or “mind”) in the Latin phrase aequo animo, which means “with even mind.”

On a personal note, I aspire to equanimity over happiness—the presence of mind and heart to face the ups and downs in life, whatever the circumstances. For those who have read the ‘fine print’ on my home page, equanimity was, in part, the inspiration for the choice of Willow Tree for the name of my counselling practice:

The willow is…characterized by its supple branches, an analogy for flexibility amidst the ever-changing conditions of life.

Thank you for reading and I wish all of you a joyful year ahead, in whatever way is meaningful for you!