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The Road to Happiness is Pathed with Bad Emotions

When I was in high school, somebody asked me what I thought the meaning of life was. “To be happy,” I said, matter-of-factly.

I, in my teenage naivete, thought this answer was obvious. I have since learned that people come to many different conclusions about their own life meaning: dedication to God, family, morality, or a legacy left behind often trump happiness as people’s central reason for living.

While the meaning of life may be happiness, the meaning of capitalism certainly is not. Stress, work, and financial struggles often get in the way of happiness, through no fault of the individual — or things we think should make us happy, like drugs, social media, or consumerism, can actually just exacerbate our unhappiness.

In the near-decade since I gave my own simple, naive answer, my view of happiness has become more complicated — but it has not become less important to me. In my early adulthood, I mistook happiness for hedonistic pleasure — a crucial part of happiness, sure, but not the whole kit and caboodle. As many young people do, I overindulged in weed and booze and pursued fleeting moments of feeling good at the expense of other people’s feelings, people who mattered to me. I was miserable, acutely struggling with depression, anxiety, and self-loathing.

Through a combination of sobriety, medication, therapy, and frontal lobe development, I have been able to overcome this misery. Freeing myself from the prison of my mental illness has opened my heart up to a happiness I wasn’t even aware was possible when I gave that answer in high school. Maintaining my happiness still requires having fun with my loved ones, seeking new experiences, and pursuing bodily pleasure, but it also requires responsibility to my friends, family, and coworkers; moving my body; producing work I’m proud of; and, perhaps most importantly, feeling all my feelings, sadness included.

The biggest shift I’ve experienced in my mental health going from untreated to treated is that sadness, insecurity, and anxiety live far more comfortably in my body. Before treating my mental health issues, every time one of these feelings crept into my mind (which was often), I felt completely overcome, frozen in place and spiraling deep into every possible worst-case scenario: I am anxious, therefore I am a failure and I am a freak who nobody loves and I will probably never feel good again, et cetera, et cetera. I expected that mental well-being would preclude these “negative” emotions, but in reality, they simply no longer equate to earth-shattering, shame-ridden panic. They appear, visit my mind for a little bit, and see their way out once I’ve allowed them to run their course.

To live a happy life, I know there needs to be room at the table for my grief, fear, and self-doubt, because like it or not, these feelings are real parts of me. If I live in denial of that fact, I will be consumed by them. The meaning I have chosen for my life is still to be happy, but it is also to be sad and scared and angry. It is to feel every feeling life has to offer, and to feel them in their entirety so that I can fully enjoy the gift of being alive.