I recently took a string of happiness and personality assessments that I found online.
I learned that that I am a contrarian optimist. I like to think of bright futures, and have faith that all will be well. But I also have a tendency toward catastrophic thinking that is … less than sunny.
But the bigger thing I learned is that I feel truly fulfilled and happy with my life, even if the day-to-day feels exhausting and repetitive and a bit limiting. And that contradiction was hard to articulate and understand.
A Little of This and a Little of That
At first, answering all those assessment questions, I felt like I had to call myself out a little bit.
I’m not ending every day jumping for joy. In fact, I find myself counting down to the kids’ bedtime many evenings and resisting the sleep that will usher in the chaotic start of another day. The thought of planning endless meals and doing an eternity of laundry is usually so exhausting that, well, I often just don’t do those things.
So why did I sincerely want to answer every question about my happiness at the top of the scale? Might I have been lying—trying to adhere to romanticized images of family life?
After some self-examination, I didn’t feel I was lying at all.
I am tired. I cry sometimes. I have chronically low energy inputs and chronically high energy outputs. I rarely have time in my day to do something simply for fun, just for me or for my marriage or in my friendships. Every day, I do much the same thing—and have very little flexibility in what needs to be done.
But I am also happy. A sleepy, sometimes reluctant, confused, and frustrated kind of happy—but happy nonetheless. And deeply so.
It’s hard to wrap my head around that. And it’s even harder to explain to others.
For example, when I have a bad day and just feel weepy or worn out, my husband often rushes to help. “What can I do?” he asks. And I’ll ask for some things, but then I’m still tired, and I think he wonders if I’m just unhappy. But that’s not it at all. I’m just worn out, or having a bad day.
It’s difficult to articulate how I am existentially happy but also temporally exhausted. But it’s true. It’s deeply true.
Less Hustle, More Humble
We like to think about happiness being a choice. And indeed, we choose joy to a great extent, as Saint Gianna Molla once said: “The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for all that He, in His goodness, sends to us day after day.”
But joy is not simply the absence of suffering. Happiness is not simply the opposite of sorrow.
Take these bits of wisdom from Fulton Sheen:
“Joy is the happiness of love—love aware of its own inner happiness. Pleasure comes from without, and joy comes from within, and it is, therefore, within reach of everyone in the world.”
“Pleasure is quick and violent, like a flash of lightning. Joy is steady and abiding, like a fixed star.”
We can own our sense of joy, but we do so primarily by letting go of our need for it. Because joy comes from love, and love can only be real when it is selfless—when we let go of our self-interest and invest ourselves, instead, in the wellbeing of another person, in loving the Lord.
This concept is in stark contrast to the often hedonistic world we live in today. “Do what makes you happy” is a common mantra, and we are often encouraged to prioritize our desires above all else in an effort to “achieve” happiness. YOLO, right?
I have often, in moments of restlessness or boredom or overwhelm, felt like I needed to pick up some valuable hobby or skill to make myself happier—or maybe just to buy something or go somewhere to find a little joy in my day. Surely a creative outlet would make me feel more energized? Or a side hustle would bring me more reward and validation in my talents? Or a trip somewhere sunny will leave me feeling rested and blissful?
So sometimes I try it. And lo: It’s never quite clicked. I didn’t have the energy to consistently put into a creative outlet, or a side hustle, or an academic pursuit. Or I bought the thing or went somewhere—and came back, settled in, and promptly felt exactly as exhausted as before. That’s not a great realization.
But I’ve learned that, even though this season of life—the one where I have small children and grown-up responsibilities and a full-time job and the urgent need to consistently take care of myself, too, in ways that don’t drain me even further—is busy and hectic and exhausting and emotionally draining, I am still a fundamentally happy person.
I’m happy with the family I’ve built with my husband. I’m happy with my relationships and my circumstances. I’m happy to be a working mom with a support system to help make that sustainable.
Little moments of pleasure help bring light to dark days, of course. And new things or hobbies or adventures can offer that. But I’ve had to learn to stop looking at those things as sources of happiness. I must instead understand that real, actual joy is a subtle and existential thing—something that comes more mysteriously and more fundamentally from within me, something that no fleeting fun can replicate.
Joy is Embracing the Freedom Born of Obedience
We are all called to follow the will of God for our lives. That doesn’t mean He makes every decision for us; we have free will. But staying on a holy path, to the best of our abilities, teaches us that temporary, situational happiness is much less important than sustained fulfillment in life—even (an especially) when reaching that fulfillment is extraordinarily hard in the moment. And we ultimately become better, more joyful people for that.
We can choose our attitudes and our behaviors. But we can’t choose every challenge we will face in life (or, often, its perfect resolution). Not every moment can be saturated in happiness, no matter how much we will it to be.
What we can do, in moments of pain, is close our eyes, breathe deep, and center our hearts on the energy that powers us: the knowledge that God loves us more profoundly than we’ll ever know, and that this moment in time—although it may feel truly massive for us—is no obstacle to eternity. We can find solace by resting, for even a moment, in that genuine and salvific love, and try our best to return that love.
The rest will follow, good or bad, and we will survive—eternally—if we do our part in loving God and others first.
So find joy in the little moments. Find it when you set aside yourself and get lost in a charitable endeavor or a gift for someone close to you. Find it in a cool breeze on a hot day, or a warm fire on a cold night. Find it in random acts of kindness and, above all, in God’s presence in the sacraments.
But in the bigger picture, know that you will find joy by seeking to understand God’s path for your life—and following it, even when it’s hard.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:36-40
Jesus did not give us his greatest commandment to impose more rules upon us. He wanted to ensure we take good care of our communities and honor his example, yes. But he was also giving us a great gift: the real key to happiness.
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” –John 15:10-12