If happiness could look like something, what would it be?
Some people might answer with sunshine, rainbows, hot chocolate, or freshly done laundry. Others might say getting birthday presents, spending time with their kids, or jumping onto the couch after a merciless day at work.
But when I try imagining happiness, it doesn’t come up with nearly the same resolution. The most I get is a fuzzy blob that doesn’t quite begin or end anywhere. I don’t know what it is, and I doubt anyone else really does either.
But, shouldn’t we know?
Normally, not knowing wouldn’t be a problem. After all, there’s countless obscure concepts, things, and experiences we never even knew existed, and we’re doing completely fine without them. But this matters.
Most people define their reason for existing with that word. If there’s one thing that’s kept humans growing faster and longer than any other species, it was the knowledge that our actions could lead us to it. If there’s one thing that makes life special, it’s that. How can’t we know what it means?
It’s frustrating, really. If happiness is our destination and we don’t even know what it looks like, how can we expect to get there? How do we know we’re getting any closer or drifting further away? If happiness fell from the sky and hit us, would we even notice? We wouldn’t. There’s no way we would.
We’re lost. We don’t know where we’re going, so anywhere we end up wandering off to becomes the wrong direction. Then, we panic. Suddenly, we realize that nothing’s under our control and the best we could ever hope to do is hold on to something and stay still.
That’s a hellscape called life.
Most of us see it take the form of a river that never stops flowing forward. If you don’t pay attention, it’ll seem slow. That doesn’t change anything, though. It doesn’t change the eventual fate of anything inside it, or make your future any easier to swallow.
But, everyone who gets stuck in this river usually end up finding some comfort. With a little bit of thrashing and turning, they figure something out. Whenever they grab something— even if it’s for a few seconds — they get to escape the torment of that endless, emotionless water. It’s the one thing they can control and find some peace in.
Of course, that still doesn’t change anything, does it? It only prolongs the inevitable. You can only hold on to something for so long, no matter how hard you try. It’s quite a situation. Just remember though — I’m talking about us. This is how we navigate the river of life.
Could you call that journey a happy one? Are we supposed to keep grabbing onto these things as long as we can? Does leaving reality make the situation any better than it is?
It’s hard to say for certain, but it sure doesn’t feel right.
Considering how life’s going to pull everything forward regardless of what we try, pushing against it doesn’t make much sense. If anything, holding on’s just going to make letting go a lot harder in the future:
Every time we get wrenched away from what we hold on to, the more we get reminded about how we never had any control in the first place.
If that’s what happiness really is, then I don’t know about you — but I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it. It’s temporary and weak and unreliable. Most of all, it’s fake compared to that river. The objects we rest our hands on will all disappear over time. More than happiness, we’re experiencing the bliss that comes from ignoring reality for a while. But still, the river keeps flowing.
The river keeps flowing, and we’re not alone. There’s about seven billion of us feeling our way through the same reality and trying to process it in our own ways. As a result, we try holding on to different things in search of anything permanent.
Those rocks, tree branches, and the occasional piece of driftwood. Those things we hold on to. You know what they are, don’t you? They’re the things that’ll eventually leave you, and the ones you don’t want to leave behind.
For some people, those things take the form of money. For others, recognition or fame is what keeps them from drowning. To a few, it’s something as simple as being better than the people around them. For a moment, they make us feel like we’ve left the cruel trick that was being played on us.
When we’re forced to let go, we come crashing back into the inevitable and want to go back to our dream. We don’t want to wake up.
This is exactly where life becomes hell.
We know deep down that none of what we’re holding onto will last. Knowing that, we all reach for something. Each time we do, we somehow find a way to convince ourself that “this is the one.”
But we don’t just stop there. We try convincing each other that we’ve found something real. Something that’ll never break in the face of life and keep us in bliss for the rest of our lives.
What’s even worse is how we end up believing each other. Jealous of everyone else’s rock or twig or piece of driftwood, we all feel inferior to each other and sink a little lower than before.
We think we’re looking for happiness, but I think we’re just trying to find something real. More than anything else, we’re looking for a thing, a concept, or an idea that won’t die. Something that’ll never fail us.
Maybe that’s why so many of us believe in gods or angels or deities that’ll one day save us from the chaos we’re in. That’s because we want to believe in them more than anything. They’re a better, calmer, safer reality to take refuge in. Maybe that’s a good decision, or maybe that’s a bad one. Ultimately, the river still flows the same way, and at the same speed.
If happiness exists somewhere, it’ll probably be somewhere next to where reality’s hiding. If it exists, it can’t be something as shallow as running away from things. It can’t end so easily and exist to whisk us away from the pain of reality. It has to be there for us, and give us enough strength to face reality.
While billions of people yell and glare at each other for holding their impermanent stones and twigs and piece of driftwood, you’d be lucky to find a quiet one. Someone softly floating ahead. Not wasting the time to hold on to anything, but taking in the view with a big smile on their face.
We’re looking for something real, but we’ve already met reality face-to-face. It’s the river nudging your forward, and there’s nothing more real than that:
You always end up finding reality where you least want to find it.
Don’t underestimate that river. It’ll break down everything in its path and carry it forward to eternity. It makes us want to hide in a corner and close our eyes for the rest of our lives.
With enough time, it’ll grind any stone you could hold onto into sand. But the fact that it doesn’t do the same to you means you’re stronger than that. All you have to do is stop holding on to the things in life, and start holding on to life itself.
So keep floating, my friend.