What Does Happiness Mean to You?

By Jeni Juarez

A year or so ago, I was having a really beautiful conversation with a friend of mine. We were each sharing about how our life trajectories had changed over the years, and how we were now aspiring to different goals. I came right out and asked her, “What is it that you want?” She told me, “I just want to be happy.” 

I paused for a moment, took a breath, looked at her and asked, “What does that even mean? Suppose you get the perfect job, find the perfect partner, buy the perfect home, and find yourself in perfect health… then what? Do you just hold your breath and sit on your hands until you die?” We both laughed, but it opened up a great conversation. What if we suddenly got everything that we ever dreamed of all at once and without any struggle? Would it make us happy? 

Think about the last time you really had to work for something. You dreamed of it, and then you couldn’t stop thinking and talking about it. You planned out how you were going to get it, you put the work in, and sacrificed greatly. And then one day, it’s yours; you’ve reached your goal. How did it feel? Amazing? Thrilling? How long did that feeling last? Was it enough happiness to last you forever?

My guess is, no.

There’s even research to back up this phenomenon. A 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life found that people are often happier planning for and anticipating a vacation than they are on the actual vacation. There’s the bad weather, the car breakdown, the argument with your partner, the ungrateful crying children, the disappointing hotel room, the bad service… we don’t even need to comprehend Buddha’s Four Noble Truths to appreciate that life involves suffering, and suffering comes from not being okay with things how they are. 

Well, the good news is that there’s a solution to all of that uncomfortable not-getting-what-you-want or getting-what-you-don’t-want stuff: Stop the wanting! It’s the attachment, the craving, or the desire for things to be different than they are that makes us so damn miserable. 

Forget happiness – I’m in pursuit of steadiness

So, here’s my new aspiration: Equanimity!! Okay, I put the exclamation points there to make it seem more exciting than it is, but I get it. Being equanimous is just not as thrilling as blissfulness or ecstatic unending happiness. Hear me out. Equanimity is not a passive acceptance or a feeling of helplessness; it’s defined as “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” The Buddha explained that equanimity is the realization that nothing is permanent, and that cultivating it becomes a basis for wisdom, compassion, love, and freedom to naturally arise. Sounding a little juicier now, huh?

Life is not going to stop throwing us curve balls. Our looks will change, and we will inevitably get ill or injured or lose a job or a friend; people we love will die, and so will we eventually. But that doesn’t mean amazing things won’t happen along the way! Even simple things can give us immense joy if we can learn to pay attention. Watching a butterfly land on a flower, hearing a baby giggle, listening to an exquisite musical composition… life continually presents a buffet of sweetness and wonderment if we have the sensitivity to notice. So, what if instead of relentlessly pursuing happiness, we just learned how to notice what’s going on around us all the time, and practice just being with it? 

I’m not saying it’s easy work. Just try to pay full attention to your breath, and you’ll notice by the time you’re exhaling that you’re thinking about something OTHER than the breath. I’ll probably spend the rest of my lifetime (at least) watching myself react to situations that I once labeled as “bad,” or longing for the things I once labeled as “good,” but I do believe that over time, I can develop this profound, grounded steadiness that will allow me to ride the waves of life instead of resisting them. 

“…every experience of my life continues to shape me into who I am becoming.”

I believe this to be true because I’ve already experienced it in my life. Just by learning how to pay attention a bit more to being here, now, I am noticing sweet moments of joy throughout my days. The smirk on my daughter’s face, the taste of my morning coffee, the smell of my husband’s hair… Life is pretty amazing. And, when things aren’t going so great (doesn’t it sometimes seem like it’s always going to be this way?!), I’m learning to sit with that, too. And what I find is that every single terrible, awful, no-good, very bad day (or week or month or year) that I’ve had has taught me something. They’ve made me stronger, wiser, more compassionate… And I can’t in full integrity declare that I’d wish for any of those “bad” experiences to have never happened. Because in my heart, I know that every experience of my life continues to shape me into who I am becoming. 

And while it might seem like perfection to have everything you want all at once with no struggle, to me that actually sounds quite ephemeral if not boring. Life is meant to be messy and wild and uncertain. Instead of bracing ourselves against the winds of change, let’s just learn to dance with them. 


“Jeni Juarez is the GRCFM Office Manager, RYT-500 Yoga Teacher, and an amazing fellow traveler on the path.” – Carol Hendershot


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