I am terrified of sadness.
Today, I am happy. I am happy with my home, with my family, and with my job. But, strangely, it is during these times that I begin to fear that everything will collapse. It’s when I fear sadness and harder times.
Because I am obsessed with happiness.
I don’t want to lose what I have, and I want to expect that I will always be happy.
This has made me wonder if we, as a society, are all obsessed with happiness, as if it is the main goal of our lives. How often has our obsession with happiness gotten in the way of something better?
The Expectation of Happiness
Happiness is what I have been sold my whole life. If you buy this, you will be happy. If you go to college, you will be happy. If you get married, you will be happy. If you follow God, you will be happy.
On social media, I feel like I have to share only happy things because I see that all of my friends are happy.
If I am not happy, I feel that I either need something to fix it, or that something is wrong with me.
Saturday was my 26th birthday, and I was reminded of how birthdays used to be something that caused anxiety for me because of the pressure to be happy. If I wasn’t happy on my birthday, then that unhappiness was amplified because birthdays are supposed to be special.
On Saturday, I did want to have a good day, but I have also learned to let go of those expectations. I didn’t have to do anything extraordinary. I only had to relax and be grateful for another year. I spent time with my husband at home, then had family over for a cookout. That was all. And it was a beautiful day. I was happy, but, more importantly, I was at peace.
Letting go of the expectation helped me embrace what was.
I don’t think it’s wrong to expect and hope for happiness. In fact, in Get Your Hopes Up: Daring to Be Positive, I wrote about the importance of positive thinking. But the obsession with happiness has gotten in the way of me embracing many of the harder seasons in my life.
Fear of Sadness
Because I have grown up with generalized anxiety disorder, which has often brought me to dark, unhappy places, I have become terrified of sadness and where it might take me. I’m terrified that sadness will become anxiety, and that anxiety will become depression.
Sadness has hit me the hardest because of fear of a future without happiness. Even though the present is good, I am trapped in imaginary scenarios that cripple me.
And yet I am still shocked when true sadness hits me, as if I deserve more. As if God, who sent God’s own son to suffer, should have shielded me from pain.
But Jesus never promised happiness.
Happiness. I’ve used this word like it is everything I need. But is it? Are there not things even better than happiness?
For the past year, I have considered this question, and I now believe that, yes, there are things better!
I could name many, many things, but the four that I cling to are these: purpose, wholeness, hope, and connection.
Purpose is better than happiness
Purpose can mean a lot of things, but I especially believe in the importance and beauty of finding meaning by meeting the needs of the people around me. I can do this through my job (teaching), through writing, or through serving my family and friends.
I’m reminded of a podcast I listen to by Kathy Heller, who begins each show by saying, “I believe the opposite of depression is not happiness: it is purpose.”
I don’t think she is saying that depression is miraculously solved by getting a job, but I love how this statement shifts the perspective. Instead of obsessing over trying to dramatically change emotions, we can instead act towards making the world better. It is not about fixing sadness with more things or more positive feelings; it is about choosing to give ourselves to something and finding that we are capable of bringing beauty to someone’s life.
I have found this to be true in my own life whenever I shift my focus away from myself and instead think, “How can I love someone today? How can I serve?” On some days, I don’t have an answer. But I can always pray. I can deepen my relationship with God. I can take care of myself and recharge so I have the energy to go out.
Wholeness is better than happiness
Last year, I read this quote by Hugh Mackay that dramatically changed my thinking. He suggests that what we need is not happiness but wholeness. Mackay says that we act like happiness is the “default position” that we must always strive for, but that this negates the importance of pain and hardships in making us whole.
When I pursue happiness, every moment of sadness or anger or frustration is a set-back. When I pursue wholeness, every emotion is valid for growth.
Wholeness. When I think of the word, I think of something more than happiness or peace or even joy. I think of a person who is strong and empathetic who fearlessly embraces her emotions as they come, who does not fight them but uses them as they were intended to be used. We do not have emotions without reason. Emotions make us human, and they make us strong.
Sadness can make me stronger. Sadness is healing.
Hope is better than happiness
Sadness and despair are not synonymous.
Despair says that sadness and pain will never end. Sadness grieves the broken world we live in with the hope that it will get better.
If sadness is grief that imagines a better future, then sadness is really just another way to hope. And hope remains stable no matter what happens.
Sometimes our sadness is too deep for hope. That doesn’t mean we have despaired. As long as we keep moving and seeking growth and life and peace and relationships, we will not despair. Instead, we will be moving towards wholeness.
Connection is better than happiness
The relationships that I have now are what have kept me going. Fellowship with other Christians keeps me hopeful. Reading stories from like-minded people reminds me I’m not alone. Seeing a therapist helps me realize my ability to overcome.
I know that, no matter what happens, if there is even one person I can turn to, I will be okay.
I am still afraid of sadness at times, and I still want to bring joy into my life and others’. I don’t believe in feeding negative emotions or doing things that perpetuate them.
But I do believe that we don’t have to avoid them and pretend they don’t exist. Sometimes sadness needs to come out. That’s when I journal or pray or talk to someone and let myself cry and feel it for a while.
That’s when I get stronger. It’s when I remember my hope. It’s when I lean into my relationships and into God. It’s when I become more whole.