Is "Happy Ever After" Making You Unhappy?

There I sat in a cubicle with putty-colored walls, desk, and computer with a matching brown and gold calculator.  Dressed in a sharp suit and tie, and a starched shirt that cut into my groin, the color of putty is how I felt on the inside.

It was my first real job and, like a cigarette being driven into an ashtray, the infinite possibility of my youth was being extinguished by the unyielding inhumanity of adulthood:  padded cubicle; sterile office etiquette; smiling and nodding at the rehashing of sitcoms; the married Vice President shagging my co-worker; and having to repeat the same unvaried task ten thousand times.

Twenty two years of preparation and anticipation for this?  Sentenced to the hell realm, even my sideburns were feeling distressed.  

Around that time, my sister introduced me to a new-agey program appropriately called Lifespring (similar to Landmark). I signed up figuring it may offer salvation.  Soon after, I found myself standing at the center of a small, intent circle of women and men each taking turns telling me how I “showed up in the world”.  “You look like a little boy who’s scared of women!” chastised one  delightfully.

Unnerved, I stood quivering inside, tears running down my cheeks.  I’m not scared of women. Wait, what? Holy shit!  Maybe she’s right, maybe I am scared of women.  Is it that obvious?  Have I always been a mama’s boy?  Damnit!

Upon graduating, and feeling sufficiently challenged and stretched from both the Basic and Advanced courses, I now knew the secret to lasting happiness and could get on with living happily ever after.

One of the grandest, and most common and damning, of illusions is that there exists an ultimate reality where happiness never ends.  An achievable state in which we can dwell indefinitely, safe from life’s uncertainty.  

Of course, nobody actually believes this, at least not intellectually.  After all, “happy ever after” and “where happiness never ends” only exist in Hollywood and Disneyland, right? And yet our behavior betrays our beliefs.  

Much like early settlers heading west, we remain emotionally enchanted by the allure of a promised land.  We swim upstream like salmon in a never-ending spawning season madly trying to get “there”.  Soon our ship will sail into port, our plane will land at its final destination.

Despite all our experiences to the contrary, we go on believing in this magnificent idea of forever.  Collectively and individually, we cherish the deeply held belief that a better life awaits.  A life free of all the bullshit.  One which transcends the doubt, worry, falseness and loneliness of modern society.

In fact, we want to believe that one day finally we will be able to put down your bags and stop running.

It seems the fantasy of arrival, any form of arrival, is woven into our collective cultural karma: our beliefs around money, the “American Dream”, and save for a few aches and pains, the promise of a comfortable and trouble-free retirement. And if you do not arrive in this lifetime, there is always Heaven.  Regardless, the message is clear:  others have found never-ending happiness, and with the right amount of effort and discipline, you too can get there, and when you do, all will be well and good.  

Not exactly knowing how to get “there”, many of us end up doing what everybody else does.  We go to school and get a job.  We spend money. Perhaps if our lives looked more like the people online, in magazines and on TV - that is to say, all the good stuff without any of the bad - maybe then we could realize lasting satisfaction.

“When I have the right shoe collection…When I have enough sex…When I have a car ‘with reclining leather seats that goes really fast, and gets really shitty gas mileage!’”

Another year and then you'd be happy
Just one more year and then you'd be happy
~ Jerry Rafferty

We invest our well-being in these objects and images and project onto them lasting fulfillment.  Often we see only the positive attributes of our wants while conveniently overlooking their intrinsic limitations - how they imprison us, or the astonishing effort necessary to get or achieve them (with after-tax money) - which may or not be worthwhile.

Like many, I fantasized about owning a Porsche while growing up. So, upon getting my first “real” job, I bought one.  The handling was otherworldly, and the charcoal gray exterior and burgundy leather seats were handsome.  Owning the car, however, made me unhappy; I was constantly troubled by two thoughts:  when it would break down next and and how much it would cost.

Sometimes we think the answer to lasting happiness lies in getting through or getting rid of everything we don’t like.  Perhaps if we could avoid contact with that which is messy and unpleasant then finally we could relax and enjoy life.  

“When I get through all the boxes in the garage…When I replace the dog barf-stained carpet…When I get to the end of my to do list.”

That last one is an enduring delusion of mine.  Since fourth grade when I began creating lists, somehow I still expect to get to the end of my to do’s.  But lists don’t work that way; each of us will die mentally clutching an unfinished to do list…let go of regrets, make amends with our children, forgive ourselves for all the slights.  

Other times, we may think the obstacle to happiness lies in how or where we live. Perhaps if our lifestyle were radically different, or we could escape our life altogether, then we would discover the ultimate - perfect peace and never-ending excitement.  

“If I lived in a tiny home and read, meditated and did yoga all day…If I lived like a digital nomad traveling the globe, every day an orgy of new experiences and people…If I lived in a forward-thinking community of like-minded people without all the idiots.”

But once we’ve achieved nonconformist nirvana, then what?

Satisfying wants or getting rid of what we don’t want is soon replaced by boredom, restlessness and longing.  The momentary sense of limitlessness inevitably gives way to other limitations.

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.
~ Lao-Tzu

All our efforts at happiness are akin to making an end-run around life, as if life itself were the problem and there exists a better life beyond life.  Our sense of enduring wellbeing remains one tantalizing image, success or dollar away, mockingly just out of reach.

Sooner or later, we must realize, even internalize, that there is no happy ever after. But that does not mean we are doomed to being unhappy ever after. Far from it. Life is an evocative mystery, every moment a new arrival unlike one we have ever experienced. Beauty, joy and happiness are freely available anytime, anywhere.

We are forever in process, forever dancing with the ever-changing, ever-unfolding experiences of pleasure and pain, gain and loss, joy and sorrow.  Right here, right now.  From one moment to the next.  

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are..
~ T. S. Eliot

Life is a expedition with no end.  We only ever arrive, again and again, right where we are.  True happiness exists in living, not arriving. So don't believe your mind when it tries to convince you that lasting wellbeing will be yours when the conditions of time and form are just so.

What I failed to understand about Lifespring is that “happy ever after” is, for all time, a hypnotic mirage.  While my new, otherworldly vocabulary may have facilitated getting laid, it did little, if anything, to change who I was.  I was still the same same sad, unhappy sack I had always been.