Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Myth of Happily Ever After

Image credit: Sonia Luna, Flickr
I don't want to be a downer or anything, but I think we were all sold a big load of crap by the Brothers Grimm.

Disney perpetuates it. Every single story is about a young adult going through some major challenge, finding a soul mate, and then living Happily Ever After.

When I was younger, I thought I would get to the point in life that the struggle would be over and I would just coast along, happily ever after. I blame the children's stories. The main character is never a middle aged lady regrouping after a huge tragedy or some guy making a career change or anything. The protagonist is always young. The implication is that you go through the hard stuff in late adolescence and then you're done.

I went through my twenties thinking that if I could just get it together it would all get easier. I kept waiting for "happily ever after" to happen, but it never did.

Now that I'm older I finally realize that struggle is what life is all about. It sounds like bad news until you consider the alternative. Imagine if you really got it all figured out at 20, and then spent the next 50 or 60 years coasting along. Boring, right? Where's the growth and improvement in that proposition? What it life at 20 was as good as it gets?

What I have learned is that happiness is not an end point. Happiness is more like fitness- you have to keep working on it, and no matter how good it gets there is always room for it to get better. Just like building muscle, you can get yourself in a position for more happiness later by doing some hard work now. You might get an injury in your life, and your happiness declines for a while. But just like muscle memory, your brain must have some sort of "happiness memory," because once you've been there it's easier to get back again. And like fitness, you can never completely stop working on it or you'll lose what you have.

I was reluctant to write about this topic because I was afraid it would be kind of a bummer. But the more I consider it, the more positive I think it is. Imagine if your life choices were all made in early adulthood. It might be okay if you were super thrilled with everything, but most of us had some room for improvement back then (and probably now too).  Thank goodness for the possibility that things can always improve.  Every day we can work on happiness a little. When things have been bad for a while, we realize that struggle always leads to growth. Growth strengthens our happiness muscles and makes them more resilient.  But we can never say, "okay, I'm done, now I can live happily ever after."

Just some thoughts for a cloudy Wednesday.

What do you do to strengthen your happiness muscle? What trials have made you a happier person?

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