I waded out until the warm, pristinely blue water rose to my waist.
Then I turned to face the beach and lowered my body gently until I was kneeling.
I was warm, and there were large silver fish flitting around me, always within arm’s reach, but too quick to actually grab.
I was having trouble controlling my breathing. My heart rate was a little high, and I had wandered alone down the beach as far as I could go without leaving the resort. And now I knelt, submerged up to my shoulders in the Gulf of Mexico, and I tried very hard to empty my mind and take in the beautiful tropical paradise in which I found myself.
I was fooled into believing that happiness was the default state of being.
Like, when I ask someone how they are, and they say anything other than “good,” I feel as though I have to then ask “what’s wrong?”
But isn’t that how all the stories go? The world is happy. Some emotional hardship or evil presence comes along to disturb the peace, and the protagonist works to overcome the evil. Then the world returns to its happy default.
But more so than ever before, in 2016 I became quite fixated on happiness.
I was returning to school in late January to begin my final semester of college when I started to feel very anxious about my impending post-graduate life. Despite my four long years of trudging to and from class, developing a network of friends and professionals, taking on leadership roles in clubs and partying, I felt no closer to finding my life’s passion.
To this day, I have no clearly defined life goals. Just a lot of vague dreams.
I think Sylvia Plath said it best in The Bell Jar:
“I saw my life branching out before me… From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home… another fig was a famous poet… a brilliant professor… Europe and Africa and South America… and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I could make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.”
Each fig is independent of all the others. To choose one is to give up all the rest.
And the dilemma here is, which fig leads to happiness?
And I became obsessed with this. To a degree, I still kind of am.
I’m a perfectionist. Faced with any number of good-looking paths, to take just a first step down one can be maddeningly difficult. Never mind that they all look good. Only one of them can be perfect, right?
So that’s where I am right now. Stuck in fig limbo, if you will. Standing at a fork with infinite prongs leading off into the mysterious fog of the future. And it’s not a happy place to stand.
So flashback to Mexico: after I graduated my family flew to this paradise to celebrate at an all-inclusive resort, and here I was barely able to breathe and utterly miserable.
I was already so consumed with this question of what to do next. My mind raced from fig to fig to fig, down each path and back again. Mentally, I was spending so much time in the future that I couldn’t calm myself down long enough to enjoy the present moment.
It all seemed so fake. Plastic. Artificial happiness. It wasn’t what I was looking for.
Looking back, I realize I robbed myself of a great day at the beach. I mean, look at that photo I took. That’s what I missed out on.
And because I struggle still, I’ve been taking actionable steps lately to try to work through these anxieties.
Most recently, I downloaded this app for my phone. It’s a Happiness Tracker, designed by a researcher trying to figure out how happy we are as a population, and what causes happiness or unhappiness.
A few times a day, this app sends me a text.
“How are you feeling?”
And on a sliding scale, I tell it. Sometimes I’m pretty good. Often I’m in the middle or lower.
But it doesn’t stop there. It asks a series of follow-up questions: are you alone or with others? What activity are you doing? Where are you? Did you exercise recently? How long did you sleep last night?
Sometimes it throws extra personal questions in, and asks about regrets, personal victories, my perceived social status, my income, whether I’d like to skip what I’m doing or if it’s necessary work.
And over time, my answers are compiled into charts and graphs. Raw data from which I can glean insights about my behavior.
Additionally, it’s proven to be an amazing way to stop and collect myself in the present moment. I assess my surroundings, gauge my emotions, and respond honestly.
Though I’ve only been at it for a week or two, one thing I’ve noticed repeatedly that I’m very often alone, not interacting with others, several times throughout the day. This isolation has coincided with a lot of less-than-happy reports on the app.
So that’s an actionable step I can take – engage more people. Spend more time with others. Hopefully it boosts my happiness a bit. I recommend the app to anyone.
And if you struggle with happiness, know that you will not starve. There is a fig for you, and you can find happiness no matter your path in life.
My next step is to convince myself to listen to that great advice.