This morning I went for my daily 4-mile walk. In a blizzard.
When I looked outside, the very last thing I wanted to do was to put on a bajillion layers and go out there. But I did it anyway. Why?
Because it’s one of the daily anchors that helps me not just get exercise and fresh air, but keeps me centered through all the storms, big and small, that blow into my life. Since I made it a habit three years ago, I’ve missed my daily walk on just a handful of days, when I was really sick.
People often ask me if I enjoy my daily walk. Most of the time, I do. But there are many times, like this morning when my face was freezing off and covered in snow (I hate those ski masks) and the wind was blowing my eyes shut, that I don’t enjoy a minute of it. I grin and bear it. I just get it done.
And I feel really great after I do it.
Even my worst walks—the cold and wet ones, the windy ones, the ones when I’m exhausted and would rather be eating pizza while watching a movie—make me happier. They are not enjoyable. I don’t feel any joy during them.
But I feel resilient. Strong. Committed. Disciplined for having stuck to something that is good for me, even if it doesn’t feel good as I do it.
And there is so much happiness in that.
Happiness is part of my work. I teach emotional well-being for a living. And something that both saddens and worries me is how we’ve reduced the definition of happiness to simply feeling good.
Don’t get me wrong: I love to feel good! It feels great to feel good! But there is so much more to truly, genuinely being happier than just feeling good.
Having a sense of meaning and making progress towards meaningful goals makes you happier.
But working towards a meaningful goal is often difficult and stressful, it brings about self-doubt and often fear, it involves failure and having to find strength to get through the failure. Having a sense of meaning greatly contributes to your life satisfaction but pursuing what is meaningful doesn’t always feel good.
Accepting a difficult situation—rather than avoiding it or distracting yourself with shopping, TV, alcohol, or other diversions—and finding the courage and compassion to work through it makes you happier.
But it doesn’t feel good as you do it. It doesn’t feel good to feel sad, overwhelmed, or anxious. What makes you happier is embracing those feelings and connecting to your inner resilience to find a way to keep going.
In the past few years there seems to be an increase in the number of articles arguing that the pursuit of happiness is making us unhappy. In particular, many scientists and authors have argued that it’s better and healthier to pursue a meaningful life rather than a happy one.
I appreciate the spirit of this work but I think it misses the point. We shouldn’t be choosing what to pursue—meaning or happiness, joy or the ability to endure—and instead should expand our definition of what it means to truly, genuinely be happier. We’ve cheapened it and made it into something indulgent and shallow.
Believe me, I understand. I’m a recovering happiness skeptic.
I grew up in the former Soviet Union in a Jewish family—happiness wasn’t a worthwhile life pursuit anyone ever talked about. (Have you heard the saying that Russians are good at three things: Suffering, making others suffer, and complaining about suffering? It would be funnier if it weren’t true.)
In Russia and after we came to the U.S. as refugees, my life goals were fairly clear: Work hard, learn a lot, get a great job, marry a nice Jewish guy, have a family and take care of them. “Be happy” wasn’t on the list.
The irony is that while seeing happiness as something frivolous and self-centered I chased it with fervor. I began to see it as my American Dream, as the way to make up for the struggles we went through to get to the U.S., for the sacrifices my parents made. What I didn’t realize is that there was no paradox. I simply didn’t understand what genuine happiness truly meant.
It doesn’t mean you smile or feel good all the time.
Genuine happiness comes from embracing all of our emotions and experiences, finding joy in as many as possible and connecting to our strength and resilience to get through the difficult ones.
Genuine happiness isn’t just something you feel. It’s something you do, it’s a practice.
When we expand our definition of happiness away from just feeling good and smiling and broaden it to include resilience, meaning, acceptance, and commitment, we give ourselves so many more opportunities to experience it. We stop feeling like we’re doing something wrong because we don’t feel good all the time (it’s not possible.) We stop trying to make everything in our lives perfect, hoping that once we’ve done that and worked hard enough, we’ll feel good.
We give ourselves a broader canvas on which to paint our life and experience genuine happiness. And that is so beautiful and meaningful.