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Why Happiness Will Never Come To You

“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.” ~James Openheim

December 19, 2001: this will forever be written in history as the day I was pitied by a 90 year-old.

I was holiday shopping at the mall, grimacing in pain with each step I took. “One… two… three…” I counted my steps, hoping to distract myself from the painful task before me: reaching the Bath and Body Works store roughly 300 yards ahead.

After several torturous minutes, I looked up. The store was still an oasis in the distance—perhaps a mirage in this vast desert-of-a-mall.

Had I even made any progress at all?

Just then I noticed a 90 year old man—stooped, shaky, and walking slowly as a turtle, like old men often do. To my absolute horror, the old man passed me with ease.

He turned around and spoke to me: “You OK? You aren’t looking so good.”

Tears of desperation welled up in my eyes.

“No,” I said. “No, not really.”

The reason for the old man’s pity?  In a strange stroke of fate, I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis during my sophomore year of high school.

“You have a severe case,” the doctor had told me without a hint of empathy. She explained the science behind it: for unknown reasons, my immune system was recognizing my joints as foreign bodies and attacking them full-force.

I had always imagined that arthritis was some mildly annoying affliction that only affected old people. I unwillingly discovered that in my case, it was much more than just annoying— in fact, it was devastating. It felt as if I had a constant and never-ending war raging in my joints, as if I had badly sprained my knees, my wrists, and my elbows all at once, and all I could do was endure it.

“What did you do to your knees?” people would ask me with concern. I didn’t blame them for asking— my knees were inflamed and swollen to the size of ripe watermelons ready to burst.

“Nothing,” I answered truthfully.

My classmates were worried about getting their homework done or about who would ask them to homecoming. I was worried about whether I could walk down the halls without wincing in pain or whether I would even have the energy to get out of bed for the day. Things that were supposed to be easy became nearly impossible. Even tasks as simple as stepping into the shower and getting out of my desk after class were excruciating.

With tears in my eyes, I lamented in my never-ending misery.  “If only I could feel normal again,” I cried, “I would be so unbelievably happy.”

Fast forward seven years, and my dream had somehow become a reality. As the years passed, my symptoms slowly decreased in severity until one day, for no apparent reason, they became nearly imperceptible.

For the first time in years, I could go to sleep each night without dreading the day that lay ahead. I could bounce up and down flights of stairs without a thought. I felt like a normal person again.

So here’s the big question: did I suddenly become ridiculously, enormously, unbelievably happy? The sad truth is, I didn’t.

After I started feeling better physically, new concerns arrived. “If only I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” I lamented, “then I would be so unbelievably happy.”“If only I could find the right guy,” I cried, “then I would be so unbelievably happy.”

In the meantime, my health was vibrant and my joints were pain free.

The lesson I’ve come to learn is this: the things that we think will bring us happiness never actually do—at least, not for long.

“When I have __­____ or _______ or _______, then I will be happy,” we say.

But in reality, it doesn’t matter if we win the lottery or are freed from feeling like a 16 year-old trapped in a 90-year old’s body or [insert burning desire].

No matter what we get or achieve, our happiness from these events will be short-lived, soon to be replaced with another future condition.

I call this temporary happiness: the short-lived and “never enough” type of happiness that comes to us as a result of external events or situations. Most often, temporary happiness rests in the future and is just out of reach. Although we imagine we’ll get there one day, we never quite arrive.

But true happiness, that happiness that never fades, is much different than this. True happiness can never come to us from any condition, person, or situation.

In fact, true happiness can never come to us at all, because it is already right here.

If only we can learn to stop looking for it everywhere else— in the horizon, in the distance, in someone or somewhere or something else, then we can begin to feel that soft summer grass that is already growing right beneath our feet.

After a few years of being almost symptom free, my arthritis returned. It’s not as painful or debilitating as it was before— still, though, it is enough that I struggle.

Of course I hope for the pain to go away. Of course I would be elated if I could run, or if I could water ski, or if I could hike up a mountain for hours on end.

But at the same time, I have learned that feeling better is not my salvation. I’ve learned that if I can’t find peace and stillness in challenging times, then I certainly won’t find it in unchallenged times, either.

And so I sit. Sometimes I am sad; sometimes I am in pain; sometimes I struggle.  Even so, I am at peace.

True happiness, I’ve learned, exists no matter what. No matter how much you think it cannot be here—not here, not now, not when the baby is crying, or when your heart is breaking, or when the sky is falling down— you have it all wrong.

It is already here, in your best times and in your very worst times alike. It can coexist with even the strongest feelings of sadness, numbness, or elation.

It is not a fleeting feeling; it is not something that you must “catch” or chase; it is not something that wavers.

No matter what else is here, true happiness is here, too.

After all, you should ask yourself— if it’s not here right now, then when will it ever be?

Photo here

About Therese Schwenkler

Therese writes for the young and confused at www.theunlost.com, proving that good advice doesn’t have to be boring or uncool. Her mission: to bring more and better direction to today’s mainstream generation. Find out why it’s OK to be lost & confused -OR- Take Therese’s hilarious happiness quiz here.

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  • Great post – excellent points. I have a friend whose diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis was missed for many years – she was only diagnosed in her early 20’s even though she had been suffering since her teens. What you have raised is so important – for me it was losing weight. I’d always struggled with my weight, and because I was miserable with what I did for a living I lost all enthusiasm for life and pretty much stopped eating. I lost weight dramatically. I remember people complimenting me constantly and thinking “But I am utterly miserable – how you can be complimenting me on losing weight in such an unhealthy way and for such unhealthy reasons?” When I started to recover, the weight piled on and the compliments stopped. Inside, I felt that the only change that counted was that I could look myself in the mirror and say “I have made it – I’m happy”. The physical is transient – the soul has the elements that are eternal.

  • Really nice, thanks!

  • Beautifully written! And so true, Thank you x

  • Nisha Balaram

    A lovely article, and a more beautiful message. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. 

  • Wonderful article. The search for happiness is an obsession in our culture. Finding it outside of oneself is fleeting at best.

  • CK

    I have been there, too. I hope you don’t mind me sharing my story.

    At age 13 I had to quit public school due to illness. For years and years I would pity myself over it. First over the illness itself, then it was my lack of education, the struggles I had finding a job, the loneliness that came with being a dropout. As a result I was depressed, stayed in bed all day, became pale and sick, the few friendships I had were fleeting.
    I always blamed it on fate and wished for it to “change” one day. I used to draw happy children and then cry about not sharing their happiness and I didn’t realize how silly that was of me.

    Now, more than 10 years later I’m fluent in a foreign language, dance in competitions, am in a wonderful relationship and will hopefully soon enter college. And most importantly, I feel alive, have courage and am happy. The beginning of this change was a single conversation about my “point of view”.

    It was a person I met by chance and whom I’ve never seen again later – at a friend’s party. I escaped to the kitchen in hope to find calmness, and the man stood there, wondering if he should do the dishes. When he decided to wash up anyway, I had a lot of respect for him – the kitchen was a mess, not just a mess but really gross: there was mold and burnt food and dust and grease everywhere.
    We started talking. Eventually, he turned to me and said he could tell me the nature of my depressions and how to get rid of them. Of course I couldn’t believe him, I barely knew him and my depressions had not left for several years. I expected him to make fun of me.

    He asked me to look around the kitchen and tell him what I see. Dirt, I said. Used dishes, rotten food and old cupboards. He whiped the grease from the tiled wall and a decorative painting came to view. “You didn’t see this, did you? Isn’t it beautiful? This is why I clean up this place now, the view is worth it.”
    The key is, he said, to seek beauty and happiness in each and every moment. It’s not in the past or the future, but here and now, in this dirty kitchen, under the rainy sky, everywhere. And it helps us to go on.

    I couldn’t lose anything, so I tried it. At first it was hard and often the only beauty I could see was distant, like clouds in the sky or old memories. But I made it a rule for myself to find one thing good in every day and in a way I still live by this rule.

    I was surprised when I could feel it working. Now I don’t even have to think about it anymore, I have learnt to notice all the small things on my way, to stop and enjoy, even if I’m in a bad mood. And if there’s a day full of sunshine, accomplishment, friendship and peace I feel like the happiest person alive.

    When I remember that day that had changed me, I wish I could thank the young man. It’s impossible, too much has changed and I’ve lost all social ties from that time. So I spread this story as my way to say “thank you” – to all those, who share their “secrets” of happiness.

    I hope you can, like him, reach some people and turn their life to the better 🙂

  • Rehenazelreyhan

    Thank you for writing this!

  • “Inside, I felt that the only change that counted was that I could look myself in the mirror and say ‘I have made it – I’m happy.'” So true. Thanks for your comments, Sarai.

  • Thank you Nisha 🙂

  • Thanks Daniel.

  • Thanks much (-:

  • Sasalool

    Beautifully written, thank you for reminding us that the center of happiness is within us, not in someone or something else
    Great post
    Loved it

  • Wow…love this.  Great reminder.   The part that hit home for me..

    “No matter how much you think it (true happiness) cannot be here—not here, not now, not when the baby is crying, or when your heart is breaking”
    That just made so much sense….if you can’t find peace in when the baby is crying…how can you find it when everything is going your way.   You are never present with the moment…being at one with it.   

  • Thanks for sharing your story, CK. How amazing that one small experience like that could have such an impact on your life :). I’m glad that you’ve been able to enjoy the happiness that’s already here, even if you’re not having the best of days.

  • Vishnu

    You’ve boiled thousands of years of ancient wisdom into one blog post! Looking forward to reading your blog.

  • Anonymous

    I’m speechless. 

    Ok, found some words:

    You’ve shared such a powerful message in so few words. Bravo and keep sharing! A message like this can heal the world.

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  • Therese.

    Wow, have you had some challenges with your hungry auto immune disorder, RA. My mother lived with RA and I know that the journey is undulating. It sounds like you have really connected at a deep level with your body, heart, and mind to live with this visitor.

    I appreciated your words “it is not something that you must “catch” or chase.” It’s sounding like a lot of folks truly are chasing happiness on some of the blogs I read. However, situational happiness is just so fleeting.

    Thanks for your sharing your story and your wholehearted happiness. Healing to you.
    Susie

  • noch – be me. be natural

    indeed, happiness can be so temporary. and we are never unhappy for desires and wants are limited. i wanted to fly around the world and travel, then i wanted to fly business class, then first class… desires never end, and i’m learning to control my desires. actually i just wrote about it yesterday if you have time to read (http://nochnoch.com/2011/09/07/do-i-look-like-i-fly-economy/)
    i try to focus on the now, slow down and enjoy the present, esp when stress took a toll on me in form of depression. but its telling me something. and i need to listen
    slow down, stop trying just to achieve goals, but enjoy life

  • Donna

    Very interesting to see the various comments, and I would like to add my thoughts.  I agree that “things” or people or money cannot provide true peace and happiness.  But there is only one way to find true, lasting, and permanent peace:  When you come to really know Jesus Christ and what He has done for you, and you accept the forgiveness which He has provided FREE to anyone who truely believes in Him, you will have a peace and joy that is not known any other way.  And it will last for eternity!

  • Hi Donna,

    Even though I did not write this post, I feel compelled to respond to your comment. I fully support and respect everyone’s right  to believe what makes sense to them and comforts them. However, this is a religiously neutral site–meaning people from all backgrounds gather here to explore our common ground. (Even though it’s called “Tiny Buddha,” all beliefs are respected here.)

    I’m glad you have found peace in your religion, and I understand the instinct to share that. However, I do believe it is possible to find true, lasting peace, even if you aren’t a follower of Jesus Christ. I am a testament to that. =)

    Much love,
    Lori

  • Wow… thank you so much, Ariella. I appreciate your words.

  • Thanks, Vishnu. I look forward to hearing more from you 🙂

  • Yes, Erin. That’s definitely what I learned, although it’s not always easy to do 🙂

  • No, thank you for reading it 🙂

  • Thanks Sasalool

  • Thank you Susie. 

  • Leslie

    I found this really moving.  Thanks for sharing!

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  • xoivonneox@gmail.com

    I see myself soooooooo much in this post! I’ve lived with chronic pain for 4 long years and no medication helped. All of a sudden stopped as it began. If I had written the ” wishing thoughts” myself they couldn’t be more alike to what I said aloud so many times. But I also learned….to live the present and try to enjoy as much as you can since you never know what tomorrow will bring. I guess you have to experience something like this to start appreciating Thanks for the post!

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  • W, The

    On RA, the author would benefit immeasurably from reading Dangerous Grains.  I did.  Mine showed up at age 27, and, luckily, my doctor spends time doing extracurricular reading outside of the medical orthodoxy.

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  • As the Mennen Skin Bracer commercials used to say, “Thanks.  I needed that.” 

  • “No matter how much you think it cannot be here—not here, not now, not when the baby is crying, or when your heart is breaking, or when the sky is falling down— you have it all wrong.” beautiful.  

    i used to jog past eldery people meagerly creeping down the sidewalk, or someone pushing their loved one in a wheelchair down the trail, and feel that twinge of gratitude/fear.  couldn’t imagine not being able to run, or ride my bike. horrible!  and then it became my life.  def been down the trail of ‘if it would just get better i can do *real* workouts and drop the weight and people would wanna hire me and a man might actually wanna be with me and everything would just fall into place.’  

    but you’re absolutely right.  if you can’t find a way of accepting what IS, instead of fighting against it, you miss the 75 beautiful things because of the 25 terrible things.  or 95/5.  50/50.  whatever the ratio, it usually isn’t 0/100 unless you’ve chosen to make it that way.

  • helen

    I can relate to this post, despite never having any physical illnesses (the sickness of the mind-yes-the most serious one….)

  • esdea

    Thank you for sharing this post! Everytime I feel unhappy, long for something or someone else I remind myself to read this post and so I don’t know how many times I’ve read this but this post somehow always leads me to happiness 🙂 . Thank you again, I wish you happiness today :))

  • Shelby

    You say that true happiness isn’t found in other people. And maybe that’s true for you. But I have always had this overwhelming feeling of isolation no matter what. I always had friends, but not friends that wanted to be around me every minute of every day like I wanted with them. And even though I still saw them once or twice a week I still felt really lonely. I never had a girlfriend because if I also have crippling shyness, and no matter how much I liked someone I could never NEVER work up the courage to ask them out. A terrible combination, to have a longing to be an extrovert but too shy to be an extrovert. Fastforward to 3 years ago when I was 19. I met a girl who was everything I’d ever looked for. She was funny, bubbly, and best of all she liked me and wanted to be around me. I did the whole shy thing of course and for a year we were just friends, till finally she got tired of waiting and made the first move, and gave me my first kiss at the age of 20. From then on we dated and I was uncontrollably happy. We got to know each other on so many deep levels, and she brought out the best in me, admonishing my shyness, and making me eat healthier. If ever I didn’t get something I wantewanted like the acting role I wanted or something, I never spent more than 5 minutes being sad about it because I would just remind myself “you may not have the role, but you have the most perfect girl in the world and she loves you.” And that worked for almost every sad occasion. I could not be sad when I had her with me, there wa nothing temporary about my happiness with her. Until a couple days ago when she broke up with me. She has clinical depression, and she struggles to believe that she deserves to be loved and even though I tell her every day that I love her and why I love her it’s not enough to convince her. Because she’s depressed she always wants to isolate herself and just like alot of people with depression she just wants to push everyone away. She thinks about suicide. The other day she told me that she can barely handle dealing with herself and being in a relationship with someone makes increases her anxiety 3 fold. She still loves me but she just doesn’t think she’s the kind of person that can be in a relationship because she’s so independent. I know I haven’t had long enough to grieve yet, but all that happiness I felt has been drained and since feel worse than I did before. At first being with her was great because it getting to be with someone but then it wasn’t just someone it was the person I wanted to spend my life with. And she even remarked on a few occasions that if she ever got married it would be with me. Like I said she still loves me, and it hurts worse because there’s nothing I could have done or changed to make her stay with me. I don’t think there will ever be another girl that will fill the hole she left in my heart. I just know that any relationship after this will be meaningless because I’ll never be able to let go of this one. I don’t want to live anymore. I’m not suicidal or anything, I just don’t want to keep trying. Life seems so pointless to me now. Everything we do is so meaningless in the grand scheme of things. What IS the point of overcoming your problems if you’re just gonna be faced with new ones at every turn and you have to face them alone? Life is like God pulling you by a rope through the mud for 70 plus years and if you let go of the rope you go to hell.

  • Taryn

    I just fell upon this article at a time when I really needed these words and sentiments. Thank you for sharing them. I hope today is a day you are feeling well and happy! 🙂