“I just want to be happy”.
This phrase is something I hear almost weekly. We exclaim this growing desire to be happy but what does happiness even look like? For everyone it’s different. It is a very personal thing but I believe many of us don’t even know what our own happiness would look like if it was there right in front of us.
A few years ago I had the privilege of working with an amazing boss who once ran a busy children’s hospital. I was his executive assistant so I was witness to many of his mentoring sessions with his physician colleagues. These physicians who were well respected clinicians, researchers and educators often complained about the same struggles that I had as an admin. They struggled with not feeling happy, not feeling fulfilled, and wanting more out of their life. It was always puzzling to me that these physicians who had literally spent decades becoming educated and trained to finally pursue the career many of them dreamed about since childhood, also were “unhappy”. Or so they would declare when saying those 6 little words.
“I just want to be happy”.
The conversations between these physicians were always fascinating to me for a number of reasons. Mainly it was the thought provoking questions my boss would ask. His questions to his colleagues would offer such introspection for them, but for me as well.
He used to start by clarifying, “so you say you just want to be happy right?”. They would respond. Something to the effect of, “yes…I mean I know I should be but I’m just not”. He would then ask them, “how will you know when you’re ‘happy’?” Some would counter with the standard answer of “I’ll just feel better”. Some would reply that they would just know. But most would sit in silence with no answer at all. It’s fascinating that such a simple question could leave some of the most brilliant minded people I knew completely speechless.
He would then remind people that happiness is not something, you just “feel”. He would advise them that happiness is something you feel when your values align with your behaviour and how you show up in the world. He reminded people that happiness comes when you’re authentically being who you are. He would often ask them to reflect on who they are aside from their identity as a physician. This was a tough concept for many.
He spent so much time reminding people that happiness is not a metric that can be measured so encouraged people to see the deeper meaning and values in their lives. Some of these physicians actually began coming back for more “mentoring” sessions which actually seemed more like therapy to me but nonetheless, these sessions helped them. And in turn they helped me as I listened to the questions being asked and thought about my own life.
One physician who was particularly unhappy, became more content within months of having some of these deeper discussions. She was so committed to living a life of authenticity that she actually quit her job as a physician to pursue becoming a lawyer. She always dreamt of being a lawyer advocating for children who were subject to abuse. She feels so strongly about advocacy for child abuse and knew that she needed to make a difference not just by treating these patients. But she went into medicine anyways because thats what her entire family wanted. After many discussions with my boss though she decided she needed to start doing what she loved and pursued what felt the most authentic to who she was at her core.
This is not to say that people should just quit their job in pursuit of happiness, but these conversations were thought provoking. They made me think, perhaps we are actually hung up in that state between what we think happy looks like, and what happiness truly is.
So with today being International Happiness Day, what does happiness mean to you?