You Are Your Own Happiness Engineer

Written by Molly Mahar

I started reading Reality is Broken a little while ago. Jane McGonigal caught my attention with her TED Talk a while back, where she talked about how gaming — yes, of the video gaming variety — could change the world. Of course, my being a gamer meant that I was all like, “HELL YEAH, BABY! LET’S DO THIS THANG.”

And then her book came out.

While I thought the book was going to be all about explaining the awesomeness of games to non-gamers, it turned out to be an exercise in paradigm shifting. I’m not very far into the book (yet) but the chapter on Happiness Engineers really caught my attention… especially after recent events.

You guys know that Mike and I don’t own a vehicle. No point in this transit oriented city. Mike went over to Vancouver Island last weekend and brought back his mom’s SUV (since she’s using her other vehicle and Mike’s dad is in Toronto for four weeks). It’s been nice to have wheels.

I digress.

Not the point.

He proposed that we go and get our hospital bag(s) packed for when ZomBaby decides to make his appearance. I noticed I didn’t have everything I needed so we figured we’d go out and pick it up from the local Mega Store of Groceries and Other Things (ahem, Superstore). About three blocks into our journey, I burst into tears.

Of course, Mike was a bit horrified. I’m not usually one to just break down and cry out of the blue. We can blame the pregnancy hormones all we want but the truth is this: I’ve been feeling very isolated lately. Events had occurred recently that had really shifted my perception of the people in my life. Where I wouldn’t expect someone to step up, people have stepped up. Where I have expected support, people haven’t bothered to show up.

It’s an odd thing to be faced with that kind of reality. It’s like I’m in perma-Opposite-Day-mode or something.

Okay, it’s not just odd.

It’s devastating.

So I sat in my mother-in-law’s silver Nissan SUV and I bawled. It wasn’t just a few tears. This was a full-on, big ugly cry. With hiccups. And black liquid eyeliner EVERYWHERE.

As soon as I could speak, Mike asked me, “Baby, what’s wrong? Why are you crying so hard? Did I hurt you?”

Sniffling hard, I said, “No, love. I’m just so angry that while I’m faltering and flailing… people keep leaving or not bothering to show up. I feel alone. I feel desperate. I feel isolated. I feel under-loved… like my soul is malnourished or something…”

Eventually, I pulled my shit together and we managed to get our hospital checklist taken care at the Superstore.

The next day, I contemplated my reaction in the car and really dug deep to understand both my motivations and the motivations of others.

1. In which we love too much.

I’ve always been of the mind that if I pour my heart and soul into another human being that they will reward me with loyalty and respect. I figure that if I love people enough, it will act as its own deterrent for people seeking to hurt me. After all, what kind of person would go out of their way to hurt someone that loves you so damn much?

And, as always, my naiveté overpowers my logical brain meats.

Shortly after my outburst in the SUV, Mike pointed out that the people I know aren’t being malicious. People have their own lives full of their own worries and concerns. I can’t expect to be loved by everyone. It’s simply not possible. Or reasonable.

“But I love a lot of people,” I protested.

“Yes, but you are the exception, not the rule. I know that I don’t tell my friends I love them. I may care for them but it wouldn’t occur to me to say it out loud. I figure they just know.”

I found myself vexed. Perhaps Mike was onto something.

Which led me to…

2. We engineer our own happiness.

“Positive psychology is the relatively new field of science that studies “human flourishing”, or how we achieve different kinds of happiness. For just over a decade now, positive-psychology researchers have been accumulating a formidable body of knowledge about how our brains and bodies work to help us achieve well-being and life satisfaction.” – Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken)

It’s a luxury to be thinking about happiness and joy and “human flourishing”. I know it is. I know that I’m blessed enough to have grown up in (moderate) privilege, without having to worry about my personal well-being and survival beyond more than, “What shall we make for dinner tonight?”

When I think about happiness in the context of my life, I think of myself as a happy person (especially these days). I smile a lot. I laugh all the time, without thinking. Many things (and people) bring me a distinct feeling of joy and fulfillment.

And that, as I’ve learned, is wherein the problem lies: things and people bring me joy.

The conclusion I came to is that if I relied on the rest of the world to bring me joy and happiness and fulfillment, I would be left with a string of disappointments in the form of completely busted relationships that were buried under high expectation and lack of mutual respect.

Happiness must come from within, first and foremost.

It was a hard lesson to learn, especially after the years I’ve spent being a firm believer in cultivating relationships and love in order to feel loved (and happy) in return. By allowing my thirst for love and approval to drive my happiness, I became tied to the moods of friends and family. Slippery-ass-slope especially when…

3. People are fickle.

Yes, yes they are. People will come. They will go. They will show up when they’re least expected. They’ll be conspicuously absent when they’re needed. They’ll love you when you feel loved up. They’ll ignore you when you’re desperate for a scrap of human attention and validation.

Or they’ll surprise you and do something completely unexpected and wonderful in the process.

People are fickle (and, by our own nature, selfish), therefore we must become our own Happiness Engineers. We can’t be looking to the horizon and saying, “If only this person would love me a little more — a little better — I could be happier.” Or wishing for Prince Charming to swoop in. Or Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. Whatever floats your boat, really.

This is one the hardest things I’ve ever had to learn in my life. I know that it will take many, many more years of reprogramming my own behaviour until I get to the point where my friendships and relationships can’t crush me.

I must become Happiness Sufficient of my own volition.

Talk about a tall order. Got any advice for me? Better yet, got a similar story to share?

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