Miranda: When was the last time you were happy?
Samantha: Six months ago.
Miranda: I think that’s normal for L.A.
Yes, I really did just quote the Sex and the City movie. I couldn’t help myself. Ever since it was on HBO some night a few weeks ago when I was up way too late and unable to sleep, I haven’t been able to get that scene out of my head. It’s the scene where all the girls have gathered for Charlotte’s baby shower and they’re grilling an obviously unhappy Samantha about her new life in Los Angeles. The bit of dialogue quoted above made me laugh out loud. In a, it’s funny because it’s true, kind of way.
In just a couple of weeks, I will mark sixteen years of living in Los Angeles (minus a scant five-month study abroad semester in London in the early 2000s). That’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere. And in that time, I’ve met and known and befriended a great number of people in this sprawling metropolis – some of whom still call L.A. home and some of whom have long since moved on to other places. And of my friends who still live here – other than a handful of exceptionally grounded folks who seem to have it all figured out – there aren’t many that I would describe as happy.
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t some hit piece on L.A., nor is it an attempt to legitimize the swarms of stereotypes that exist about this fair city – the suntans and silicone, the hot cars and hot spots, the fame seekers and the fabulously wealthy, the beautiful and the damned. No, this isn’t that type of essay. Nor is this essay even about L.A., not really. L.A. is just the place where I happen to live and therefore it’s a lens through which I view the world.
But it is my lens, and through that lens I see constant seeking and striving, struggling and searching. I see good people who are making the best of things, people who believe that better days are ahead but just can’t quite seem to get there, people whose real, unfiltered lives rarely match the glossy surfaces of their Instagram feeds. And it has left me wondering: is this sort of slow, seeping sense of dissatisfaction an L.A. thing, or is it more pervasive? Is everyone, everywhere suffering from an epidemic of, I’m not as happy as I want to be?
My obsession with the subject of happiness began nearly three years ago, when a series of tragic events left me – someone who, as a girl, my Dad teasingly called “Pollyanna” – wondering if I would ever feel joy again. Prior to this major life shift, I’d never really thought about whether or not I was happy. I moved through my days with relative ease, eyes ever on the horizon, mind focused on the next thing. If I’m honest, I didn’t do a whole lot of self-examination or press myself to answer the difficult questions. I kept going. I was fine.
Except I wasn’t. It took pain and tumult to unearth the truth. I had been living with the same sort of silent malaise that I now recognize all around me, but I had been too passive, too complacent, to do anything about it. All the while the question nagged, Is this all there is?
But recognizing that there was a problem wasn’t enough to present a solution. In fact, it got much worse before it began to get better. My lowest point came last summer, when more than once I collapsed on my bathroom floor, sobbing, unable to get up for what felt like hours. In fits of desperation, I scribbled inspirational quotes on the pages of “get well soon” cards and mailed them to myself. And I documented it all (well, not all) in blog posts that prompted worried (read: frantic) phone calls from friends.
A year later, I still wouldn’t describe myself as “happy,” but when I look back on those dark days, I do have to give myself credit for how far I’ve come. It was impossible for me to have any sense of perspective when I was “in it,” but with time and distance I can see that I really was growing and changing all along.
For nearly three years I have been chasing this elusive thing called “happy.” Along the way, I’ve tried many different tactics in order to feel better. I’ve consulted palm and tarot readers, astrologers and spiritual counselors. I’ve traveled extensively: to Europe, to my childhood home of Alaska, and all up and down the Western United States. I’ve talked to friends. I’ve gone into therapy. I’ve worked out obsessively, and then not at all. I threw myself into my writing. I became a mentor to a teenage girl. And I kept going, even when I didn’t feel like it. I kept going, because I didn’t feel like it.
This may seem counterintuitive, but some of the darkest moments of my life have also been bookended by some of the most joyful ones. A pair of Orca whales breaking the surface of the water in graceful arcs while I pressed my nose to the window of a ferryboat. Sitting in the warm, inviting kitchen of a friend’s home in London, drinking wine and discussing politics. Seeking refuge from a rare New Orleans ice storm in a small jazz club with my sisters while the rest of the city remained shuttered indoors. Watching the sunset settle over the ocean from the window of an open air trolley car coasting along Pacific Coast Highway, with nothing to do or nowhere to be except right there.
I think that what all these singular “happy” moments have in common is their sense of hope, their sense of possibility. A feeling they evoked, that, in the words of Shel Silverstein, “Anything can happen. Anything can be.”
Conversely, the worst, most miserable moments of my life didn’t impact me so intensely simply because I felt sad or broken, but because I felt powerless to change those feelings. I was helpless, stuck, and I couldn’t see the way out. The darkness is most unbearable when it appears unceasing, when we can’t fathom the possibility of light ever breaking through.
After nearly three years of “chasing happy,” I certainly don’t have it all figured out. But I have learned some things. I’ve learned that I feel better extending a helping hand to others than I do ruminating about my problems. I feel better using my own life as a yard stick to measure my progress, rather than comparing my achievements to someone else’s. To that end, I feel better when I limit my time on social media. I feel better being honest instead of making everything OK; better telling uncomfortable truths than biting my tongue. I feel better writing than not writing, better creating than not creating. I feel better going for a run than I do sitting on my couch. I feel better moving forward than I do standing still. And I feel better trusting in the hard-won knowledge that whatever dark clouds may gather in the skies above, that they too, will pass.
Until next time, friends.