There’s one sure test to know whether I love someone: I revel in their happiness. I’m invested in their happiness. Working for, inspiring, sacrificing for their happiness fills me with happiness.
Perhaps the most obvious place to observe this is with my children. There is simply no better day for me than when my children are thriving and happy. Conversely, it’s unlikely I’ll have a great day if my children are suffering.
But this isn’t to say that the journey of happiness can always be happy. Sometimes, if I love, I push someone to embrace unhappiness. I even provoke it. Because no one is more miserable than he/she who does not yet know they are miserable. But even when the work of love calls us to facilitate our loved one’s unhappiness, this insistence to examine authentic suffering is a means to the end of restored and liberated happiness!
I say often about my work as a counselor that my job isn’t to help people feel better. My job is to help people tell themselves the truth. Which, coincidentally, is a great way to eventually feel better.
Truth serves happiness more faithfully than does denial and self-delusion.
The idealist in me longs for family, friends, a mate who will, when necessary, walk into hell with me. People who have the courage to be my companion when I must walk in the darkness of loss, moral failure (or any kind of failure), fear, and the other assorted sufferings that are part of the human condition. And I’m not longing for anything I’m not willing to give. It’s an honor to walk with a loved one in suffering.
Defined thusly, love is always reciprocal. That is, it gives you back in spades exactly what you are giving. If I love you, then I revel in your happiness. You could say, then, there is a mercenary element to love, because it makes me so darn happy to know that you are happy! And it makes me feel useful and good about myself to think I was a part of your happiness.
Which brings me, at mid-life, to a new thought. It shocked me. Perhaps it will shock you.
We owe the people who love us, and the ones we likewise love, the work of our own personal happiness.
This was a new perspective for me. My happiness is not only about me. It’s a gift to those who love me. Those who need me.
Looking back, this lesson first became obvious as delivered to me by my children during a time of acute personal loss. “When am I going to have my old papa back,” my eldest, then 14, demanded of me. “Describe that guy,” I asked sincerely. The wise teenager said, “Carefree, optimistic, and filled with light.”
Wow, I thought. I haven’t seen that guy in long time, either.
My middle son, then 12, delivered the message by bursting into tears and wailing, “I’m afraid you’re never going to be happy again!”
There it was, in black and white. But it’s taken this many more years to see it as principle. I owe the people who love me a reasonable and faithful effort to regularly get to my happiness.
Yes, life is difficult. Yes, life contains suffering, injustice, unfairness. And, yes, when suffering comes we must do the work of our suffering.
But we can’t tarry there. We can’t indefinitely indulge it. We can’t afford to habituate a ‘sad sack,’ bitter, cynical view of life. Not merely because this would be a waste of our own existence, but more importantly because this way of life is a terrible burden to those who love us, exacting from them a terrible price.
I have seen couples in my practice where one spouse literally is begging the other to be happy (again): “Do something! Anything! Try something. Quit your job. I’d rather be poor and with a happy spouse than rich and carry your dark, brooding moodiness around for the rest of my life! That’s killing me!”
I’ve seen a low dose of the right anti-depressant save marriages. Save families.
We have more choices than we think we do when it comes to managing our varying moods and emotional energy.
Interesting, yes? To wake up each morning and say to yourself, “Today my gift to my [spouse, children, friends, family] is to work hard, make a living, unload the dishwasher, remember to pick up the dry cleaning … and to be happy.”
Our happiness isn’t just about us.
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)