Monday, March 9, 2015

Happiness and Responsibility

Can you be responsible for another person’s happiness? Or can another person be responsible for yours? These are really two sides to the same question, and I’m pretty sure that the answer to both is "no."

People, places, and things can cheer you up or bring you down temporarily and make you feel better or worse. But ultimately, you’re alone with yourself, your choices, and the things that happen to you, good or bad. So you really can’t count on anyone or anything to make you feel internally content, happy, or at peace.

At least that's the conclusion my mom reached while she was experiencing an episode of clinical depression in 1979. She wrote a memoir in part about that experience; how it made her a more compassionate physician; how it made her realize you can never be all things to all people; and how all people cannot be all things to you. 

At various points in life, she said, you will—inevitably—feel alone. You will feel like you're experiencing something unique. You'll realize no one can help you with a problem, or you'll realize you cannot help someone else with theirs.

The first time this happened to me, I think I was a freshman in high school. It was a very minor issue. I was racking my brain for an idea for a term paper, and I asked my mom for help. “I know!” she exclaimed in a eureka-type way. “Awesome!” I thought to myself. She was going to fix this for me. “Why don’t you write about your first day at school?” What?! No! That was a terrible idea! It was at that moment when I realized I was on my own for homework. My mom wasn’t going to solve this for me after all.

Since then I’ve had numerous moments (of greater or lesser significance) when I’ve realized I've been looking to outside resources to fix internal problems that outside resources cannot fix. Or, conversely, I have applied external pressure to others, trying in vain to help them solve problems that can only be solved by them.

For me, life is a constant struggle for inner-directedness. That means not being dependent on other people to make me truly happy, and not trying to make other people truly happy, either. It means trying not to worry what other people think of me. It means trying to follow my inner voice. It means trying to be accountable to myself and the internal compass that guides me. I say "trying," because it's not always achievable. But 
I've come to accept that there isn’t a person, place, or thing on earth that’s going to calibrate that compass for me.

Sometimes it’s easy to imagine that one more possession, achievement, move, job, relationship, or acknowledgement will be the very last thing you need to feel truly happy. The problem with that is that the second you have whatever it is, you need something else. Or, as James Altucher wrote, "happiness is metabolized quickly." The same is true when you're trying to "change" another person for the "better." A person can only change themselves. No one else can do that.

So even though it's an uncomfortable thought, I try to sit with the reality that I can't be responsible for anyone else's happiness or well-being, and that no one else can be responsible for mine.

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