I might have had it all wrong. I might have deluded myself into thinking in a way that would always leave me lacking. I figured I was entitled. Not to fame or wealth or prestige or anything materialistic, but my frame of reference led me to believe that those were the things that would bring me that which I was entitled to. I thought I was entitled to happiness. I actually believed I deserved to be happy. As a result, every time I was not happy, I felt unhappy. Further, because I deserved to be happy, I was also entitled to do whatever was necessary to achieve it. While that pursuit materialized in a number of ways, eventually it led me to chemical substances that created the illusion of happiness.
This is not so much about drug and alcohol abuse as it is the mindset that contributed to it. And, to be clear, the ultimate cause of my years of “happiness” through chemistry, while no longer important, is not so easily identified. It could be genetics, it could be environment, it could be the time and place I grew up and it is likely a combination of factors. Regardless, substance abuse was by far the most destructive manifestation of my pursuit of happiness, but it was not the only one. In the nearly 15 years since I found recovery, since I abstained from the use of chemicals to alter my consciousness, I have also changed my perspective on many things, a key one is this “right” I had to be happy.
First, some hard, cold truths. No one has an inherent right to anything. True, societies have created conventions that do enumerate certain rights (and they did not start with the good ole US of A), but the fact that we have any rights at all is a result of hard fought battles and many great thinkers. Our ability to communicate symbolically, abstractly and cooperatively has propelled us to the top of the food chain. We are not the strongest, fastest, toughest or most adaptable species on the planet. We are the smartest and because we evolved these huge brains, we are no longer prey. But without our predecessors paving the way we should treat each other, no one is entitled to anything – even life itself.
However, we do have rights. The framers of the Constitution, in the Preamble, declared that we are endowed with, “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And while the framers believed these rights are endowed by our "creator," whatever their source, they are enforced by societal conventions. So far, so good. So what about this so-called pursuit of happiness. Apparently even the creator did not grant happiness, only its pursuit is granted. However, from the 1960s and on, while I was coming of age, I must’ve decided that if the pursuit of happiness can be endowed upon us, then actual happiness was simply the logical extension. In other words, why not just bypass that silly chasing it stage and grant it as well.
The second and ancillary problem with that attitude is the conflation of lack of happiness with unhappiness. As it turns out, not being happy is not the same as being unhappy. In fact, it turns out that happiness is rather elusive and unhappiness is also not usually a long-term or prevalent condition. Indeed, what I was after is not achievable. No one can sustain happiness 24/7, but I can be content most, if not all, of the time. What I should have been seeking is contentedness. If that is what I seek, the only time I need take any real action is when I am feeling discontent. Happiness and unhappiness are situational and fleeting. When I thought I was unhappy – when I was feeling a lack of happiness – I was quite probably still content. But, by framing that lack of happiness as unhappiness, my contentedness, that very well could have been, necessarily became discontentedness.
This entire insidious pattern plagued me for years. In my pursuit of happiness, I felt I had a right to do whatever was necessary to get back to that place I had no right to in the first place. Even contentedness is not a right, but it is achievable by simply shifting my perspective, my priorities and what I actually need. As it turns out, I already had everything I needed, and I never knew it. And, of course, once the instant gratification of substances found its way into the picture, that twisted perspective became even more entrenched – and the insidiousness took an ugly, and potentially deadly, turn.
Once the “fixes” were removed, I had to find some way to be okay with myself. That took time, it took work and it took a conscious effort to change the way I looked at the world, to reevaluate what I “deserve” and what it takes to be content. As it turns out, contentedness is not all that hard to achieve. In fact, if I would have just stopped long enough to appreciate who I was, where I was, what I had and who was in my life, I would have been content long ago. Temporal happiness – the occasional, euphoric, natural highs - will come… and go. But I need not become discontent or even discouraged when it does go. And a lack of happiness is not unhappiness. I cannot be “happy” all the time, I am not entitled to it and, furthermore, I don’t want to be. If I was, where could I go from there?