What's Happiness Got to Do With It?

Netanel Miles-Yépez

Detail from the headstone of Elizabeth Ann Poe in Richmond, Virginia by Netanel Miles-Yépez, 2017.

Detail from the headstone of Elizabeth Ann Poe in Richmond, Virginia by Netanel Miles-Yépez, 2017.

“I’m struggling with living.”

It was not an appeal for my pity. It was a simple statement, trembling on his vocal chords, just as it tightened in my chest. Truth.

He paused a moment, and I wondered how many people have felt that through the millennia of human experience. What strange animals we are that we struggle with living. Not that we struggle for life or in life, like all creatures, but that we actually struggle with living. Is there another animal that does that?

He called me, I suppose, because I’m supposed to have the answers, spiritual prescriptions that can solve such maladies. But I had to confess—“I struggle with living, too.”

I’ve often heard it said that what we’re seeking in spirituality and spiritual practice is happiness. If that’s so, then I’m failing miserably, and so are a lot of others. We think there’s something wrong because we’re on a spiritual path, and yet, still struggle with life.

But maybe we’re seeking the wrong thing. If the result of spiritual practice is happiness, then the amount of happiness we feel is the measure of our success on the spiritual path . . . and we should probably just give up now, or at least some of us.

The truth is, I’m not really sure what happiness has to do with spirituality. There is such a thing, and it is certainly desirable. I’ve known it and been grateful for it, and will likely know it again. I look for it like everyone else. I have friends that I treasure, people I love, work that is sometimes fulfilling, but am I happy? It’s hard to say. I’m not sure that I am. I think the most I can say is that I'm in love—with those people, with the world—but it’s love, not necessarily happiness.

There are so many losses and things broken in life, things we can’t fix, that often we struggle with living. Sometimes we’re not even sure that we want to live; it’s hard to see a way forward, hard to endure the utter impossibility of living with what is simply ‘not right’ in the world. Does that make us spiritual failures? It can feel that way. But maybe there is a more important measure to consider, a more tangible proof of spiritual growth than happiness.

I think it is how we act.

Whether I’m happy or sad, heartbroken or world-weary, can I show-up when I’m needed? Can I rise above my own sadness to be there for someone else in their sadness or trouble? In the midst of my own pain, can I put it aside to meet the need of the moment—to be a “child of the moment,” as Rumi suggests. Or will I ignore them in my private despair, fail to see their need while thinking of my own and miss the moment of my own calling?

The proof of spirituality or spiritual maturity is not to be unaffected by the vicissitudes of life, or to achieve some permanently blissful—or alternately, emotionally aloof—state, but to transcend self-absorption in our own highs and lows when the need arises, when we’re called upon to serve others, and the world larger than our own needs. Those personal needs are important, of course, and we have the right to try to get them met, but not at the expense of another’s need, not in forgetfulness of the larger body to which we belong.

It may seem paradoxical, but in the end, the happiness we must seek . . . is another’s. Or so I’m learning.


* Netanel Miles-Yépez is a poet, artist, and Sufi spiritual teacher residing in Boulder, Colorado.