happiness vs. wholeness

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I recently read an excerpt from the book The Good Life by Hugh McKay (of which I plan to add to my reading list!) that had me nodding in agreement and reflecting on throughout the last few days.
"I actually attack the concept of happiness. The idea that—I don’t mind people being happy—but the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness. It’s a really odd thing that we’re now seeing people saying “write down three things that made you happy today before you go to sleep” and “cheer up” and “happiness is our birthright” and so on. We’re kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position. It’s rubbish. Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are. Happiness and victory and fulfillment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don’t teach us much. Everyone says we grow through pain and then as soon as they experience pain they say, “Quick! Move on! Cheer up!” I’d like just for a year to have a moratorium on the word “happiness” and to replace it with the word “wholeness.” Ask yourself, “Is this contributing to my wholeness?” and if you’re having a bad day, it is."
For most of my young life, my Mum used the adjective 'bubbly,' to describe me to new people.  It is an adjective that I am proud of (thank you, Mum!) because it means light-hearted, animated, and lively.  I believe these are all accurate pictures of my personality, but not because I'm innately a 'happy person.'

Just like everyone on the planet, I'm not always happy; I experience regularly (daily...sometimes hourly!) frustration, anger, sadness, guilt, worry.  Instead of scolding myself for being unhappy though, I use these emotions to filter my feelings and then focus on gratitude.  It is important to preserve my bubbliness by having all of the emotions on a regular basis.  In that way, I am not surprised or caught off-guard by the regular unpleasantness of life, which allows me to experience it and then move on to the next one.

Happiness is not my end goal (although I enjoy quite a lot of happiness); but rather, as explained by McKay, I strive for wholeness.  Wholeness for me represents the ability to experience all of life's emotions while recognizing that each of those are contained within the same bucket of Gratitude.  I want to recognize that life is hard - for every person in different degrees and ways - and that no matter my current situation- gratitude is hidden in the moments that accompany every emotion; the pleasant and unpleasant ones equally.  When I am frustrated, I can be grateful for a lesson a learned for next time.  When I am disappointed, I can be grateful to have the extra boost to go for it again.  At the end of even the very worst days, at the very bottom of the barrel, gratitude still sits for all the small pleasures that we take for granted; a warm drink, a friendly smile, the chance to try again better tomorrow.

This description of striving for wholeness also describes the way that I feel about my role of parenting.  It is not my job as their mother to make sure my kids are always happy.  First, that's unrealistic and impossible, (you already know this if you've ever spent time with a two year old who whines about a cookie that broke in half).  Secondly, there will be endless amounts of time that my kids will be unhappy in their lives and that is something that they need to continue to learn how to overcome and experience again and again.

happy to be visiting puppies; disappointed to not keep any
My job as a parent is to make sure that my kids have experience in a full range of emotions and feelings so that when they encounter them in varying degrees as they grow up, they are not unfamiliar and scary.  They will recognize that feeling of a deep pit in their stomach when they are worried about a loved one and know how to respond in a way that doesn't derail their whole day.  They will flinch a little less with the pang of disappointment when the outcome isn't exactly what they expected.

I stand firmly in the parenting thought that being a little uncomfortable is good for the soul and for growing into a whole person.  We are lucky and acknowledge that we have a life in which our versions of being uncomfortable are chosen instead of endured out of necessity.  We regularly remind family, friends, and ourselves that it's perfectly fine for our kids to want and to not be perfectly comfortable all the time.   I love the line from The Descendants in which the father said you should "give your kids enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing."  We try, as parents, to apply this concept to not only money, but all sorts of aspects; activities, parties, everyday life.  We look at our job as their parent to not give them everything they want to be happy all the time, but rather give them enough to experience, learn, and grow creatively and confidently;  and to support them emotionally through the all the feelings that come along with life and to help them see the gratitude that lies hidden in each of those moments.

Our strongest desire in parenting is to raise kids who are grateful and kind.  As their parents, that is the foundation we want to lay; all the other stuff can be dumped into it.  As they grow up, we and and other people (it takes a village, right?) will help teach and encourage them to be all the other things a person can be; imaginative, competitive, knowledgeable, curious...all that other stuff.  But we believe wholeheartedly that without the gratitude and kindness - everything else is too easily wasted.

Gratitude (thankfulness, appreciation, acknowledgement) is not the same as happiness (pleasure, contentment, satisfaction). Perhaps the issue with creating a fear of sadness (or other unpleasant emotions) in today's world actually comes from a misuse of the word happiness; that when people focus or list the things that made them happy - they actually mean the things that they were grateful for throughout the day.

I think a shift from focusing on happiness to gratitude could do a lot of good in a world that sometimes feels overly sad, scary, and frustrating.  A world where happiness appears to not reign supreme does not mean that it is a world where gratitude does not exist.  On the contrary, from the gratitude that we can recognize out of the unpleasantness that surrounds us, it creates abundant opportunities to imagine, envision, and dream about how each of us can grow, learn, and create a world in which we find a balance for both the pleasant and unpleasant emotions.  A world in which wholeness and gratitude shower each of us and the whole world in kindness.


  1. That's why I like the saying "choose joy." It implies that the circumstances probably suck, but joy is an attitude choice, in spite of...

    <3 Melodye

    1. i keep meaning to tell you that I love my "joy" bracelet and I loved your reasoning behind it that you wrote about on your blog post. thank you so much for the gifts and the support :) xxxoxo

  2. I just forwarded this to my husband as we are expecting our first child in five weeks (ah!) and have verbalized similar notions in all of our daydreaming of parenting days to come--though our notions were not developed quite as fully as yours!

    For fun, and for full disclosure, the subject line of my email read: "So the girl from college who I pretend I’m best friends with posted this on her blog today..." Don't judge me:) I anticipate I will be relying on your words even more so in the near future as a new parent and not just as one looking for general encouragement in life/faith in humans. Thanks once again for your words!


    1. Haley!! congratulations on your new baby coming!! eek! I am so excited for you guys, what a lucky baby to be getting you for a mumma<3 aaaaand, totally love your email subject line. seriously just made my day. I MISS YOU!!

  3. We began bedtime prayers with the boys as a means of expressing gratitude for the things He has blessed us with... I so enjoy hearing what little things made them happy each evening!