Great (but Realistic) Expectations: What Does Happiness Look Like?

Lately in my conversations with readers, the topic of abuse recovery has come up. Some of us don’t expect to ever fully heal. Others are desperate to heal, and cling to the hope that we will someday feel happy and secure. While on the one hand we don’t want to stagnate in a state of perpetual pain and sorrow, it’s also important not to set our expectations and standards of happiness unrealistically high.

In today’s world we are inundated with the best highlights of other people’s lives on social media. Our Hollywood celebrities have flawless bodies and luxurious lifestyles. Many of our church leaders and Christian authors seem impeccably happy, healthy, and successful. Even the damsels in distress of Disney fairytale fame live “happily ever after.”

But that’s all a mirage. It’s a standard and an ideal that doesn’t actually exist in the real world.

It’s wonderful and healthy to desire healing, and to aspire to lead a happy life. However, it’s also important that we moderate our expectations. If we idealize what being a happy person means, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and a perpetual feeling of “not enough.”

It’s easy to feel like The Little Match Girl, all alone out in the cold, looking through the window at people eating, laughing, and loving. What we need to understand is that nobody is perfectly happy. Everyone has some struggle they’re enduring, some pain they suffer, or some flaw they battle.

The richest people in the world are beset with family drama and illness. The most successful artists and celebrities have private lives that are often depressing, stressful, and difficult. The “perfect Christians” with their well-behaved children, thoroughly-thumbed Bibles, and glowing veneer smiles have skeletons in their closets just like everyone else.

What is happiness? How do we define it? What criteria do we have to meet before we consider ourselves happy, emotionally healthy, and healed? Are those criteria attainable?

Life has seasons. Childhood was a season. The teenage years were a season. College was a season. Living with abuse was a season. Parenting is a season. Paying off the car is a season. Whatever season you are in now, rest assured that it will end shortly. You will face new joys, new challenges, and experience new growth.

You are exactly who you are created to be, when you are created to be, where you are created to be, right now.

There is no need to feel rushed or inadequate, because God is sovereign and faithful to lavish grace upon us. No matter how unsatisfying and frustrating our current season may be, we can find peace knowing that God has a purpose, he has a plan, and he works all things together for the good of those who love him.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

Does that mean that it’s wrong to feel frustrated and unsatisfied? By no means. However, it’s important for our own sakes to view our unhappiness in the context of it being a temporal thing. Struggles are finite, but God is eternal and good.

“Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.”
Psalm 30:5a

In many ways, the idealistic happiness we crave is an illusion. Or at least, it’s something we cannot fully attain in this fallen world.

As C.S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Sure, we experience pops of joy, blips of relaxation, and episodes of positivity. But happiness as an ongoing, consistent, and dependable state of being is largely a fabrication of Hollywood and human idealism.

A dream job will have stressful days. A happy marriage will have rough patches. A strong friendship will be tested. A healthy family will endure illness.

If we trick ourselves into believing that happiness looks like that cute couple we only know superficially at church, that beautiful actress on television, that successful businessman in his sunlit corner office, or the social media celebrity with five million friends, we will never feel happy.

No one’s superficial exterior is their whole story. The persona that people present in public is often much different than the situations and emotions they experience in private.

Rather than measure how far you need to go, measure how far you have come. Instead of counting the things you need to accomplish, count the things you’ve already accomplished.

Take joy in the blessings God has given you. Marvel at the strength he gave you to survive what you have survived. Wonder at the grace he’s already worked to heal you as much as he has.

Yes, you’re a work in progress. So are we all. Once we realize this, we can find contentment in who we are, and peace knowing that God is currently creating the person he always intended us to be.

‘As it is written, “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9

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