I used to think that happiness was the ultimate prize, probably in part because it seemed so elusive. For years I window-shopped happiness—it was something I watched other people experience with a mixture of confusion, bemusement, and mild envy. I tried to be happy in the way that I believed others were, but it always felt awkward, like a dress that looked perfect on the mannequin but didn’t quite fit me. It wasn’t that I was constantly miserable—I found joy in many things. A perfect cup of chai, real chai straight from India. Mozart’s violin concertos with the sound of rain in the background. The smell of a kitten’s fur. The pristine way the world looks in the moment of waking, right as the sunlight first hits your face. But all of those things felt too small, too insignificant, and too random to matter. I still wasn’t like them—the attractive, confident, high-achieving peers who surrounded me. I didn’t have three hundred likes on every social media post. I didn’t have a line of suitors or an impenetrable group of girlfriends who always included me. I didn’t have the assurance that I would be welcome at every social event. I never knew what to wear, I never got the inside jokes, and I was always a step behind in the dance. I was still lost, and the strain of keeping up appearances finally caught up to me after I graduated from college. I collapsed into a heap of self-doubt, wondering why all of my mimicry had failed to bear fruit. It seems odd to say, but I gave up on trying to be or look happy—and it was the best thing I have ever done.
I buried myself in the novel I started in high school but hadn’t finished. I decided I was going to dig out my childhood dream of being an author. I wanted to share my words with others—that was my purpose in this life. I didn’t care that people thought it was ridiculous, I didn’t care that I was young and brown and a woman. I didn’t care that it was a long shot, and that I had no history of luck. For the first time in my life, I was guided by an unstoppable sense that what I was doing was right. Failure did not deter me; rejection bruised but did not break me.
And in refusing to give up until I succeeded, I found a deep sense of fulfillment that makes me smile to myself every day.
Looking back, I realize that I had a cheap view of happiness—I was taken in by a shiny veneer. I also know that I was attempting to define my happiness by other people’s metrics, which is always doomed to fail.
Now I choose to focus on what gives me purpose—writing and trying to make sure that the world is a teensy bit better with me in it. I view happiness as an accident now, one that I stumble upon in unexpected ways as I walk down my chosen path.
And quite miraculously, I find it more often than not.
Asha Lemmie’s debut novel, Fifty Words for Rain, is out today from Dutton. Born in Virginia and raised in Maryland, she received her bachelor’s in English literature and creative writing from Boston College.Thumbnail: Lenka Drstakova