“I just want you to be happy.”
We’ve all heard the phrase, and I’ve noticed it popping up in conversation more and more.
Recently, however, I’ve found myself internally disagreeing. It may seem an odd fight to pick—“No, I don’t want you to be happy!” is not exactly a Hallmark sentiment. After all, how could happiness be a bad thing? And how could desiring someone else’s happiness be anything less than admirable?
But the problem isn’t necessarily the literal meaning of the words themselves. And to be clear, I don’t want to hate on happiness—I think we can all agree that it’s a worthy goal.
The problem comes when we use this phrase as a justification for actions—whether our own or others—that ultimately aren’t the best choice. It’s a problem when we use the phrase to avoid voicing our real opinion of a friend’s decisions. And while some people certainly mean it sincerely when they say it, in my experience, it’s more often used as a conversational crutch or escape route.
So let me rephrase: I don’t just want you to be happy. I want more for you than that. I want more for me than that. And I want more for our friendships and relationships than cowering behind a seemingly benign little phrase. Allow me to explain.
Happiness is often fleeting.
Several years ago, I found myself hung up on an ex-boyfriend, although I had already begun (and still am) dating someone whose goals, faith, and temperament were a much better match for me. In those tense months after the breakup where I felt torn, wondering if I had made the right choice, I continually justified the past relationship to myself. “He made me happy. Isn’t that what matters? I was so happy.”
A few years and a lot of hindsight later, I realized that the person who was making me “happy” was also complicating my life a great deal. We had little in common, including different long-held beliefs that neither of us would ever compromise on. Although my current relationship obviously has its ups and downs, it’s almost refreshing to know that I don’t want just to be happy—I want to be able to work through the lows and celebrate the happiness when it does come.
So what is it about happiness that I’d gotten wrong?
Maybe it was that I’d confused it with fun or freedom to do whatever I wanted; maybe it was that I’d prioritized it well above my other values. But I learned the hard way that what makes one “happy” in one moment might lead to serious repercussions down the road.
We owe our friends honesty.
Sure, we may not keep a friend for long if we’re vocally judging her every decision. (For the record, that is not what I’m advising.)
Sometimes, though, we owe it to her to weigh in. I’ve watched people turn away from their ideals and upbringings, fall in with friends who might not promote healthy lifestyles, and make impulsive choices that eventually lead to heartbreak. And we, the trusted friends and confidants, often neglect our roles when the subject matter at hand seems too delicate to criticize. “I want you to be happy” becomes an easy plug-in line to avoid hard conversations or conflict.
But hiding how you really feel with a trite little phrase is just a band-aid. Having ripped that band-aid off before, I can tell you that it can be painful and exhausting and challenging. Being on the other side, however, I can also tell you that my friendships and relationships are stronger than ever—because we’ll always hold each other accountable to our values, even when it means having uncomfortable conversations.
Where do we start?
If I just say, “I just want you to be happy,” I don’t have to take responsibility if anything goes wrong. But if I say too much and voice opinions that might seem preachy, I risk damaging relationships. It’s a fine line to walk. How do we navigate these conversations?
In my experience, what often works best is asking questions with an attitude of humility. When trying to work through a difficult circumstance, a thoughtful question can kick off the conversation and help others assess the situation. With my ex-boyfriend, for example, a friend could have asked me: Was that happiness I felt coming from how he treated me? Was it our shared history? Or was it because I just wanted to prove it could work?
If you’re trying to understand why a friend is making what you think is a terrible decision, think through it—and then talk through it. There’s no need to put forth your opinion right away; sometimes people need to talk through the situation in order to get to its root. But if your friendship has a solid foundation, you shouldn’t let your fear of offending your friend outweigh your concern for her wellbeing.
The next time someone tells me, “I just want her (or you) to be happy,” I’m going to ask, “Why?” It’s fine not to be happy all the time, And if happiness does result from a particular situation, I want it to be for the right reasons—because it’s fulfilling, real, and worth it.