• Alicia Assad

A Reflection on Happiness

My Godmother reminded me it is a choice we make to go on living despite loss, and that it's possible to choose hope, even when our heart is broken.

Sadly, my Godfather passed away suddenly last weekend, so I returned to my hometown in New Jersey for his celebration of life yesterday.

After departing for college years ago, my immediate family dispersed, leaving few excuses to revisit my roots as an eternally busy mom of four. I’ve since found myself immersed in a town where there are no ghosts of my past, and therefore few moments of nostalgic childhood recollection.

Perhaps my physical distance is why this loss brought on a flood of old memories and powerful emotions throughout the week. By the time I was organizing the house to leave my kids behind and head "home” for a few hours, my past felt closer than ever.

At the height of this emotional intensity, a message popped up on my phone from a former high school classmate I have not spoken to in years. This synchronistic connection was inspired by a post I shared on social media about my headshot turned rainy day art craft for my daughter.

I took the #tbt opportunity to note how I am much happier now as “Just Mom” in sweatpants raising kids in the burbs, than I was back when I was in the spotlight “living the dream” as a performer in NYC. I paired it with the hashtags:

#noheadshotrequired #nostage #nolights #nosparkles #justlove #thisismotherhood #formerrockette #dancer #perspective #growth #ifoundhappiness #success

This dear old friend of mine noted that he (now a father), was caught off guard by this post, and expressed that regardless of being "Just Mom" or "Just Dad" (or whatever hat of responsibility we might currently be wearing), that role is merely a PART of who we are. We evolve, we grow, and the present “title” should not reflect who we are as a WHOLE.

I cannot agree more with this profound perspective, because while I surrendered into motherhood and eventually “found happiness," I did grieve the part of myself I brushed aside for the responsibilities I took on. The truth is, I ungracefully embraced the title of Mom, and actually expanded on my messy process of “letting go” in last week’s post. Knowing how my words landed on at least one reader, I feel compelled to explain that my headshot reveals a lesson I have learned about happiness, which transcends who I have been at any point in my life.

See, this remnant of my past is an image of a young and starry-eyed girl from a small rural town. Back then, I was blinded by the bright lights of NYC and assumed "making it" would make me happy.

Listen, I’ve walked on The Miss America Stage, kicked eye-high at Radio City Music Hall, danced on national television, worked with several agents, and booked enough gigs to suggest I had very much “arrived” at the goal l once saw in my horizon. Heck, I’ve even run two marathons, and while I experienced moments of joy along the way to accomplishment, in the childhood dream I dreamed and had the privilege of living, I was more unhappy than I had ever been.

I’d like to blame it on the nature of the performing industry, but the truth is, my lack of self-confidence initiated my downward spiral into an unhealthy place. Thankfully, I made the choice to abruptly step out of the spotlight before I fell too far, and found myself on a new career path in the field of psychology.

I eventually went on to earn a Master of Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and this degree in the “science of happiness” was my a last ditch effort to understand what exactly makes a life worth living (because it sure as hell wasn’t accomplishment alone). By this point I assumed if I couldn’t live and breathe happiness after learning from the world's leading experts, then, well...I would just have to give up on optimism altogether.

Indeed, these experts showed me the research and proven interventions of wellbeing. Yet still, in my first real-world experiment with the science of happiness, I crashed and burned.

My current analysis of this failure finds that I was technically making the same mistake of measuring myself against an external notion of happiness. And, when it manifested as the goal of being "a perfect mom," the result was rather disastrous. I know many of you well understand this motherhood perfection trap…

Point being, my “failures” on my pursuit of happiness continually nudged me to notice that happiness is an internal quest, which begins when you move towards yourself with things like love, respect, and self-compassion. It just took me a while to wrap my stubborn mind around the idea of self-love. Mind you, the surrender, responsibility, and isolation of early motherhood also helped with that growth I realized.

This evolution might have something to do simply with "growing up," but I don’t think we all naturally "grow into" happiness. I suppose the most important thing I can tell you about what I’ve learned through the various roles I've landed, is that happiness is something I yearned for and worked relentlessly at. I’ve finally found myself in a place where I am confident enough to declare, “I am happy,” and in my mind, this is a huge success.

The reality that happiness is strongly correlated with the perspective we choose manifested powerfully at yesterday's gathering to honor my Godfather, Dominick. This loss brought me to a room bursting with shock, grief, and unfathomable sadness; but also of friendship, deep family bonds, and gratitude for countless memories cherished.

My Godmother, Lucille, who was a blindingly beautiful example of grace noted with stoic words, that while she lost the love of her life, she derived comfort in a room full of family and friends. Love and memories are what will remain in her life despite an enormous loss.

While I cannot fathom the depth of grief Lucille, who is suddenly living the role of “widow” might feel, she exemplifies what we must do to lead a happy life. She reminded me it is a choice we make to go on living despite loss, and that it's possible to choose hope, even when our heart is broken.

Last night, I was awed by the strong bonds, tradition, and resilience that surrounded me. I couldn’t have been more proud of where I have come from, and realized the roots I knew and left, but carried with me, were very much a part of my decision to step out of the spotlight and find a more authentic (and happier) path in life.

The greater life lesson I am alluding to here, is that while I once assumed what is beautiful, bold, bright, or exciting would hold joy and bring me happiness - it was all for show. Having spent way too much time distracted from what really matters, I now focus on the small yet epiphanic moments of connection infused with love and kindness, which in sum, might translate to what I consider, “happiness.”

I also approach myself with the endless amount of love and compassion I know I need for my "Mom Show" to go on.

In sum, my Jersey roots reminded me it is the people we journey with that make a life worth living. Other people (regardless of how brief our connection was) have continually inspired me not only to survive, but to grow, and to thrive.

A wise man, Christopher Peterson, once said, “Other people matter."

Today, this statement resonates deeper than ever before.

That's why I'll close this post with the thought that if you have read these words, in some way, somehow, you matter to me.

With love and gratitude,