Waiting for Happy
It is my birthday. Today I am 24.
I am sitting on my rooftop in Brooklyn, staring out at the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s the middle of the night and the air is crystal clear. The city is lit up, the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building the perfect, gleaming bookends to a city so wonderful I could cry just thinking about it.
It’s mid-March, so it’s freezing. My hair is wet and I’m bundled up but I’m not wearing gloves. Cold white wine was not the right move.
I can hear the bouncing tune of the local ice cream truck circling the block. A siren cuts through the relative quiet, on its way to the hospital four blocks up the street. The last of the St. Patrick’s Day crowds are making their way home for the night, and every now and then laughter fills the street below.
In this moment, everything is perfect.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be exactly where I am.
Staring at the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center in my New York apartment, drinking wine on my birthday, listening to sirens and laughter and ice cream trucks.
For my whole life, ever since I can remember wanting anything, I’ve wanted two things: to live in New York, and to be a writer. And right now, in this moment, I am both of those things.
And it’s perfect. And it’s all I ever wanted. And sometimes I look out at the city and I can’t believe that I get to live here, and I get to look at it and listen to it every single day.
This is my dream. I’m here and I am living it.
And I am so unhappy.
I know I’m lucky. Incredibly lucky, really.
At 24, not many people can say they’re doing what they’ve always dreamed of doing in the place they’ve always dreamed of doing it. At 24, not many people have an apartment in the city of their dreams, with a job that they love, that pays all their bills and leaves them with extra cash to buy wine that costs more than $6.
I know I’m incredibly lucky. That’s what makes this so hard.
For my entire life, this has been my dream. Freezing cold, sitting on the roof of my apartment, staring out at New York City in all its glory, at 2 o’clock in the morning, listening to Billy Joel. It really, truly does not get better than this.
But at the same time, it could.
Because there’s something that no one tells you about getting your dreams: Sometimes, it’s not what you thought it would be. Because sometimes, dreams change.
I remember the day I moved here, on a chilly day in April. As I sat on the floor of my tiny, perfect room, listening to Adele and not-so-carefully building an IKEA bed frame, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was so excited to be there on the floor, despite having no heat, no wifi and a missing Allen wrench.
The apartment had no closets, and the ceilings were barely tall enough to stand up, but that didn’t matter. It was also about two stops too far from my office to make my commute “convenient” but, again, that didn’t matter.
It was my apartment. My apartment in New York City. New. York. City.
For the first months I lived there I looked like a permanent heart-eyed emoji. I was so in awe of everything, so in awe that I lived here and worked here and grocery shopped here. I came home dumbstruck by the fact that I was living the life I’d always dreamed of, wondering what I’d done to deserve it.
But underneath the perfect, something was missing. I’d known it for awhile, but wasn’t ready to admit it.
Despite basking every day in the glow of the fact that every piece of my life was falling perfectly into place, I’d come home at the end of the day and cry.
Because this perfect life I’d built for myself didn’t feel like my own.
I’d come home at the end every day and look back at it, like I was watching a movie: Katie’s Perfect New York Life, starring me! The perfect New York girl! After another day in Katie’s Perfect New York Life wrapped, I’d sit down and wait for the happy. Because a girl in a movie like that should definitely be happy. A girl whose life was so full and so perfect should absolutely, definitely be happy.
But I wasn’t. And I couldn’t understand why.
It became a sort of twisted game, the waiting for the happy. A game I was determined to win, at any cost. I’d come home after every outing, every perfect brunch or concert or picnic or beach day and wait for the happy, almost daring it to stay away.
I’d take notes throughout the day on things that should bring the happy. This pizza slice was the perfect combination of greasy and crispy. That cup of coffee was perfectly toasty but not too hot. That piece I wrote was excellent, not too long and not too short. That interview went great. That outfit was amazing. That commute was flawless.
And then I’d come home and surround myself with my little notes, each one listing off a reason why I should be so over-the-moon, mind-numbingly, heart-stoppingly happy. In the end, each one was just a red flag, a mark on the flawless tape of Katie’s Perfect New York Life—edit, re-shoot, take two.
And so, I began to wonder: What was wrong with me? What had I done to stave off the happy? Had I chased it off, or was it knocking on my perfect apartment door begging to be let in? If not, where was it, and why couldn’t I find it?
A year after I moved, I took a vacation, my first real trip out of New York since I had moved there and started Katie’s Perfect New York Life. As I sat on my return flight, waiting to take off, it hit me.
I didn’t want to go back. I mean, I really didn’t want to go back.
I remember thinking, wildly, of what I could do to get kicked off of the plane. Something reckless enough to have me escorted off the plane, but not landed in jail. I remember tightening my seatbelt so much my hips went numb, as if pushing myself deeper into the seat meant I would never have to leave it. As if I could simply stay there and hope no one noticed.
As the plane took off I began to rationalize those thoughts. Of course I wanted to go back. New York was my home. It was the center of my perfect New York life, of my whole world. It was everything. Of course I wanted to go back.
And so I spent the next hour and 57 minutes convincing myself that I loved New York and that I loved my life. That it really was as perfect as it seemed on the outside, and that nothing, no matter how small, was missing at all from Katie’s Perfect New York Life.
As the captain’s voice came over the speakers, asking the flight attendants to prepare for landing, I felt excitement building.
Since I was a child, my favorite thing about flying into New York City was seeing the lights. I used to beg for my parents to book night flights into the city, and claim the window seats on those flights just to see the city shimmer as the plane swooped low over the buildings.
This, if anything, was going to convince me, was going to sell me on the city and on the life that I had there.
The lights had always enticed me, dazzled me, disillusioned me. Made me forget about everything wrong with the city. Made me fantasize about penthouses and perfume and a perfect life.
But this time they sparkled differently.
Sure, it was still stunning. Flying over the city at night is something that can’t be explained, something that could swell the most hardened of hearts, but this time it was different. The sparkle seemed a little dimmer, less inviting. Like watching it on a movie instead of in real life.
And then it dawned on me.
The entire time I’d been on the plane, I’d been rationalizing my urges to flee, and convincing myself I loved my life.
No one should have to convince themselves that they love their life. No one should have to wait for happy.
The city was perfect, and my life was perfect, but if I wasn’t happy, if I spent all my time either pointing out what should make me happy, or waiting to be happy, was it really perfect?
I’ve done a lot of soul searching since that tumultuous plane ride, and while I don’t believe I’ll ever be done finding things out about myself, I’ve uncovered at least one thing which changed me.
Happy isn’t something you should wait for. You can have a perfect life—the apartment of your dreams, the city of your dreams and the job of your dreams, but if you aren’t happy, it isn’t perfect. And if you’re sitting in your perfect life, waiting for happy, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Happy isn’t something that can be achieved through perfection. Getting everything you’ve ever wanted doesn’t ensure you’ll be happy. Life isn’t some puzzle we can piece together until it all fits perfectly. The pieces change, they grow and they shrink and sometimes they disappear all together. Some of the things that mattered the most to us when we were young slowly go by the wayside and are replaced by other things.
The dreams you had in kindergarten, or in college or even last Tuesday will change, which is something no one tells you about dreaming. They tell you to chase your dreams, and to live them, but never what happens when they change.
Achieving your dreams can be complicated, and not always as perfect as everyone makes it seem. Everything can go right, but there can still be things that are missing.
And its gut-wrenching, realizing that what you once wanted isn’t what you want now. And it’s uncomfortable telling people that everything you told them you wanted has changed. But mostly it’s terrifying to let yourself change your mind, to change your life, to make yourself happy instead of waiting for happy to come to you.
I don’t pretend to have it all figured out. Knowing my dreams have changed hasn’t made it accepting it any easier. Figuring out who I am when I’m not living Katie’s Perfect New York Life is hard, because I’ve spent my whole life preparing for that role. Accepting that there’s a life to be lived outside of it is scary, and more often than not it feels like I’ve failed or I’ve given up.
But it’s also exciting. I’m chasing new dreams, and learning how to adapt to changing ones.
But most of all, I’m done waiting for happy.
Windrose Magazine is your guide to navigating life in your twenties through a collection of essays, interviews, and advice that will inspire you to chart your own life course, free of comparison.
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