Clare Saumell VanderWeele

essays on living

Let’s Talk About Happiness

When the snow blankets my world, swallowing up the sound and reflecting all the light, I float between the bed sheets, eyes shut, lingering in those last few moments of half sleep.

My fingers entwine with freckled, callused hands; hands that walked me back up the aisle after the “till death do us part,” hands that cradled the tiny head of our newborn son. And for one fragile moment, hanging in the space between wake and sleep, death is defied.

Those last moments of slumber shed away and my eyes stray open. Next to me is the tiny creature I have birthed, not so tiny any more, nearly three years since I first called him by his name. His eyes flick open. He giggles. Need a cuddle, mama?


These struggling moments between grief and joy stretch my heart. The ache of missing Chris next to the delight in my smiling son is a juxtaposition I can hardly bear.

I can feel myself longing for an answer to this predicament, to this anxiety, this unhappy overwhelm.

I am not always great at living up to my own words. My very first blog post itself said that I know no answer in this lifetime will satisfy the questions I’m asking. Apparently I don’t know this well enough for my heart to trust it. It’s a daily practice. I need frequent reminders.

Recently, the best reminder came from Molly Mahar, entrepreneur and coach at Stratejoy:

“There are no magical answers. But there are hard-fought trial-and-error answers. There are answers simply found when you get silent and receive. There are answers that come to you through an open heart, gentle curiosity, or a willingness to get comfortable with uncertainty.”

Get silent and receive.
I am not very good at this. My internal struggle is its own entity; far from being quiet, it rattles at the bars of my rib cage, screaming to be let out.

But I quiet down my demons anyway, squirming against the uncertainty of everything. I fidget and fuss until I get cozy and start to trust.

And that’s when I get to the heart of the cliche saying: happiness is not a destination. When I start to trust that, here’s what I focus on:

Be thankful in everything

“Thank you” rolls off my tongue for the all easy things – a door held open, a birthday present, a question answered, or a listening ear. But the moment the dark closes in, when chaos weaves itself into the depths of grief and hopelessness, gratitude is forgotten.

Some time last year, a new friend gave me the book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. Here was a woman who literally lives the Biblical verse, “Give thanks in all circumstances” (Thessalonians 5:18).  Here was the hard lesson that there is always, always something to be deeply grateful for – especially on the darkest days.


And so I found myself listing things to be thankful for each day: Some days I am simply grateful for sunny mornings, Chai tea, and toddler giggles. Other days, I breathe out profound thanks for the gift of life, the unconditional welcome from new friends, and the treasured memories of true love.

And when I realize all I’m thankful for, I simultaneously find happiness.

Help as much as I am able

I am still blown away by the incredible generosity that came in the wake of Chris’s death. It is a constant reminder that even my smallest efforts can make a difference.

There are plenty of weak moments when I feel helpless and insignificant in the face of national disasters, third world poverty, and widespread inequality. But the inaction of an “all or nothing” attitude does no one any good. And so, from small, random acts of kindness to volunteered time and monetary gifts, I try to always be giving, even in the smallest ways.

And yeah, helping people makes me feel happy.

Being okay with vulnerability

I’ve lived most of my life with an overwhelming need for control. I had to look like I knew what I was doing. I didn’t want to ask for help. I felt uncomfortable revealing my fears and flaws.

Take that attitude and pile on a massive helping of death and grief and anxiety, and you’re left with a mess that won’t admit it’s a mess.

Asking for help meant showing the world I was vulnerable.

But I got to a point where I realized I had no choice. I took a deep breath, clung onto a scrap of courage, and took a baby step. And then another. And another. Until eventually, I came to accept that I rarely have control, and that to be vulnerable is to be human. I was meeting new people, trying new hobbies, talking about my life, writing about my life – on the Internet! And I realized I was happy doing these things.

Baby steps

I absolutely love the work of research professor Brene Brown, who says, “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity.” Accepting your own vulnerability is an act of self-compassion. And numbing the vulnerability numbs out the happiness, too.

 A New Kind of Happiness

I’ll be honest: I almost didn’t publish this post. I’ve had a few days of revisited grief; the kind where I feel like I’m back at square one. When even a year and a half later, it feels absolutely impossibly that Chris can be gone.

I don’t think I have any tears left inside me, but my lungs still feel the tangible memory of breathless, ragged sobs raking through my body until every muscle shakes and both eyes are swollen. The memory catches in my throat and empties my lungs all over again.

Sometimes all I have left in me are a primal will to survive and a maternal instinct to protect my child.

I wonder how I could have written these words about happiness and joy. And then I hear it: Get silent and receive… Give thanks in all circumstances. Not for all circumstances, but in them.

And so I get quiet and say thanks for the will to live.

And then I am grateful for the people in my life.

And the love.

And, impossibly, quietly, I come across a scrap of happiness, and I cling on.

mountain top

Spring flowers photo courtesy of Billy Wilson


  1. Clare, I came to your spot on the internet tonight after reading your message in my inbox. I cried for you tonight as I read this post. I’m so so sorry you lost your Chris. That’s the worst heart-break I can imagine. Prayed for you just now. May God keep drawing your and your beautiful little boy close to His heart, shine His face on you and give you so much peace. You are beautiful.

    • Clare

      March 13, 2015 at 1:55 am

      Maggie, thank you so much. (Sorry for the delayed response!) I so appreciate you stopping by and reading, it really means a lot. Thank you for your prayers and kind words. I love seeing your blog posts pop into my inbox every few days; they are a joy to read and your writing is beautiful 🙂

    • Maggie, thank you so much. (Sorry for the delayed response!) I so
      appreciate you stopping by and reading, it really means a lot. Thank you
      for your prayers and kind words. I love seeing your blog posts pop into
      my inbox every few days; they are a joy to read and your writing is

  2. P.S. You’re an amazingly gifted writer!

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