In an ESSENCE exclusive, Janet Jackson pens a revealing message to black women about her search to find, enjoy and sustain true happiness.
My dear Essence sistas,
We’ve been together a long, long time, and I’m so very grateful for our deep connection. We’ve grown up together. You’ve seen me face my challenges, and I’ve seen you face yours. As a precious sisterhood, we’ve been there for each other. I thank you for your loyalty. You must also know I couldn’t still be going strong without your undying support.
When it comes to happiness, I’m no expert. I have only my life experiences as a guide. I’ve known great happiness and great sadness. But I guess the question is, what do I really know about happiness? In order to answer this question honestly, let me review my life to see what I’ve learned over the years.
In my childhood:
I was happy when my brothers came home from performing on the road. I was happy when my mother lavished me with love. But I wasn’t happy with the way I looked. For most of my life, that lack of happiness has followed me. I wish someone had said, “You look fine. You look healthy. Being a little chubby is the least important thing in the world. Enjoy your childhood. Enjoy running and laughing and playing. Stop looking in the mirror and comparing yourself to others. When you compare yourself to others, you always wind up with the short end of the stick.”
In my teens:
Happiness came when people asked me to perform. It felt good to be chosen by a director or a producer. But I was happiest when I was pleasing others and not myself. An older and wiser Janet might have said, “True happiness is knowing you’re doing the best you can. True happiness comes when you realized you’ll never be perfect. Beware of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a prescription for misery.”
In my twenties:
When I found my voice as an artist, I was definitely happy. I had hit records. And I developed a group of fans who would stick with me over the years. Those fans – and their beautiful loyalty – mean everything. Still, feelings of unworthiness haunted me. I had not rooted out the damage done by perfectionism. I was still comparing myself to others. If someone had said, “Compare means despair,” I might have listened. If someone had said “Be happy in the now,” that might have made all the difference in the world.
In my thirties:
I was happy with my growth as an artist. I was happy to write and sing about life experiences, like sensual pleasure, and nonmaterial matters, like faith, with less self-consciousness. I’ve always tried to deepen my faith. I was happy that while I might not have found a spiritual solution to my problems, I was on a spiritual path. I read somewhere it’s not about the destination, but the journey. Deep down I may have known that true happiness is not in the accomplishment but in the learning process leading to accomplishment. Yet I still had not embraced this idea. It was an abstract concept, not an emotional reality. These were difficult years, when I struggled with depression. The struggle was intense. I could analyze the source of my depression forever. Low self-esteem might be rooted in childhood feelings of inferiority. It could relate to failing to meet impossibly high standards. And of course there are always the societal issues of racism and sexism. Put it all together and depression is a tenacious and scary condition. Thankfully, I found my way through it.
In my forties:
Like millions of women in the world, I still heard voices inside my head berating me, voices questioning my value. Happiness was elusive. A reunion with old friends might make me happy. A call from a colleague might make me happy. But because sometimes I saw my failed relationships as my fault, I easily fell into despair. These were times when I did, in fact, have wise counsel. “Happiness doesn’t depend on the success of your relationship with others,” said one friend. “It depends on your relationship with yourself – and with God. God’s love is always present. Our job isn’t to question it. Our job isn’t to ask ourselves whether we’re worthy of God’s love, because we are. Our job is to simply and fully embrace God’s love.”
Today, at 52:
Happiness has much to do with my work. Hard work – focused work, positive work – makes me happy. I’m blessed to be surrounded by a troupe of musicians and young dancers – a few from the J Tribe were photographed with me for this story – who inspire me with their creative energy. I’m inspired by the commitment of young people on justice causes. A new age is upon us, when high school students are speaking up on vital social issues with boldness and courage. And I’m honored to be part of a legacy of African-American women who have unapologetically focused on an artistic expression of their pain and joy. We are living at a time in history when women all over the world are refusing to be controlled, manipulated, exploited or abused. Heart and soul, I stand with these women. We have found our strength, and we will not relent.
Happiness is also realizing that, as African-American women, our proud heritage is one of moral courage and brilliance. We have guided, protected and nurtured our children. We have been the backbone of our families. We have endured, and we have prevailed. We are indomitable.
Most important, I have found happiness in my relationship with myself and God. That happiness is grounded in the moment. Today happiness means being present. Feeling the love of those surrounding me. Feeling the love of those rooting for me. Feeling the ocean breeze as I walk along the beach. Smelling the fragrance of the flowers growing in my spiritual garden. Appreciating the awesome blaze of the setting sun. Reflecting on the wisdom of a book I’m reading. Relishing the new songs I’m writing. Treasuring the new friends I’m making. Seeking out such moments, and when I find them, letting them linger. Acknowledging their glory. Expressing gratitude that every day offers opportunities – even if they last only a few seconds – for beauty to enter and enrich my consciousness.
Now the height of happiness is holding my baby son in my arms and hearing him coo, or when I look into his smiling eyes and watch him respond to my tenderness. When I kiss him. When I sing him softly to sleep. During those sacred times, happiness is everywhere. Happiness is in gratitude to God. Happiness is saying, “Thank you, God, for my life, my energy and my capacity to grow in love.”
Your sista, Janet Jackson.
Janet Jackson (@janetjackson) is a singer and actress whose career spans nearly 50 years. She’s a five-time Grammy Award-winning artist and recently received the Billboard Icon Award. On July 8, Jackson performs at Essence Fest in New Orleans.