She may have taught us all the “pleasure principle,” but beloved icon Janet Jackson’s happiness didn’t come as easily as a song and dance. In an exclusive essay and cover story for Essence magazine’s first-ever Happiness issue, the living legend—who will also headline the 2018 Essence Festival on Sunday, July 8—writes readers a deeply empathetic “Letter From My Heart,” chronicling her own challenging journey to joy.
“When it comes to happiness, I’m no expert,” Jackson writes. “I have only my life experience as a guide. I’ve known great happiness and great sadness. But I guess the key question is, What do I really know about happiness?”
In the intimate essay, Jackson confesses that her issues with self-esteem began in 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 … ”
That insecurity led Jackson to crave approval in her teens and young adulthood, a feeling many of us can relate to: “Happiness came when people asked me to perform,” she writes. “[B]ut 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 … ’”
But perhaps the most revealing parts of Jackson’s essay are her recollection of the depression she suffered in her 30s and 40s, a struggle she describes as “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. …
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.
At age 52 and as mother to her 2-year-old son, Eissa, Jackson says that her happiness now lies in gratitude—and love:
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 ...
As one looks at Jackson’s gorgeous shoot, her happiness feels contagious as she models pieces from Zac Posen, Givenchy, Haider Ackermann, Azzi & Osta and more, surrounded by members of her “J Tribe” dancers and photographed by Warwick Saint for Essence.
The Glow Up tip: You can read Jackson’s “Letter From My Heart” in full in Essence’s July/August Happiness issue, which hits stands June 22.