"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." (Howard Thurman)
Most of my life has been one big race to get the things I thought I needed to have in order to be happy. I needed more money so I could finally do what I want when I want. I needed more success, so I could feel fulfilled and proud of myself. I needed more connections, so I could feel loved and valued.
Mostly, I ended up with more distractions so I could avoid the fact that I was miserable with myself.
I'd trick myself into thinking I was making progress. I was pushing myself. I was stretching myself. But what I was really doing was pretending that happiness was just over the next ridge. Happiness was always something that I had almost achieved. I'd probably get there tomorrow or the day after that or the day after that or....
The truth I'm coming to learn is that nothing will ever bring me joy* if I attach happiness to something just out of reach. In my experience, when I finally get those things, I feel emptier than I did before because I am reminded that there is a void in me that things can't fulfill -- only self-acceptance can.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say I'm not the only one who feels like this. I bet some of you have also attached too much of your hope and energy to something you wanted -- a job, a relationship, an award. Your entire life became oriented around achieving that one thing -- all of your thoughts and conversations and activities -- all aimed at that one, elusive thing.
And then you got it, and it felt really great...for a moment. It felt like it was all worth it...for a moment. But it didn't last. It wasn't long before you realized there was another level you could get to. You convinced yourself that this isn't enough; you had to have that.
Let me remind you of something you may have forgotten about. I know I'd forgotten this for a very long time, but I'm remembering it more and more often now.
There's no good reason for you to not be happy right now.
I know things are really hard for some of you. I get it. I know there is pain and suffering, relationships come apart, things are not the way they're supposed to be. Still...you could be happy. If you choose to be. I've come up with four steps that challenge my natural inclination to always want more. I'm finding that I can be happy -- and not feel limited -- if I remember these four things:
- Name your assumptions. Okay, so you want to be rich. Welcome to the club. But why do you want to be rich? Do you want stacks of cash so you can do something fun or meaningful? Do you want to start your own business or figure out a cure for cancer? Or do you simply assume that being rich will make you happy? It's crazy, but beliefs aren't always based in reality. Just because you think you'll be happy when you have more money, that doesn't mean it's true. If you're used to delaying happiness to some day in the future when everything is perfect, you'll never be happy. If you're not happy now, you won't be happy when you win the lottery.
- Question your expectations. Ask yourself if getting what you want will really give you what you assume it will. To do this, you'll have to go on a journey of self-examination. You'll need to know what's really important for you -- your core values. For me, I want freedom, adventure, and meaning. Money, by itself, won't create happiness for me unless it supports those things that matter most to me. I could probably make a lot of money if I got a corporate job and worked 70 hours per week. But that wouldn't make me happy because it would limit my time with people I love, restrict my options for adventure, and potentially tie me down to work that I don't find meaningful. However, I could probably live out my core values without ever becoming rich. Don't get me wrong; I believe I can do both. That's what I'd like to try. But freedom, adventure, and meaning. That comes first.
- Examine your now. There's nothing wrong with having goals -- especially if your circumstances are legitimately challenging. Maybe your family needs more space, so you need a bigger house. Or maybe you hate your job, so you need a better one. I understand all of that. But it's important to understand the difference between an opportunity and a distraction. Some of the goals we set for ourselves are really distractions -- things that take our focus away from what's really bothering us (which usually has to do with who we are). Ask yourself some critical questions. Have you filled your life with things that matter to you? Are you pursuing a path that brings you fulfillment? Do you maintain healthy relationships with people who make you feel good about yourself and life and the world? If your lifestyle choices have created a "now" that feels yucky, you're more likely to escape the present in favor of some fantasy about tomorrow.
- Be the change. The idea that happiness exists somewhere "out there" -- just around the next bend, just over the horizon -- that's a mirage. Whatever it is you think you need in order to be happy, how about you just create it instead of dreaming about it? If you think more meaningful work would make you happy, volunteer somewhere and find out. If you need more connections with people, call someone, ask someone out, make some plans, open yourself up to meet new people. If you assume more money is the key to happiness...well...you can't just print your own, and, in spite of what The Secret told us, we can't just manifest that instantaneously. But you can find a way to create whatever it is you want to buy. Go find an adventure. Look for a travel GroupOn. You have immense power, if you're willing to get a little creative and take some risks, to live a life that feels fulfilling right now, today.
It's unrealistic to think you'll ever stop wanting things or that you'll never be dissatisfied with the status quo. That's actually a positive thing. When people are dissatisfied, that's when they innovate. Ultimately, though, only you have the power to steer your own life. It begins with how you think, what you believe, and what you do right now. Don't settle for getting closer to your goals; live life on purpose with joy in the present, with whatever you have in your hand.
Photo Credit: Yoal Desurmont
*I understand -- there's a difference between joy and happiness, but let's pretend we can use those words interchangeably just for the sake of getting through this blog post in under 1,500 words, okay?