“Look at what you’ve got and make the best of it. It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” ~Proverb.
The year 2013 was the happiest of my life.
Not because it was the most perfect or problem free year. In reality it was as messy, sad, and as difficult as any previous year.
In October I looked at the last correspondence between my biological father and me for the first time since his suicide years before. I felt as devastated as the day he died. Healing is a much longer journey than I’d imagined.
Around March my psychologist noted that I was codependent on my blissfully independent husband and in serious need of my own identity.
In August I traveled to the U.S. for the first time in three years, and people I love rejected me.
From April to November I hated the stress, demands, and despair of my job and wanted to quit. Every single day.
That’s not all.
Extended family ignored requests to help me write a memoir about my biological father and grandmother. I gained weight, broke my toe, and couldn’t get rid of an itchy rash. Not a single piece of my writing got published and my blog went days without a visitor.
The miracle of 2013 is that I broke free of the notion that happiness is an if/then proposition.
If…I get the job, if he loves me, if I stop feeling anxious, if my health gets better (insert your own if here)…
…then I will be happy.
Happiness is not when everything turns out exactly how we want or plan.
Happiness is a full-hearted, unreserved embrace of life—exactly as it is.
I identified three keys to making happiness a more enduring state—not just a flickering emotion dependent on other people and results.
Here is how I do it.
In 2013 I started keeping track of my gratitude. Each day I write between five to eight unique events I am grateful for. I don’t repeat anything from the previous day.
If you grew up in an abundant environment and learned to be grateful because of it, awesome. I did not.
Learning was a slow process for me. After twenty-one days I was not a more positive or grateful person. A hundred days in, it had completely changed my life.
Gratitude does not come naturally to me, but it’s the surest path to happiness, I promise.
Even when work sucks and people disappoint me or I let myself down, I make an effort to see all the spaces, places, and people for which or whom I am grateful.
With time, I have begun to recognize my gratitude not just at the end of the day, but when things actually occur.
I accompany homeless adults on the arduous journey of trying to reenter the work market. Recently, one participant (in a drunken rage) broke the leg of the chair and threatened to attack another person.
My team took care of the immediate danger, and the next day it was left to me to conduct the reflection.
The conversation lasted less than five minutes. He justified his actions and I couldn’t muster up the courage to challenge him.
“Is this your first time?” our new social worker asked with concern.
“No, more like my hundredth,” I replied.
Not my best work. I felt like a failure.
One year ago I would have replayed the scene in my head over and over and called myself every name in the book. I’m the manager, what example am I setting, my team thinks I am a loser, the participant thinks I am a joke, etc.
It’s hard to be happy, in any circumstance, when you are your own worst critic.
Being kind to myself is a huge challenge—and a fundamental element in my pursuit of living an authentic and happy life.
Recognizing that self-compassion is not weakness or going to make me a lazy, unmotivated slob has greatly increased my willingness to be nicer to myself.
The truth is, the kinder I am to myself, the more willing I am to get up from each failure and try again.
Writing not published? Try somewhere else.
Friend not responding? Give it some time.
Husband really mad at me? That is okay, it happens to everyone and we will work it out.
How do you treat yourself when you fail? Make sure it’s with a hug.
After I recovered from the shock of the therapist’s statement that I had no clearly formed sense of self, I knew she was right.
What now? How do I discover who I am?
I asked myself, what do I love to do?
I didn’t ask myself how I will make the most money or become famous or what I am the best at. I asked myself what I love and then acted upon the response without reservation.
The answer was writing.
I can’t identify independent clauses, I have never read Dostoevsky, I will probably never be able to make a living from writing, and it is what I love to do.
This was the motivation to start taking online writing classes, reading books, and starting a daily writing practice.
Better yet, by investing in one interest, several others had room to grow.
In 2013 I took a photography class, began sketching, created desserts with no refined sugar, and started a blog—all of which I do while maintaining my full-time job.
If no one reads what I write or looks at what I create, that’s okay.
What matters is that I showed up for me.
If someone asks you who are you, what are your hobbies, what you would do if money weren’t an issue and you don’t have an answer, don’t worry—I didn’t either.
Simply start with what you love.
Don’t judge, don’t censure, don’t over think. What do you love?
You will experience sadness and loss and suffering in life. There is no guarantee or protection against pain. But if you practice gratitude and self-compassion and invest in your identity, you will create a default state of happiness that will support all the difficulties and failures along the way.
Take a deep breath, get in touch with who you are, and find something you appreciate about your life, exactly as it is. There you have it.
Happiness is within your reach right now, no matter what is happening in your life.
Photo by geralt