Find Happiness Now Instead of Chasing It in the Future


“You can only grow if you’re willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” ~Brian Tracy

I found myself at a crossroads last year. I had reached the end of my time in college, and I had no post-graduation commitments.

I was working at the time on my applications to medical school, as I have wanted to become a doctor for a long time. However, I knew that medical schools are inundated with qualified applicants every year, but only have a few seats to offer. Thus, my vision of myself as a doctor still seemed to be only a dream, and I didn’t see myself on the path toward becoming a doctor yet.

Paradoxically, during this commitment-free time, my realization that an infinite number of paths were available paralyzed me. What if I made a wrong turn?

I searched for clues as to which path might be best for me.

I first observed the doctors I had met as an example of what my life could become. Fear and anxiety manifested as a “negativity lens” that altered my field of vision. I found fault with every doctor I encountered, even the ones who were happy with their career—so many more were burnt-out, insisting that I still had time to change my mind.

I was scared of becoming like them. I decided to mentally let go of my commitment to this career path as I imagined other possibilities. Perhaps I could be a stay-at-home mom instead, or maybe a chef, as I had always loved to cook.

I looked to each of the two aforementioned types of people for inspiration again. Unsurprisingly, I hated everything I saw. My blue-tinted binoculars were in full effect as I looked ahead on the path to becoming a full-time family woman, leading a life plagued by a lack of fulfillment and resentment.

I explored the path to becoming a chef and saw myself dealing with ungrateful customers and having no freedom to be creative in what I cooked.

None of the paths had a surefire destination of happiness. As I noticed myself judging everything so harshly and reflected on why I was doing so, I realized that I had convinced myself that the path I chose could lead me to a state of mind that I didn’t already have.

My paranoia over becoming unhappy in the future had become my way of avoiding my present unhappiness.  

Once I became aware of this unhappiness, my first reaction was to judge myself. Self-judgment for me was a persistent, angry voice in my head that screamed and berated me for wallowing and being pathetic.

When I explored why I judge myself, it seemed to stem from a discomfort with who I am as a person. I didn’t like myself.

This led me to deny and change my every quality in a quest for perfection.

For instance, I tend to be introverted in nature. I recognized this in myself, called myself (and listened when others called me) words like a loner and a recluse, and alternated between pushing myself so far out of my comfort zone in social situations that I felt inauthentic and fake, and withdrawing deeply within to a place of self-loathing.

I couldn’t see that being introverted is just a personality trait that is associated both with positives and negatives, and that if I embraced it and stopped trying to twist it, I would feel natural.

Once I recognized how deeply the negative self-talk went, I was able to start changing. Since it seemed to stem from not knowing who I am, I started by identifying my core traits.  

The first time I attempted to explore this, I was so confused and uncertain that I couldn’t come up with a single trait. Self-judgment had made me fearful of being anything at all.

I talked to friends and family who know me well, and sifted through things I had written both recently and further into the past, to remind myself of who I am at my core. I wrote them down, acknowledging both the good and the bad associated with them.

Every morning, I practiced saying the things that I am to myself. It felt awkward at first, but eventually became natural as I practiced it more and more.

I also became aware of the messages I directed at myself throughout the day. Many were cruel, full of blame for how I wasn’t “enough.” Especially in the aftermath of a situation that I wished had gone differently, my inner voice yelled and put me down.

I was unsure of how to change until I thought of how I would speak to someone I love. If I had a friend who was in my position, would I have blamed her for her feelings and screamed until she “surrendered” to happiness? Absolutely not.  

I started cultivating a new voice in my mind, one that didn’t shout but was gentle and caring the way a good friend is. I feared that I would let myself go entirely and spiral into laziness if I “coddled” myself.

As I continued to develop this new voice, I began to realize the difference between coddling and being kind. I am still allowed to have expectations for myself, but instead of beating myself down when I don’t meet an expectation, I explore it by listening to my inner kind-but-firm voice.

With this practice, too, I notice that I judge others less. It seems that practicing self-compassion is allowing me to be truly empathetic toward others, instead of outwardly compassionate while silently judging as I once was.

Nonetheless, judgments about others still arise in my mind on occasion, but I am better able to notice them, examine where they might be coming from, and then dismiss them.

Through this practice of being kind to myself, I now see that happiness is available to me right now instead of waiting at the end of some path.

With this newfound positivity, I choose to continue moving toward realizing my goal of becoming a doctor. After I submitted my applications and found a few moments of stillness while I waited for responses, I reflected and questioned again if I felt right on this path.

In truth, now that I have a positive state of mind and am experiencing joy much more readily, I could choose any path and be happy. However, I still arrived at the same conclusion: I not only want, but I feel called to become a doctor.

This time, that answer is enough for me to move forward with confidence because practicing kindness is helping me develop trust in myself.

I recognize that the road to becoming an MD will present many challenges, many of which cannot be predicted from where I stand now, and that’s okay.  I feel confident in my ability to handle those challenges because now, I can recognize when fear is starting to ensnare me.

Instead of blaming myself for feeling fear, I have the strongest tools available—love and kindness—to free me from that grip, examine myself and my circumstances, and consciously move forward.

To anyone who can relate to any aspect of my story, I encourage you to hit “pause” throughout the day. Notice your actions and your feelings. Always allow yourself the opportunity to ask, “Why? Why am I acting or feeling this way?”

I invite you also to notice the tone in which you address yourself. If you find that the tone in which you ask yourself “why?” carries disgust or judgment, the way I did, do not lose hope. You can cultivate self-compassion and self-kindness.

In moments where you regress to old habits, of which I have had many, try not to dwell on how you have “failed.” Instead, allow yourself to learn from the setback, remember the progress you have made, and approach your practice of self-compassion with renewed energy.

Photo by Mustafa Khayat

About Leela Patel

Leela Patel received a B.A. in Psychology, magna cum laude, from Cornell University in 2013. She is currently serving as an Americorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) at a health department in Oregon, and is happy to report that she will be attending medical school in the fall.

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  • T

    Thank you Leela, I needed this this morning. I am currently on the difficult path to “loving myself” and becoming more open and receptive to the person I really am. It has been difficult with all the people around me, people who are seemingly far more accomplished in life and work, but I’ve just started to stop the comparisons, learn from them and appreciate them for who they are…and also the same for me.

    Thanks again.

  • LongShot

    Thanks, Leela. Very appropriate read for me this morning.

  • kerri

    Wow no kidding me too. I read the line “Paradoxically, during this commitment free time, my realization that an infinite number of paths we available paralyzed me” and it just blew my mind. The whole process you describe is exactly what I’ve been experiencing for a long time. The changes in my thinking, my awareness and perceptions have been unreal and I only recently have felt like maybe I am finally climbing up out of the muck on the other side, still climbing, but at least in the right direction. I have realized that I have spent the better part of my life trying to “fix” what I perceived was “wrong” with me, getting all my feelings of well-being or worth from outside factors and trying to control things the extent to which I am only now seeing a lot more clearly. I see that all this time, I have missed my life! When the things that gave me a sense of security or safety or well being stopped delivering (high grades, clean house, my appearance, relationships esp romantic ones, impressing others, getting approval, etc. etc.) at first it was very distressing. I thought wtf?! This was gradual over years – I did not know how much I identified with my ego and it’s fear based agenda. There were times I thought I was losing it, really lost. Not in the old ways anymore, but not having any new ideas, like just in fog and confusion and at times despair and depression. At first it would cycle around, and in the beginning I had no idea why the hell I was so terrified and depressed. It would life and the way I see it now I went back to my “old ways” and life would be “okay” for a time. The way I see it now at least at this point is that each time that fear, anxiety and depression would come, the way back to my old ways was unbeknownst to me at the time was becoming less and less of an option, wearing thinner and thinner as it were. Wow I am stubborn. This has been happening my whole adult life. The last 7, well 5 years or so have been really intense with change as I have started waking up to the process as you describe so well above. I began to realize the beliefs underlying my perceptions of myself, and others, the world. How the failure of outer factors to satisfy me was necessary for me to begin to realize, experientially KNOW, how harshly I had treated myself and how my beliefs were not based in truth. I saw how my identification with my ego had me endlessly judging myself, every thought, feeling, and comparing myself to others, my well being conditional on all these standards and pressure I had put on myself. I finally realized that what I had feared so much, what I had been running from, was me. I started to become aware of those infinite number of possibilities and like you said it scared the shit out of me. I didn’t WANT to take responsibility for choosing my way in life, I didn’t feel qualified!! For someone who always derived their satisfaction from others approval and fitting in and achieving what I thought I was supposed to, I felt pissed!! Like it had been a waste of time, like I’d been duped! Ok, but eventually I saw when looked at from a different perspective, thank God, those possibilities were freedom. I had for so long just wanted someone to tell me what to do! I felt I had not accomplished what I should have and felt like a failure. But I realized, isn’t that what I’d been doing all along, just following instructions like a good girl?? If someone told me what to do how would it be any different? So. For me, this understanding has helped me to forgive myself and have compassion for myself and thus for others. I don’t feel angry as much thinking of time wasted because I know it could not have been any other way based on my awareness at the time. This has really helped in becoming less judgemental of others too. My fear of being responsible for my feelings, attitudes and having choice is beginning to diminish as I let go of my limiting beliefs and clear out a lot of old programming that told me I was inferior and not good enough. Also though interestingly, in this realm of thought I felt superior to some people too, right? I realize I WAS alone before, thinking I knew what was right and should be, that was the problem. Now I am learning to live with spiritual guidance and being comfortable with the reality that I do not and cannot control everything in life so I can feel okay ! I have what I need, I did all along. I have a long way to go but I’m grateful for having come this far in learning to love and trust myself and live from the inside out. I struggled for so long with inner/outer worlds, what to change, (should I leave my rel, change location), did it always begin with me inside, etc. More and more I think it does, and relates to the title of your article. When I first started to see and accept that I created my experience, consciously or not, that was when I started to see that I could be happy, content, whatever, now, now being the only time there ever was and anything that kept or distracted me from living in the present was just another condition I was placing on my being happy. Ego. So I know this is long and rambling but I’m just so glad to have come upon it as it resonated so much. Thanks!

  • Parul

    Thanks for sharing. I often feel like this and still feel lost in life.

  • I can totally relate to this as well, T. I see many of my friends and think that they seem to be so much smarter/more accomplished than me. I need to also learn to stop the comparisons. Good luck with your journey!

  • Thank you so much for this! I really needed to hear this. I just started a job about a month ago, and while I feel very fortunate I have been at times thinking, “Everyone with a 9-5 job just seems exhausted and depressed all the time, I don’t want to become like them.” And with this fear, I was thinking negatively about my job — despite all the wonderful things about it. I’ve been pondering it the last while, wondering what I could do to get out of this state of “blahs,” since I’ve been coming home and doing nothing but spending my nights doing whatever mind-numbing activities can be done on my computer. My “inner-work” had me realized I wasn’t happy with myself, despite all the things that have been working out for me recently. I’ve been having trouble finding this happiness with myself, and I think I can really utilize what you shared in this article to help me. I could identify with your feelings so much and it’s wonderful to hear that results are possible with patience. Thank you again so much for sharing.

  • Ale

    Thank you so much for this.

  • Leela Patel

    Thank you for sharing your experience, T. I am so glad that you found this post helpful, and that it found you at an opportune time. It has been said that comparison is the thief of joy, which I find to be true. Comparison, I have found, also robs me of the ability to authentically experience my emotions. That being said, we live in a culture that promotes comparison, so it is understandable for us to fall into that pattern of thinking. With kindness, we can bathe this tendency with the light of awareness, and choose to release it. It may take us many repeated efforts to fully release these habits- patience and understanding will be key!

  • Leela Patel

    You are most welcome, LongShot!

  • Leela Patel

    You are very welcome, Ale!

  • Leela Patel

    You are most welcome, and thank you for sharing your own experiences, Calae. I relate to your experience with a 9-5 job, and to the feeling you are describing of a lack of happiness in spite of these amazing accomplishments. It is OK to have these thoughts and feelings- you are neither your thoughts nor your feelings, nor are you alone in these experiences.

    In truth, our accomplishments are fantastic in and of themselves. However, they cannot serve as a substitute for true happiness and joy. I am learning to cultivate and use positivity and joy as my fuel in life, rather than being fueled by negativity and a constant desire to outdo myself. Giving myself time in the day to be still, breathe, and reflect without distraction has been instrumental for me in making progress, and might also be beneficial for you. I wish you all the best!

  • Leela Patel

    You are most welcome, Parul. It is OK to have these feelings- they do not define us as people. I can relate to feeling lost- know that we are all connected by these experiences, and we are never truly alone or lost.

  • Leela Patel

    You are very welcome, Kerri. Thank you for sharing your experiences here, as well. I am so glad that you found the post helpful, and that it resonated so deeply with you. I wish you luck in this process!

  • Thanks for this great post Leela. I’ve been on this journey also. I agree with everything you said. It’s a long journey, but one that’s really important. Things started to change for me when I learned to do this, and I started making different and better choices. Thanks again for the reminder and for sharing this inspiring post 🙂

  • Leela Patel

    You’re welcome, Janice! It’s wonderful to know that others are having similar experiences. 🙂

  • Bob Ducca

    Hi Leela, I really enjoyed your article. I can readily identify with your former dilemma, for I still find myself at a crossroads several years after graduating. I didn’t pursue the career I trained in for the exact same reasons. To me it looked as if everyone in that field was either burned out or over the top organized (which I am far from). I’ve worked in lot of random jobs since because of my indecision, but have recently found that I really CAN be happy no matter what path I take! We need not be identified with our livelihood, but rather with who we are as people. We can love ourselves from any standing in life.. My two cents..

  • Leela Patel

    Thank you for your comment, Jeff! I am glad you enjoyed the article. It is wonderful to hear from someone in the field that it is possible to be compassionate in medicine without burning out. I also especially appreciate your view that being able to help others make small changes can have a big impact.

    To me, the only hope there is for helping others, for creating long-term positive effects in other people’s lives, is relating on a one-on-one level. Medicine will afford me the ability to meet each person wherever they are in their journey towards health, cultivate a trusting relationship, and not only provide them with the tools they need to heal, but also help them recognize and reduce the panic and stress that interfere with the healing process. I am so looking forward to continuing on this career path. Thank you again for your thoughtful comment!

  • Leela Patel

    Thank you for your comment, Bob! I am so glad that you enjoyed the article. We certainly can love ourselves, access happiness, and be positive from any vantage point in life. We also deserve to engage in work that we find fulfilling and meaningful- I am finding that work certainly does not define us, but it can nourish us. I believe that it is possible to find that harmonious balance. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors!

  • I can truly relate to this and you Leela. Unfortunately, to allow myself to become a ‘better me’, I actually went through a breakdown a couple of years ago and though I wouldn’t wish to go through it again for all the money in the world, I can’t count how many valuable lessons I have learnt about life and myself from it.
    I now consistently assess my life and my feelings to see if I’m heading in the life direction that feels right for me and above all else, I’ve truly learnt how to surround myself with the right people and be kind to myself on a daily basis whether it’s allowing the depressive moods come and go in their own time or spending time doing things I know that comfort me.
    Lovely post!

  • Leela Patel

    You’re welcome, Toni! It sounds as though the lessons you are learning, as well as your efforts to be consistent in self-care, are serving you well. I’m so glad that you were able to relate to the post and shared your experiences here- thank you!

  • I totally relate with some of these struggles. I’m constantly looking toward that next thing. I’ve made huge steps in my life but I love the idea of looking in the mirror and stating who you are every morning. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Leela Patel

    You’re welcome, Cara! It’s such a simple way to not only start the day on a positive note, but also to return to throughout the day when we encounter stress-inducing situations. 🙂