“Never put the key to your happiness in someone else’s pocket.” ~Unknown
About ten years ago I made the mistake of re-reading my journal from high school. Wow, was I ever a miserable, slightly unstable person.
I dated the same (great) guy for three years, but looking back over my handwritten confessions, you would have thought I was dating Mussolini. I had endless complaints, wanted to control everything my boyfriend did, and every other word I wrote was a gripe. And this was about a guy I tried to get to notice me for months before he finally asked me out!
This was not the last time getting something I thought would make me happy didn’t do the trick.
When I graduated from college, I was really stuck on the idea of losing weight. I’d gained some in college, but even after I lost what I’d gained, there was no satisfied feeling.
Nope, I spent the next couple of years trying to lose more weight, and even when I got to my most slender and random strangers told me I looked great, I was still unhappy. I still thought something was wrong with me and was always trying to change myself for the “better.”
It was as if getting the thing I wanted all along wasn’t actually the missing piece to my contentment.
Still, when I gained some of that weight I’d lost back (because it was impossible to maintain long term), I kept trying to lose it again. For years. Seriously, years. I let it control my life. All because I thought it would make me happy… even though there was no evidence that weight loss would bring me any closer to peace than it had the first time.
Once I was able to let that go (with therapy, lots of self-help, the death of my father, and getting pregnant), I found somewhere else to place my hopes for happiness: my career.
This had already been lingering in the back of my mind as something to “fix,” but I didn’t really start focusing on it until I stopped obsessing about my body and was at home full time with my daughter.
I got certification upon certification, got a graduate degree, started multiple online businesses, and even got myself accepted to a second graduate program, which I withdrew from before it started, thank goodness.
Even once I pinpointed a career focus that felt satisfying and right, I was not happy. I found so many reasons to be upset, from telling myself I would never be successful to worrying that I wasn’t good enough at my chosen profession, to beating myself up for not being like some random person I was comparing myself to on the internet.
Still, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I finally saw clearly, for the first time ever, that nothing was going to make me happy. Not love, not changing my body, not money, not my career.
Before you write me a prescription for antidepressants, let me clarify: No thing will make me happy. And by thing, I mean external situation.
Yes, it’s exciting to have a success in my business. My wedding day was lovely. Holding my daughter for the first time was miraculous.
But all of those things are fleeting. Achievements and milestones can only lift the mood temporarily.
Long lasting contentment is possible, though. I just wasn’t looking for it in the right place. I spent decades looking outside instead of inside.
Now that I know what to do, I can access peace at just about any moment of my day. It’s not the giddy happiness of getting asked out for the first time by a long haired boy in a Nirvana T-shirt, but it’s steady, and it’s deep, and it’s long lasting.
Here are some ways I access that still, yet joyful part of myself, no matter how much I weigh or how much money I’m making.
1. I take the focus away from the past and the future and place them on the now.
Let’s say I look out the window and see that the sunset is absolutely spectacular, and I go outside to take a closer look.
Things can go a couple different ways at this point. I could see the sunset and let my thoughts run away with me, telling me things like, “go get your phone and post this on Instagram!” or “Oh my gosh this reminds me of that sunset I saw with my husband when we were up in New York and then it got so cold and then the baby got sick and we had to take her to urgent care because we couldn’t figure out what was wrong and the place was out of network and we got this huge bill and that was right before we realized the car needed a new transmission…”
I think you get the idea. I’m definitely not experiencing or deriving any happiness from the sunset at this point.
The other way to experience the sunset is to try to keep yourself physically in the present moment, enjoying what is happening around you right now.
Feel the breeze on your skin. Feel the way your stomach rises and falls while you breathe. Feel the way there is an energy, almost an aliveness in your hands and fingers. Try to see the sunset without labeling it, and if your mind starts taking you away from enjoying the sunset, gently bring its attention back to the beauty around you and the sensations you’re experiencing in your body.
2. I breathe. And I pay attention while I do it.
This is really just another way to quiet the mind. Because quieting the mind is the only way to feel lasting happiness.
Getting a boyfriend didn’t make me happy because my mind constantly came up with reasons things should be different. Losing weight didn’t make me happy because I was constantly thinking about the ways my body should be better. My career has brought more stress than joy because I think about it, what it should and shouldn’t be, instead of just letting it exist as it is.
So back to the breathing thing. Breathing brings you into your body and out of your head. Breathing gives your mind something to focus on instead of your (negative) thoughts. Breathing brings you to the present.
3. I consciously remove the pressure from my life circumstances.
Here’s what all my past disappointments have had in common: me expecting them to make me happy. That’s not working for me anymore.
Maybe it sounds sad or disappointing to you, but realizing that external situations, things society in general celebrates as success, aren’t going to do anything for my well-being is incredibly liberating.
Once you realize that a promotion, that a baby, that a new dress isn’t going to make you happy, you’re free. You can still enjoy those things, of course you can, but you don’t have to put the entire weight of your happiness on them.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us in the moment. Breathing now, creating space in our minds now. It leaves us quiet, still. It leaves us able to let go of judgment, of doubt, of chaos. It lets joy flow through us instead of making us cling to every compliment from a stranger or new pair of shoes.
You can do this, too. You can allow your life to unfold instead of pressuring it and yourself to look a certain way. You can find a lasting happiness that you’ve never known possible. You just have to stop expecting it to come from a place outside of you.