“Happiness is the absence of trying to strive for happiness.” ~Chuang Zi
I sat in the café wondering why I wasn’t happy.
I had been listening to all the happiness and self-help gurus. I was meditating every morning. I ate a healthy diet. I exercised four times a week. I was working hard on projects I was passionate about. I wasn’t wasting time and watching my life tick away.
Yet somehow, as I sat in the café, I wondered how I could have been “doing it all right” and yet everything felt incredibly wrong.
There is no mistaking the feeling of being unhappy. I wasn’t quite sure where it originated, but I constantly felt exhausted, uninspired, and like the energy was being sucked from my body.
I had this mantra constantly running through my head: If you only get one life, the solution is to cram as much stuff into it, every minute, and waste no time so that you will die fulfilled.
But it just wasn’t working.
So I did what we naturally do. I went to Google, the mystical tech god, to help show me why I wasn’t happy and to help figure out what to do.
I tried all the usual suggestions. I started journaling and keeping a track of all my moments I was the most grateful for during the day.
I started engaging in random acts of kindness; I would buy strangers’ coffee at Starbucks, pay for someone else’s toll, or leave a gift on someone’s windshield.
I increased my meditation time to at least forty-five minutes per day and focused on staying mindful throughout the day.
But the big problem was still there. I felt stressed constantly, unhappy, and had the weird feeling that even though I wasn’t wasting any time, and was using my life wisely, I just wasn’t enjoying life that much.
I just could not understand why at the end of the day I felt so grumpy Every. Single. Time.
And then, as most coincidences in life happen, I stumbled upon an article written by Martha Beck, the famous life coach, about how there was one overlooked path to success—and it wasn’t hard work.
In fact, quite the opposite. And it was something seriously in short supply in the modern world.
At first I thought, “What?” How is that possible? I’m having fun all day long. I go to work, come home, exercise (which I enjoy), work on my side project (which I enjoy), do some studying for a bonus class (which I enjoy). I play all day!
No, no, no, Martha’s article said. That is not play. Play needs to be restorative; it needs to be a time when your brain and body are turned off and simply in flow.
I decided to do an experiment.
Every guru since the dawn of time has mentioned how children are closer to “the truth,” and that by observing them we could learn quite a bit.
So every day for a week I sat in a café. And I just observed. I did nothing but watch people interact, watched them come and go, and in particular, watched how children interacted.
The first thing I noticed was something obvious: Life is a game to kids.
They spill milk and then laugh. Something breaks and they act scared for a moment, then laugh. It’s pouring outside and they jump in puddles and laugh.
It’s incredible the 180 that I (and many other adults) make.
Spilled milk? Annoying. Now my clothes are dirty. Broken wine glass? Great. Now I have to spend $15. Raining outside? Ecstatic. I get to run around freezing and potentially get a cold.
It was insanity. We were both experiencing the exact same things in life and I was giving myself a heart attack, while little kids were rolling on the floor laughing. Same situation. Big difference.
I then did a flow test, where I wrote down every single moment of my daily schedule and analyzed whether I was having fun or not.
I quickly realized I wasn’t playing. I wasn’t engaging in the relaxed, restorative kind of play that leaves you feeling strong and healthy.
I was too concerned with “making this one life count” that I was jamming every minute of every day with some kind of activity, for fear of wasting a single minute.
And the horrible irony was that I was seeking happiness by not wasting time, but “doing more” didn’t get me there.
Isn’t that crazy? One of life’s most important practices is so easily overlooked because we take it for granted.
There’s the old saying about how kids smile 400 times a day, but by the time they reach adulthood they only smile 10 times a day. I think it’s true.
And for me, the real secret to enjoying life, beating unhappiness, and beginning to reverse depression was all about playing more in life.
And, like meditation, everything can become an exercise in playfulness.
Maybe this life-changing secret will help you too: If you aren’t enjoying life enough, stop pursuing happiness and just play.
Happiness will come as an unintended side effect.