“Happiness is a direction, not a place.” ~Sydney J. Harris
Cars played a big part in my life growing up in Southern California. As a kid, there was a succession of crappy old station wagons that routinely broke down on the highway because we couldn't afford anything better.
I remember Dad standing helplessly outside in traffic as drivers slowed down to gawk at us, then sped up as they drove on into their lives.
And the rusted green ’42 Chevy pickup truck my grandfather taught me to drive years before it was legal to do so, gears grinding when I missed the shift. My legs weren’t quite long enough to get the pedal all the way to the floor.
“Lookin’ for the Heart of Saturday Night”
In high school, I was enamored with the low-riders cruising up and down the boulevards, “lookin’ for the heart of Saturday night,” as Tom Waits so poignantly wrote in his song.
You know, lots of hairspray holding up very big hair? Black eyeliner with perfectly executed tails? Carefully cultivated coolness? Like that.
Then there was the older boy, already out of high school and working … a grown-up. He drove a ’67 Chevy Impala SuperSport, with baby blue metallic paint that matched my eyes. I ended up marrying him.
Before long, though, I realized I needed my own car, my own life. To have those things, I needed to understand what made me happy.
Believe me, when I was growing up, we did not sit around the kitchen table talking about being happy or fulfilled as we ate tuna casserole mixed with Campbell’s mushroom soup, salty Lay’s potato chips crumbled on top.
Martin Seligman, Ph.D., says that, “Authentic happiness comes from identifying and cultivating your most fundamental strengths and using them every day in work, love, play, and parenting.”
My problem? Way too many of my “strengths” were filtered through lenses that didn’t belong to me. Rather, those strengths had been projected onto me by my parents, teachers, and a culture that molds people-pleasing little girls into supportive, one-step-behind young women.
Things like top-notch people-pleaser, knows how to keep quiet, does her work on time, never complains weren’t going to get me where I wanted to go.
I needed to learn how to draw my own happiness map, and follow it. Here’s what I learned.
How to Draw Your Happiness Map
1. You’ve got to know something about who you are, and what lights you up.
2. Use mindfulness to remember who you are, and what lights you up.
I love writing, sharing my experiences, helping others; it’s part of my happiness map.
You may love something entirely different. Great! It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re reaching for your stars.
There’s a lot of magic and plenty of miracles every day, if we only remember to look for them.
Developing a simple mindful practice helps set the compass point of your personal happiness map in the direction of what matters to you, what you’re willing to work for, who and what you want to love, and why.
Tara Brach has an incredible mindfulness meditation website—lots of free guided meditations and talks.
3. Try expressive writing to explore what you don’t want/doesn’t feel good.
Find a local writing group that focuses on personal narrative/healing; try Julia Cameron’s famous Morning Pages; do some personal writing work with me.
Sometimes it’s easiest to begin a trip knowing where you don’t want to go. What doesn’t feel good. What (or who) feels like sandpaper against your skin?
The guy with that ’67 Chevy Impala SuperSport? It didn’t work out.
Back then, with no self-awareness or insight, all I knew how to do was blindly grab for what everyone else said I should want. That usually doesn’t work out very well.
4. Use your brain.
All the fantastic neuroscience findings show us how to consciously use our brains to turn thoughts, attention, and choices toward the direction of happiness.
I am not those early messages of shame directed at a poor family with too many kids in beat-up cars.
You are not your thoughts or your emotions. Focusing on what lights you up keeps re-setting your brain for the positive instead of hanging out in its default negativity bias.
Watch this short Youtube video with my favorite neuropsychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson, as he talks about how to re-wire for positive experiences.
5. Let yourself love what you love, as poet Mary Oliver invites us to do.
That’s the direction of your happiness: not your mother’s, not your friends, not what your ego is telling yourself you’re supposed to be doing.
This is how I end up hosting a popular weekly public radio show. I mean, who knew?! Not me … not ‘till I learned to let myself love what I love.
A terrifically fun way to do this is to take five minutes before you get of bed, every morning, and watch the movie in your mind called “My Perfect Life.”
In your imagination, see what your room looks like. What’s the view from the window? Who’s next to you in bed? When you get up, what does your home look like? Where is it? How does it smell? What sounds do you hear?
What are you doing that day? What are you doing next month? In six months? How do you feel?
6. Give yourself permission to be human, to be messy.
Honestly, this one can be pretty hard. Those of us who are perfectionists, or like me, who’ve experienced trauma that caused us to do whatever it took to feel safe in the world, well, we need to re-learn a lot of stuff.
It’s okay that life is messy. It’s okay that we take wrong turns all the time, even get lost once in a while.
It’s okay that we’re still learning how to do it better, or make a different choice. As a beloved friend said recently, “Don’t let perfection get in the way of what’s good.”
7. Remind yourself often that happiness is a direction.
You’re the one drawing the map. You’re in the driver’s seat.
I mean, how wonderful is it to be driving down the road, windows down, music turned up, feeling into the peace and freedom of simply being alive?
We all know it isn’t always easy. That sometimes, it’s a lot of work. Is it worth it, though? Oh my goodness, yes!
Yes, it’s important to get where you need to get, to accomplish goals and attain competency. It’s equally important, as well, to enjoy the journey. To be grateful for this amazing ride called life.
And if you change your mind, and decide to take the interstate instead of the dusty dirt road, that’s cool. Why? Because it’s your life, and you’re in charge.
Taking responsibility for your choices is just about the coolest thing ever. (Almost as cool as my hair looked back in the day, cruising with Eddie.)
8. Once you’ve drawn your happiness map, you now get to start traveling.
Using your newfound self-insights, a five-minute daily practice of envisioning your most perfect life ever, and a map (maybe even an actual one), you begin making different choices.
Do you say no to a couple of commitments and/or people? Choose to take the very first thirty minutes of your day to write instead of check emails? Give yourself an hour of no-tube-time after work, and do one thing that feels good, just because it does, like yoga or taking a community college class?
It’s all Good
I’ve had my own car for many years now. I’m living my life on my terms, always heading in the direction of happiness. Yes, I’ve had a few flat tires, and took a couple of back roads that went nowhere. Ended up at the edge of a cliff more than once. That’s okay.
Flat tires can be changed. Back roads are lovely. Put the car in reverse, and back up, away from the cliff edges.
Pay attention. Be gentle. From that place, you can begin making better choices. As my son says, “It’s all good.”
If you’re draining your energy and power, giving it away to people/ideas/choices that do not nurture you, just notice that. And start making different choices.
Because, if you’re moving in the direction of happiness, you will absolutely, totally, no doubt about it start feeling more fulfilled, more peaceful, and happier.
Little girls with map image via Shutterstock