“It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.”
“Happiness is letting go of what you think your life is supposed to look like and celebrating it for everything that it is.”
“Happiness is not the absence of problems, it’s the ability to deal with them.”
“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”
“Happiness is a journey…not a destination.”
“…Find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all.”
–Robert Louis Stevenson
The inspiring quotes I chose to share with you this week reflect the multitude of ideas out there about what creates happiness and joy in life. They all sound pretty nice, and make the idea of adding more joy seem pretty simplistic. Sayings like these offer something that seems attainable. But is it really that simple? And even if it is, why should we care to create more joy, happiness, and satisfaction in our lives? Is it because we want to actually like our lives?
One of my acquaintances—let’s call her Jody—was recently complaining to me about her life and all the things that had gone wrong in her day. As she spoke I caught myself thinking, “Do you actually even like your life?” What she was doing was pretty familiar to me, because people do it all the time. They give others the impression that their lives suck worse than anyone else’s and their problems are unparalleled. They barely get by, living only to survive. Often they feel like time is passing them by; though they’re alive in the moment, there’s no joy in it.
When people complain in this way, I tend to wonder if it’s just their way of starting conversation. Maybe they get overly annoyed by daily inconveniences but ultimately love their lives. Or maybe they’re truly unhappy. It’s hard to tell. I sometimes wonder if people air out their grievances with me because they know I’m a therapist; but that wasn’t the case with Jody. She seemed genuinely annoyed by life every time I had the pleasure of running into her, which got me thinking: Who do I know that actually likes their life? Do I actually like my own? I know, I know; I can’t just keep things simple and take them at face value. But I like to go deeper with my observations, delving beneath the surface and exploring the meanings underlying people’s actions. I want to understand what’s really going on—not to form judgments, but to be more aware of my surroundings and myself. So I ask myself the tough questions. And I’m asking you, too. So, do you actually like your life, or are you just going through the motions?
You Are Alive
If you’re reading this article, I can safely assume that you are alive. We may not all agree on what the meaning of life is or whether there’s any meaning to it at all, but for a moment let’s just agree that our lives mean something. Let’s take it to the next level and assume that our lives aren’t supposed to suck—that, in fact, they’re supposed be somewhat enjoyable. Let me clarify. No, you aren’t going to be happy with all of your life a 100% of the time. But do you actually like it the majority of the time, or even 50% of the time?
My grandfather, who was a very wise man, once said to me, “In life bad things happen and good things happen. At the end of your life if you have an equal amount of good and bad, you had a good life.” I tend to prefer a more positive perspective, but I understood completely what he was trying to say. Bad shit happens, but good shit happens also. If you have both in your life, it’s still possible for your life to be a good one.
If your answer to the question I posed in the title of this article was no, I’m sorry you feel that way about your life. But there’s no need to worry: That can change. Ask yourself, what’s the smallest thing you could do today in order to improve your life? What’s missing that, if you added it, would allow you to enjoy your life just a little bit more? Maybe you work too many hours, don’t spend enough time with your family, spend too much time with your family, worry too much, or don’t take some time to yourself. Maybe you seldom take a moment to look around, breathe in the fresh air, and reflect about your life. If that’s the case, I can understand; for much of my life I operated on autopilot. I had to ask myself the same questions I’m asking you in order to make sure my desires, behaviors, and thoughts matched my true values. I said I valued family, but whenever I was with my family members, I was thinking about work. I said I valued work, but I was always thinking about my family when I was working. I said I liked leisure time, but whenever I was lounging, I thought about all the stuff I needed to do and felt guilty the entire time. I finally asked myself, “Am I really enjoying my life? Is this what it’s all about?” My thoughts were stealing the joy from my life, robbing me of my most precious moments.
Why Your Thoughts Suck
We live the single life but crave a relationship. We get into a relationship, only to crave being single. We have kids, only to rhapsodize about the good old days before we were parents. We set ourselves up for failure. We set ourselves up to hate our lives, to complain constantly. We dream about being Beyoncé and Jay Z sipping champagne on a yacht, convincing ourselves that they don’t have a care in the world. We believe that somehow all our worries, preoccupations, and complaints would go away if we could somehow live someone else’s life.
So how do we get to the point of being happy with the lives we’ve got? How do we become content with the ordinarily extraordinary lives we’re already living? According to some religious and spiritual traditions, we chose our lives before birth. So let’s say this is true; let’s say you chose your life, you chose your career, you chose whether or to have kids and whether to be healthy or unhealthy. For a moment let’s take ownership of our own lives, thoughts, and behaviors. The complaints I hear from my acquaintance Jody always revolve around her three kids, as if they appeared out of thin air to ruin her life. Maybe if she took ownership of her life, her choices, and her decisions, she wouldn’t feel so powerless over them. Maybe if she changed her thoughts about her children, she could find the joy in motherhood. Sometimes it isn’t our actual lives that make us feel shitty; it’s the thoughts about our lives that makes us feel so bad. When I realized I was living on autopilot and allowing my thoughts to keep me from enjoying my life, I decided to change them. I decided that life is too precious, short, and uncertain to just let it pass by. Now I make the conscious effort to practice seeing the positive side of situations, taking it all in; when I find myself overthinking, I bring myself back to the present moment and find joy in being alive.
As part of my inquiry into whether people actually like their lives, I took a poll of people in my life who I know to be happy. I posed the following questions: What things do you do to make your life worth living?” What advice do you have for people so they can answer yes to the question when asked whether they like their lives? Here’s what they shared with me about how enjoy life a little bit more:
1. Live in the moment. Be more present.
2. Eat natural foods, exercise, and take vitamins.
3. Make time for yourself.
4. Look at the bright side.
5. Do something different than the usual,
6. Work hard, but don’t get attached to results.
7. Be more compassionate.
8. See life as a journey with ups and downs.
9. Look through a lens of possibility.
10. Have goals.
11. Give and receive the unconditional love and understanding of family.
12. Fight for your right to be happy.
13. Be selfish.
14. Regret nothing.
15. Figure out what you value.
16. Change what bothers you.
17. Do things that make you feel happy.
18. Do what scares you.
20. Make time for meaningful relationships.
22. Balance work, family, and fun.
25. Belief that everything works out at the end.
Life isn’t always going to go the way you want it to. Try not to feel too upset when things don’t go according to plan; instead take control of your life. Instead of complaining about your life, try your best to make changes, think about the bright side, and take ownership of your decisions. If you aren’t enjoying your life now, there are small changes you can make to bring more happiness into your life. Sometimes taking a deeper look into the thoughts and actions keeping you from enjoying your life is the first step towards actually liking the life you’re living. You’ll get there one day, if only you’ll try.
Article edited by Dr. Denise Fournier