When I began the research for this article, I thought it would be pretty easy. I mean everyone wants to be happy, right?
But happiness is such an individual thing, as unique to each of us like our fingerprints. We all know that friend who has to have that latest shoe or be seen at the hot new restaurant to be “happy”, while for some of us spending a day alone with a good book in our pajamas is bliss. How do you measure happiness? What role does culture, gender and demographics play into it?
I started reading about happiness and discovered lots of books and research on the subject. I realized as I was dutifully reading one such book, that it was not making me happy. The thing is, you can’t find happiness in a book or a shop, you have to look inside yourself and listen to your heart. It’s not as easy as it sounds as we navigate our relationships, work and this craziness we call life into the mix.
Like most of us, in my teenage years, I wanted to be independent from my parents and live in my own place with my own rules. Buying my first car at sixteen was the beginning of breaking away, enjoying the freedom to go where I wanted and when I wanted to. Of course, with freedom came the price of keeping the gas tank full and paying for the insurance and maintenance.
Lesson one: you have to pay some kind of price for happiness, and one that is not necessarily a monetary value.
The twenties are the blueprint stage when we try to figure out what we want to do in life and how we fit in. Again, I also remember setting goals like purchasing a boat and sailing to the South Pacific, desiring financial freedom and achieving career success, to name a few. My husband and I were fortunate. We made these goals a reality, but people critiqued our extended sailing trip to Tahiti because we chose not to settle down earlier with a mortgage and babies.
Focused on what we wanted and tuning out the negative noise, we set sail one cool January afternoon on a 4-year excursion. To this day, we have no regrets about our early-in-life sabbatical. It was one of the happiest adventures of our marriage.
Lesson 2: Do what makes you happy, even if it is not the norm. You only regret what you do not do.
Today, many women in their thirties start having a family with their partner when they’ve hit a stride in their careers. Many do both, making for a very full life indeed. My thirties were dedicated to our three sons. Watching them grow up and react to new experiences was my happiness. I remember being so involved that on date nights my husband would say “no talking about the boys.” I really had to struggle to find other topics to talk about! As much as I loved them, I realized that I was disappearing under the all-encompassing world of motherhood.
Lesson 3: Don’t forget about YOU.
As I turned forty, I started using the word “no”. I used to worry about what people would think if I refused to help at the school fair, not run the auction for the women’s club or babysit for the neighbor, who took my “favors” for granted. Soon I was feeling like an overused sponge, full of holes with little bits falling off till I felt completely wrung out.
This was definitely not my happy place. I started to say no and lightning didn’t strike me down! Instead, I enjoyed my time with the kids, saying no to anything that didn’t provide a desired connection. I found myself enjoying the commitments I did keep, and the energy and time with my family was better. With the boys in school full time, I was able to carve “happy-time” each week for myself too. This meant regular gym time and outings or trips with friends. My happiness quotient rose above the half-full mark on the glass!
Lesson 4: Don’t overload on social expectations. Take control of your daily life and make space for the things you enjoy.
Turning fifty gave me pause and then I decided I didn’t feel fifty. I wasn’t going to be labeled by a stupid number. Yes, I noticed tiny wrinkles on my face creeping in together with the occasional nodding off in front of the TV at 8:45 p.m. These were small signs that time was marching on, but I didn’t really mind! Those lines and gray hair are badges of courage for-the three kids I had raised who turned out to be kind and loving young men.