Finding happiness when life is running smoothly is easy. Being happy when you’re sad, or when life is treating you like excrement on the bottom of it’s giant cosmic shoe, is an entirely different story. It also begs the question, why on earth would you want to be happy when you’re sad? Aren’t you just suppressing your emotions by pretending your life doesn’t suck a million lemons right now? The answer, as you might expect, is not black and white.
Happiness is an emotion, and like all emotions, it’s fleeting. We use it a lot though when describing how we’d like to be. “I just want to be happy.” or “All I want for my children is to be happy.” What we’re really wishing for ourselves and others when we say this, is “I want to be at peace with my life.” We use the word happy, interchangeably as a emotional state (momentary) and as a permanent state of being (totally not sustainable).
I’ve thought a lot about happiness over the last 18 months. Finding the true meaning of it, and how to hammer it into my life and those of my daughter’s has become a bit of an obsession. You might say it’s become my raison d’être. The single most important thing I’ve determined though, through all the reading, practice, and observations I’ve done is, happiness is on you. No one else owes it to you. You either want it and are willing to pursue it doggedly, or you don’t.
Circumstances, absolutely affect your outlook and your mood. I will not share the salacious details of my life over the last 18 months, but let me just say that if it could go wrong, it has. And yet, I’m still here, still moving forward, and yes, for the most part “happy”. It has not been easy because it’s required that I be hyper aware of the space I take up on this earth. I’ve become almost a split personality. There is my physical body, that takes the stress, and goes through the motions. Then there is me as the observer, the one that floats above and offers constant course-correction.
There is a quote by John Allston that says, “If you don’t control your own mind, then someone else will.” At the end of the day, this is what it all boils down to. If I don’t manage my own thoughts, recognize where they are going, and control the narrative of my own life, then I’m nothing more than an amoeba in a petri dish.
I know I’m not alone in this pursuit of happiness, we just sometimes feel like it. It’s easy to look at each other’s highlight reels on social media and assume everyone but us is living La Vida Loca. Scroll through my pictures of the last 18 months and you’ll see big smiles and exotic locales. I’m no different, sharing the highs, and avoiding giving any signs of the lows.
If you’re currently caught in one of life’s trying cycles, like I am, take comfort and know that the surest thing about life is the impermanence of our emotional states, and that it’s up to you how you narrate the story. While I think you should absolutely let yourself feel all your emotions in their raw glory, it’s important to balance things when times are tough so the scales don’t tip too far. The following strategies have worked for me, and if just one of them works for you, then I’ll be happy. (see what I did there?)
How to Keep Happy When You You’re Sad
I’m a broken record on this I know, but I can’t overstate the importance of meditation. At first, meditating felt so foreign, so hippy-dippy to me that I practically gave it up. I only persisted because there is hard-core science backing this up and I’m a big fan of science.
I have not yet achieved a magical transcendent moment, but I have seen glimpses of real peace through meditation. The bigger and more profound moments though happen when mindfulness pulls me back to the present when I’m walking about not meditating. Meditation is more than just the ten or twenty minutes spend quieting your mind, but the feeling you carry with you all day.
Become a Happiness Scholar
What you feed your brain is as important as what you feed your body. So I cut out the crap this past year, and became a happiness scholar. I’ve read and listened to so much about happiness that I feel I’m ready to walk across a stage and collect my PhD in it.
Obviously there is a ton of content out there when it comes to happiness. Let’s face it, after our basic needs are met, it’s a state we all strive for. You can search happiness in Google, on a podcast, and at the bookstore and you will definitely find something that resonates for you.
Here are a few sources though that I’ve found particularly helpful:
The Happiness Lab Podcast with Dr. Laurie Santos
Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly
Happier Human on Audible.
In my late 20s, I experienced depression for the first, and thankfully the last time in my life. It’s a feeling I never want to go through again. One of the most important things I learned from that experience is that depression can’t catch a moving target.
In the first days after leaving my marriage I walked up to six kilometres a day. Since then, I make time daily to get outside and just move. This is the primary reason depression has failed to pull me back into its icy grips.
Turn Up The Volume
I have playlists for just about every mood, except sad. Just like I don’t watch sad movies, I purposely avoid songs that are sad. Frankly, there’s enough depressing events in real life that I don’t need to seek it out in art. Instead, I build playlists built on motivation, serenity, and happiness.
I’ve spent 50 years building a perfectly constructed, and I might add, aesthetically pleasing wall around me. Taking a sledge hammer to it and letting my rawest emotions pour out has been both wonderfully liberating and completely terrifying. I do know though that my “veneer” as someone close to me affectionately calls it, has done a great job from keeping me from being hurt in the past, but it’s also numbed me to all the great emotions too.
Brené Brown, the godmother of vulnerability research and why it’s so important, should be required reading for everyone. I won’t even attempt to come close to her wisdom on this. I will say though, that allowing yourself to be vulnerable can sometimes come with pain, but more often than not it fills your soul with joy.
Last night at dinner I told my boyfriend about a list I write daily with ten things I see for myself in ten years (a tip I picked up from Rachel Hollis in Girl Stop Apologizing). This was a completely vulnerable moment for me. Would he think this was ridiculously flighty? Too hippy-dippy? Would he find my goals stupid or meaningless? It was a act of vulnerability I would not have taken before.
I know now though, that I only want someone in my life who I can be completely exposed and raw with so I took the chance and shared. He reached across the table mid-story, took my face in his hands, kissed me, and told me he loved me. This wasn’t a test, but if it was, he passed and frankly so did I. Hooray for vulnerability.
Attitude of Gratitude
There’s a reason pity parties usually only have a party of one, they’re a total drag. When I feel like throwing my hardships around like confetti, I stop and list what I’m grateful for in that moment.
I also keep this gratitude journal by my bedside that keeps gratitude front and centre in my life at the start and end of each day.
Start with The End
When problems get too overwhelming for me, I start with the end result I want and work the problem backwards. Sometimes just flipping the script can help you see a new way through.
Get A Dog
Pets in general are good for the soul, but dogs do something for you that other domesticated pets do not—they get you outside. On days when the only energy I could muster was swiping deodorant on, I still had to get up twice a day and take my dog Honey for walk. Without fail, the walk coupled with my dog’s capacity to be as excited and happy about every single walk like it was her first, would lift my mood. Dogs have three moods, play, eat, and love. Spending time around something with such simple goals is a good reminder to simplify your own life.
Chase A Goal (Or Two)
“How are you doing it all?” is a question I get a lot from people. That’s the wrong question. “Why am I doing it all?” is what people should be asking because the why is much more meaningful than the how.
In the lowest of my lowest moments, I’ve always had something to complete or strive for. These goals, big and small, have kept me putting one foot in front of the other, always creating forward momentum. Some goals, I’m only able to chase when my mood is up, and others I can even do through big, snot bubbly, crying sessions. Trust me, there is nothing more pathetic than a sobbing 50 year old, trying to juggle. The observer in me though, also finds this pretty damn funny.
Talk It Out
In an ideal world, every single person on earth would be handed two things at birth—a puppy and a therapist.
As a society we still have so much shame and hang-ups associated with therapy that it’s doing us all a giant disservice. There is nothing wrong with having an objective party to talk to. There is nothing wrong with seeking out someone to help when you’re at maximum capacity. My experience in therapy is why I’m literally chasing a degree in psychology right now. So, please if you are not seeking therapy because of an outdated concept, shake it loose and find one.
If you’ve never met with a psychologist, ask around for some recommendations and meet with a few until you find someone you can connect with. I personally think my therapist is the best, but a lot of why it works comes down to how our personalities mesh. At the end of the day, she is still only human, and I have to trust her. Like falling in love though, you’ll know when you find the right one.
Sidenote: The best book I’ve ever read happens to be about therapy. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb is brilliant. Sadly you have to get your own copy because I have so many passages highlighted and earmarked, I’d be embarrassed to loan my copy to anyone. Talk about a window into my soul.
Prepare for the Worst
There is a lot to be said for the power of positive thinking, and I am a huge proponent of it. What I’ve learned over the last year though, is that negative thinking can be pretty powerful, in a very positive way.
I used to wake up in the morning, and using the power of positive thinking would visualize an awesome day. This, as it turns out was a disastrous way to approach my life during tumultuous times. Inevitably the day would fall apart, and I would be in fight or flight response often before my first cup of coffee.
What I started to do instead was visualize the worst possible outcome for that day AND then my reaction to it. This was a bit of a turning point for me. Instead of the day now controlling me, I was in control of it. Prepared for worst case scenario, I already had my response at the ready. A much more measured and thoughtful response came into play, than the one I was having when my adrenal gland was in overdrive. If worst case didn’t happen, then even better.
Life won’t always be like this but adjusting my expectations of normal during stressful times, and even moving them to worst case has helped me cope much better. More often than not, worst case is not what happens, but rather just a little bit crappy, and oddly enough, that becomes a relief instead of a stressor.
Control Social Media
I feel a little like a hypocrite here because after all, social media is how you got here. On the day I got up to write this post though there were three things trending on Twitter; #WWIII, #TrumpWars, and #Australia. My anxiety immediately went through the roof, so I shut social media off for the day and focused on the things I could control instead.
Computers, phones, and apps are deliberately made to addict you. Don’t even try to fool yourself that you’re not addicted to it because you are, you just don’t know to what degree maybe. Draw a line in the sand right now and get this shit under control my friends because the science is clear on this, there is a direct correlation between internet and social media use and decreased levels of happiness.
You are not Pavlov’s dog, so shut off your notifications, set up timers on your phone to remind you to walk away, leave your phone at home when you go out, and take control of your life.