Learning to choose happiness doesn’t happen overnight — it’s something we learn over time. It can be a bit of a moving target as we navigate the various phases of life, finding that what made us happy at age 20 might not scratch the itch anymore when we’re 30. At age 34 (and a half, if you want to get technical), I’ve been surprised more than once on this road to happiness, and I have a feeling there are plenty of surprises yet to come.
Here are five things I’ve learned so far:
Rip up the contract.
For years I thought I knew myself: A risk-averse, type A achiever. Every personality test I ever took confirmed this (ESTJ, for any Meyers Briggs junkies out there). Every big decision I ever made reflected it as well. I wasn’t wrong — those characteristics are definitely part of me, and probably will be forever.
But it wasn’t until my 30’s that I realized I wasn’t bound by them.
The contract that I thought I had signed — to always be responsible, always be prepared, always choose the safest option — was only with myself. So I ripped it up. I followed that urge I’d had to quit my corporate job and go out on my own as a freelancer. I signed up for a marathon even though it terrified me. I sang karaoke in front of a packed room. It all felt risky and unfamiliar, but it also felt like me. A different version of me; one that isn’t bound by an imaginary contract that no longer serves me. I felt free.
I’ve developed a plethora of detailed excuses — some valid and some not so much — over the years to talk myself out of trying new and challenging things. Not enough time, not enough energy, not strong enough, not fast enough, not possible enough. If I couldn’t picture myself as the final product, I avoided even making an attempt.
By viewing the start line as a goal in itself — a declaration of belief and work ethic and possibility — my excuses lost their power. I realized that I didn’t have to be able to run 26.2 miles to train for a marathon, I just had to be willing to start. I didn’t have to have an entire novel outlined in my head to pursue freelance writing, I just had to write. I learned the beauty of “just start.”
Listen for the “I love you’s.”
I am a writer; I love words. I love the right words at the right time; how when strung together just so, they can capture feelings and ideas that previously seemed unclear and nonsensical. And, like most women (people?), I love to be told: “I love you.” Sometimes it feels like I don’t hear it often enough, or like the words are an obligatory gesture.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned that there are lots of ways that people say “I love you,” often without any words at all. When my husband cleans the kitchen so I can come home to a clean house, it’s not because he’s a neat freak (far from it), it’s because he loves me. When my son wants me to watch his trampoline trick for the 87th time? It’s because my validation means the world to him, because he loves me. When my Boston-qualifying marathoner friend offers to run with me at my 10-minute-mile pace? Because she loves me, in her way. To quote the seminal film, Love Actually: “Love actually is all around us,” we just have to be willing to hear it in all its various expressions.
Don’t fear the fear.
I’ve spent countless hours and energies avoiding scary situations. I’ve bought into the notion that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and have vowed to keep fear at bay with planning, preparation, and a really pep-talky yoga teacher. A funny thing happened in the weeks following that marathon I ran, though…
I missed my fear.
I had been terrified of that race — the hills, the distance, the idea that I’d miss the cut-off time or otherwise embarrass myself. I finished in one piece, under the cut-off time, and promptly decided that all my fear had been for naught. But it hadn’t been. All that fear had actually been a really valuable part of the whole experience. It shined a light on my insecurities and helped me know myself better. It pushed me to commit fully to the task at hand. It made me admit my vulnerability in the midst of my strength. It wasn’t always a pleasant feeling, but it was an invaluable teacher. I accept the fear now. I invite it.
Don’t forget to play.
I am a working mom, usually behind on at least two deadlines at any given moment. There is always work to be done. Always. It can be tempting to prioritize that productivity above all else; to work until I have nothing left to give and then do it all over again. What I’ve found, though, is that when I make joy a priority — when I choose to fill my own tank by investing my time and energy in activities that I simply enjoy — I have more to offer. To my family, to my work, to my friends, to myself.
So sometimes the house can stay messy while I go for a sunset trail run. A flexible work task can get postponed while I check out the newest happy hour in town. All the babysitting favors can get cashed in for a weekend at the beach. And that time I spend doing things that bring me joy — that make me laugh, that make me feel connected to myself and to the things that matter — it makes me whole. It makes me happy.