Learning to Be Happy (Even When You Don’t Get What You Want)

True Contentment: In Simplicity — SECOND CITY CHURCH

The other day, while listening to a talk given by the American spiritual teacher and guru, Ram Dass, he said something along the lines of: Learn how to be happy even when you don’t get what you want. For some reason, the way he said these words really struck me. There is something about listening to the gentle, slow, thoughtful voice of a spiritual leader that allows simple ideas to penetrate directly to your soul. Since then I have kept that idea close to my heart.

It’s so easy to forget that external circumstances don’t dictate our internal state. Finding contentment where we are now, doesn’t mean that we won’t want things anymore. However, we won’t allow the outcome of these wants to decide how we feel. Certain desires are easier to let go of than others, but it’s important to remind ourselves that we always have the power to let go and reside in happiness.

All of us already know how to do this to a certain extent. We have varying levels of wanting. We may want to have a certain fruit for breakfast only to realize that it has spoiled and we must find something else to eat. Depending on who you are, this usually isn’t enough to ruin your day or mood. We simply think, “oh, rats” and prepare another food. On the other hand, we may be planning to get married only to have our
fiancée leave us at the alter. That’s not going to be as easy to let go of as a rotten mango.

I wonder, though. How much the variation in reaction has to do with our preconceived ideas about the “appropriate” reaction in each scenario. When I used to get upset, it genuinely felt like I had no choice. Then in addition to not getting what I wanted, I felt an added level of suffering due to a feeling of powerlessness. There is a certain freedom in simply knowing we have the ability to choose.

When my ex left me the last time, I remember feeling frustrated that now I’d have to go back to being sad and miserable. The idea of doing that seemed so repulsive to me that I decided I didn’t care if that’s what I was supposed to feel. I decided to discard my ideas of what I thought society expected of me in that scenario. I didn’t want to be sad anymore, and for the first time in such a situation, I realized I had the choice not to be.

Sometimes just remembering that we have that choice is enough. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never experience sadness, anger, frustration, or suffering again. There are some times in life that we actually want to feel sad, and that’s okay. There is a difference between holding space for a genuine emotion and feeling trapped by one.

The next time I find myself not getting what I want, rather than getting upset and ruminating, I’m going to use it as an opportunity. Each time something doesn’t go the way you planned, it’s an opportunity to practice being happy anyway. One of my favorite questions to ask myself is: Can I love myself even though…? Fill in the blank. Now I’d like to add another question: Can I be happy even though….? Sometimes phrasing the issue in this way allows us to see the choice we have. When I’m getting down on myself because of some small flaw, asking the question, “can I still love myself,” brings things back into perspective and reminds me what really matters. If I can still love myself anyway, why bother being upset about whatever it may be? The same goes for “can I be happy anyway.”

Asking these types of questions also helps me be more lighthearted about the problem. Sometimes the answer isn’t clear in that moment. Then I become curious. Can I? Let’s find out. It can be fun to explore our own hearts and minds and find a path back to happiness. And just like paths in the forest, these paths become more worn and easier to follow the more we use them. So don’t worry if your mind seems like particularly dense woodlands right now. You can still make those paths. Even if it’s hard at first, know that it only gets easier.

Ram Dass talks about 'Becoming Nobody,' the documentary on his spiritual  journey | Datebook

Waiting for Life to Begin

It feels like I am always waiting, either for something I’m looking forward to, or more often, for something to be over with. Once I get home from work, then my day can really start. Once winter ends, I’ll feel better again. Once the holidays are over… Once I’m not so busy… Once I graduate… Once I start my career…. Once I get married… Once I lose ten pounds… Once the kids are out of the house… Once my house is remodeled… Once the New Year starts… Do any of these phrases sound familiar? We become so fixated and ensnared by this mindset that we never really take the time to realize that our list of things to do or benchmarks to achieve before we can be happy or before our real life begins, never seem to end. There is always something holding us back.

The same principle applies to waiting for inspiration or waiting for the right moment. They are likely never going to come in the way that we want them to. While we waste our time waiting, life is passing us by. I’ve been reading a book lately that made an excellent point, it said something along the lines of: We must accept that our “in-box” is never going to be empty. Despite having our lives remind us of this each and every day, it is a rather hard concept to consciously accept. We so desperately want to believe that someday, somehow all of our chores and errands will be complete. That one day we will have time for all of the things we dream of, but keep putting off into some imagined future. It is hard to acknowledge that that future will never come. All we ever have is the moment that we are in right now.

Most days I save the activities that I really want to do until the very last moment. I want to play my new video game, or do some brainstorming. But first I have to clean the house, workout, do yoga, read, study, meal prep, etc. Then by the time the end of the day rolls around, I am so mentally exhausted, that I don’t even want to play my game anymore. The worst part is, I never seem to learn. Yet I get so frustrated with myself, day after day, for not doing enough. If only I were more organized, if only I had more energy, time, whatever, then I’d be happy, then I could really start to live the life I want.

The saddest part of it all is, there isn’t anything we could do or obtain that would put us in a better position for happiness than we’re in right now. We are the only one who has the ability to withhold our own happiness. These stories we tell ourselves make us believe that we have to finish everything, make everything perfect before we can focus on anything else. Despite having this realization many times, I still need a constant reminder that this is it. This is my life. I’m living it right now.

My life is never going to be perfect. I’m never going to have my in-box emptied. There will always be responsibilities and struggles and set-backs. And that’s okay. That’s life. There is nothing wrong with that. Having things left unchecked on my to-do list, isn’t the end of the world. It’s the way of the world. That doesn’t mean I can’t be happy right now. That doesn’t mean I can’t rest until everything is done. It will never be done.

It feels like a lot of us, including myself, go through our daily lives as if our commute to work, our studies, our chores, our self-care are all hurdles we have to jump over. Then and only then will we be able to really live. But that is all an illusion we’ve created. Brushing our teeth every morning, making coffee, making the bed, driving to work, buying groceries, cleaning the house, that’s life. Sure it may seem tedious and monotonous sometimes, but that’s only because we are taking these small moments for granted. Seldom are we truly focused and engaged in what we’re doing when we’re washing the dishes. We’re hardly ever fully present and in the moment when we’re stuck in morning traffic. Yet these things are ultimately what make up the majority of the time we have here on this earth.

At first this thought may seem depressing, but it doesn’t have to be. We get to choose whether or not these things are a burden or a blessing. It’s all a matter of perspective. We don’t have to brush our teeth twice a day. We get to. We don’t have to clean our house. We get to. We don’t have to take the time to prepare ourselves healthy meals. We get to. These are all moments that we try to exclude from what we consider our “real” lives. But why is that? Going to the bathroom isn’t any less a part of life than painting a masterpiece. We can find peace and contentment in both.

As you go through your day today, try to take notice of when you’re mind is waiting for a chance to relax, waiting until after work to feel happy. I’ve spent most of my life waiting. Now we have a choice to make. Will we keep waiting indefinitely? Or will we decide to live now, be happy now, be at peace now, regardless of whatever it is we’ve been waiting for?

Mr. Clarke Large Modern Plywood Wall Clock on Food52

Contentment or Complacency

My mind has been playing tug-of-war with these two seemingly conflicting ideas recently. I am trying to enjoy this brief time I have been given in this world. I want to enjoy every moment, no matter what it may bring. Just the idea of allowing myself to be happy with my very imperfect life is calming. Yet at the same time, it is causing me to ask myself a lot of hard questions. And I’m not sure I’ll ever really have the answers to them.

On one hand I want to enjoy where I am, on the other I fear this is another way for me to just ignore and avoid my problems and responsibilities. After all, it is discomfort that keeps us moving forward and growing as individuals. I don’t want to be choosing to become complacent with a way of life that isn’t what’s best for me. But I also don’t want to waste my entire life waiting until everything is “perfect” before I let myself be happy with who I am.

Perhaps this is that black and white thinking of mine creating this confusing disconnect. Maybe there is a way I can be happy now and still strive to grow and improve. Part of me thinks allowing myself to be imperfect is the only way I ever truly will be able to make meaningful changes in the future. I have been striving for more for as long as I can remember. I have never really been able to give myself credit or enjoy my progress. Maybe I need a few months or even a year to just sit down, breathe, and reflect on how far I’ve already come. Maybe I need time to remind myself that this growth is voluntary and not a requirement to feel worthy or be happy.

However then the pendulum of my thoughts swings the other way. I tell myself I am just creating this flowery narrative to cover up the fact that I’m afraid to change, afraid that maybe I can’t change, and just using this as an excuse so I don’t have to face reality. I genuinely don’t know which is the truth. Is this something other people rely on their intuition for? Because I’ve never been sure if I even have any. Maybe I am just not used to listening for it, so I don’t hear anything.

This is how intelligence combined with anxiety leads to paralysis. I think too much. I see pros and cons in everything, all the various angles and outcomes. Not often is one choice obviously better than the other. So I remain stuck in indecision, eventually avoiding the choice all together and mindlessly pressing onward.

The voice of Noah from The Notebook sometimes comes to mind yelling, “What do you want?” And right now I just want to be happy. I just want to be nice to myself for awhile. I want to stop worrying and just enjoy my life, love myself even with all of my problems, shortcomings, and bad habits. To let the pieces fall where they may and stop trying to control everything. I don’t want to wait anymore. With all the things going on in the world who knows if I’ll even have much longer to wait. I want to savor each and every moment I have left.

Rushed

I don’t know if I’ve just now started to recognize this about myself or if it has gotten much more severe recently. Basically from the moment I open my eyes in the morning until I go back to sleep at night, I am constantly rushing myself. Everything I do has to be done at a frantic pace for some reason. Even walking, getting dressed, and preparing food is done in a flurry of rapid movement.

It feels like an endless cycle of my anxiety making me rush and then my rushing making me feel more anxious. Sometimes I just have to smirk at the absurdity of my existence. It truly would be funny if it weren’t so damn distressing in the moment. When I can slow myself down enough to stop and consider things, I have no idea why I feel the need to do everything so urgently. There really isn’t anything pressing in my day to day life that I need to hurry and get done. I constantly have to try to remind myself that everything I have to do each day is actually just activities that I have chosen to do. And that there is no real issue if I decide I don’t want to that day or simply don’t have the time.

I saw a quote the other day that read:

I don’t think your life has to have a purpose, or a grand ambition; I think it’s okay to just wander through life finding interesting things until you die.

This gave me so much comfort. I have been trying to use this almost like a mantra lately. I am always putting so much pressure on myself because I have this bizarre notion of how my life is supposed to look and feel. I want to learn to let go of that rigid framework I’ve created and just allow my life to be and feel the way that it does. And to be content with that, whatever it may be from one moment to the next.

I’m always looking for a reason to enjoy myself. Or finding some way to fill in every second of every day. It is okay to just sit and breathe and feel at peace doing nothing, for no reason at all. I don’t have any grand destiny that I must live up to. If the only thing I manage to achieve in this life is personal enjoyment, that is more than enough.

I am so fortunate to have the chance to experience this amazing existence. Everything is exactly as it should be. The sun is shining, the world is buzzing with life, somewhere the ocean tides are lapping at the shore, and I get to be a witness to all this majesty. I have been given a chance to love and be loved, to feel and think and smile and laugh. That is enough. I am enough as I am in each moment. There is nowhere I have to go. Nothing I have to do. I am young and beautiful and free and healthy. What a beautiful world. What a beautiful life. I mustn’t forget to enjoy it. I mustn’t rush.

Perfectionism

I have always had a hard time with allowing myself to be imperfect. Perhaps it is just another part of the black and white thinking. If something I do or something about me isn’t the best, it must be the worst. This mindset has held me back for the majority of my life.

I keep waiting around until everything is in perfect order before I will allow myself to be happy. I don’t know how to keep striving to be better and be content with where I am now at the same time.

I miss being a child and never considering why I wanted to do something or what the point was. Knowing I wanted to do it was a good enough reason. And that should always be a good enough reason. However, I’ve even lost track of what I want to do. I find myself going back and forth in my head, questioning my own desires. Somewhere along the way I have forgotten how to trust myself.

I want to be happy and enjoy my life just as it is, but there is this nagging fear that won’t let me. It tells me I’ll become complacent, that I’ll let myself slip into a bad place and won’t be able to get back out. Whether or not this is actually true I would have no idea, as I haven’t given myself the chance to find out.

I am concerned that I am training my brain to notice every little detail in life that is not ideal and then hounding myself with a mental hum that I need to fix it somehow. Some things are even quite possible for me to achieve, yet the idea that the end result won’t be permanent, or that once I begin I’ll get caught up in even smaller details, overwhelms me.

Instead of doing the best I can, I end up doing nothing at all because I just can’t bear to think about it anymore. This effects every area of my life, from keeping my house clean, to creative endeavors, to hobbies, even to this blog! I never intended to be “internet famous” or even wanted to be. I started this blog because I had things to share and I love to write. Shouldn’t that be enough? Yet up until recently, the imperfection of my blog layout, topics, not owning my domain name, etc. kept me from writing for months or even years at a time. It was never good enough. I marvel at the absurdity of my own actions, especially the fact that recognizing them to be absurd isn’t enough to overcome them.

I suppose I am making small steps in the right direction though. I have really been enjoying writing every day again. Even if it is just random nonsense that happens to be on my mind that I doubt anyone will find interesting to read. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s okay to just do something because you enjoy doing it. It doesn’t have to amount to anything. You don’t have to have a good reason for why you enjoy it.

I want to learn to trust myself again and tap back into that inner wisdom I have ignored for so long. I’ve been allowing myself to do the things I once loved to do as a kid. I’m hoping that’s a start. Part of me wonders if I even really enjoy doing those things anymore, because I get so anxious about them sometimes rather than excited. But I do still get excited when I let myself relax and find those brief moments of flow. I have been drawing anime (that I may share on here if anyone would be interested) and playing new versions of my old favorite video games. I want to start spending more time outside in nature with no technological devices to distract my senses. Just like it was when I was younger. I want to spend focused time with my animals, just playing with them and enjoying their company like I used to.

I know it seems ridiculous that these activities would be hard for anyone, but maybe some of you understand or can relate in your own way. I’m going to keep trying to tap into my intuition and make a point to honor my imperfect progress. This miraculous, complex, insane brain of mine will get better at whatever I am having it practice. I must remember this. I no longer want to focus on the negative, what needs fixing, what I have yet to accomplish. I want to focus on the good, what I’m grateful for, my successes, the small moments of simple happiness. It will be difficult at first, but I must have faith in myself and in the science and know it will only get easier.