How to be happy?

If I could give you a fool-proof prescription for happiness, I’m pretty sure I’d be the richest woman on the planet. In fact, I’d probably be the richest person on the planet, sending Elon Musk and his rocket ships flying right down the Forbes list.

If I could tell you how to be happy, I’d be some kind of superwoman. It’s the question everybody wants to know the answer to, but that no amount of therapy, or meditation, or yoga asanas, or designer handbags, or job promotions, or beauty treatments, can resolve.

What’s holding you back from happiness?

Most of us grow up in the belief that if we are professionally, romantically, and financially successful, we’ll be rewarded with happiness. Or, if not the skipping-through-fields, singing-from-the-rooftops, type of blissful joy, we expect to at least be content. To be able to relax in our comfortable homes with our functional families, using our healthy bank balances to pay for healthy food and foreign holidays and good educations for our children.

So why is it that, for some of us, ticking all the ‘life success’ checkboxes just doesn’t make us happy?

What if you have good health, and a decent salary, and a harmonious family life, but still feel…empty?

That was me.

That’s how I felt. I did well at school, got a good job and a nice husband and a sweet house in the suburbs. We had three beautiful, healthy and smart kids. So why did I feel a nagging unhappiness? Back when I was the stereotypically ‘successful’ suburban mom, if you’d have asked me what was ‘wrong,’ I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Because nothing was ‘wrong’ – but nothing felt right, either. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for all I had, but for the first 30-plus years of my life, I felt desperately unfulfilled. I had no passion. No zest for life. I cooked and cleaned and did the school run and tried to avoid the feeling that there had to be more to life than weekend barbecues and a fortnight’s foreign holiday each year.

Sometimes it takes death to show us how to live

My father’s death from cancer, over 18 years ago,  broke my heart. It also made me question everything – did he die feeling fulfilled? Or was his life half-lived? And was I sleepwalking through my own life? His death – together with a life-changing cup of coffee – was the catalyst I needed to stop going through the motions and start really living. To find my happiness and the type of lifestyle that really spoke to my soul.

In a recent article published in The Guardian, author Georgina Scull says that it wasn’t until she suffered a near-fatal ectopic pregnancy that she really began to question her own happiness.

“On the surface everything was good. I was married and living overseas with our two-year-old daughter. There was food on the table and a roof over our heads, but it felt as if I was drifting – constantly waiting for my real life to start.”

It took nearly dying for Scull to appreciate the life she had. But she still felt listless. Several years later, she began interviewing people at the end of their lives – facing terminal illnesses or advancing into old age – about their regrets. She wanted to know what people wished they had done with their lives, in order to avoid wasting her own. The resulting book – Regrets of the Dying: Stories and Wisdom that Remind us How to Live – is an interesting read, filled with quiet tragedy. She told The Guardian: “Alan had spent decades building a successful career, chasing promotion after promotion. But after he was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor at 49, it took him less than six months to realize that he had “wasted most of his life”, and wished he had taken a different path.”

You can’t put a price on passion

Studies show that, while those with a comfortable income are generally happier than those living in poverty, things start to plateau at a certain point. Extreme wealth doesn’t always equate to blissful happiness. In fact, an article in Harvard Business Review pointed to a  study of more than 1,000 graduating students, who were asked whether they placed greater value on time (over 60 % of respondents), or money (nearly 40 %).

A year after graduation, the students were asked to assess their own happiness and life satisfaction, and the report found:

 “The students who prioritized money ended up less happy a year after graduation, compared to their classmates who chose to prioritize time. The results remained the same even after controlling for their happiness before graduation and accounting for their various socioeconomic backgrounds.”

The phrase ‘cash-rich: time poor’ seems pretty fitting.

(Mental) Health is wealth

It doesn’t matter how many promotions you get, how perfect your wedding day is, how well behaved your children are, or how much your car cost, if you’re too busy slaving away at work to enjoy any of it. If that all-important career progression is the cause of unrelenting anxiety and sleepless nights, is it really worth it? Are you papering over the cracks of a broken marriage just to keep up appearances? Ultimately, if your life choices don’t spark passion, you’re going to feel unfulfilled. You might be unhappy, anxious, or even downright depressed. Learning to live with passion and a zest for life might be worth a whole lot more than a pay rise or a promotion.

Find your own joy

We are not cookie-cutter copies of each other. While one person might leap with excitement at the thought of scaling Everest, another might not be able to think of anything they’d hate less. But they might take great happiness in painting the mountain peak from a safe spot at the bottom. You’ll know what talks to you.

Deep down, I think I always knew that I was not made for cozy domesticity and dinner parties and white picket fences. I wanted excitement and adventure and the thrill of the unexpected. So that’s how I choose to live. My three children and I have been living a life of adventures for over a decade. Some people might judge me harshly for it, but I genuinely could not give a damn. I have precisely zero fucks to give about what others think of me or my life choices. Learning to give fewer fucks can be a real happiness boost in itself.

Want to know more? Check out this nifty round-up of TED talks all asking the million dollar question: How can we be happier?

What would make you happier?

You don’t have to up sticks and leave in order to add spark to your life. It might be a case of taking dance classes, of retraining for a career that boosts your creative spirit as well as your bank balance, or just switching up your daily routine to allow for greater spontaneity and freedom. I can’t tell you how to be happy. I can’t promise you that making positive life changes will make you happy ever after – let’s face it, even the happiest people on the planet must have off days – but I can promise you that finding your passions, and following them, will give your happiness levels a greater boost than even the most envy-inducing of handbags.

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