I recently saw a girl wearing a tank top that said: “be relentless in the pursuit of your happiness.” It immediately got me thinking about what it means to be a happiness warrior, and how the concept changes and evolves with age.
As a teenager and through my early 30s, pursuing happiness meant making dreams come true. I thought about what made me happy, what I was passionate about, made lists of these things and was relentless in pursuing them. Getting into the right school, securing the internship with the nonprofit I felt was “saving the world”, going on the trip my cousin and I talked about as children--that was what made me happy. Working hard to achieve these big, lofty goals was my way of being a happiness warrior.
Oh, how times have changed!
As I near 40 and I look around at my peers and those ahead of me in age, I notice the work of pursuing happiness becomes much more internal. To begin with, there is the issue of practicality. Our lives become so packed with responsibilities and obligations we no longer have the space to make big, sweeping moves. Even if we could do anything at all, our to do lists become so long that we usually can’t even connect with the part of ourselves that dreams big--we are just hoping to get through the day. On top of it, we get to an age where we begin to grapple with what ifs and regrets. And with these three points mentioned comes an unpleasant amount of worries. So, to be happy we need to work on our inner world.
Of course, we can, and should, always strive for more on the “outside.” We should never stop trying to make our dreams come true, whether that means having an impact in an area that matters to us, getting the job of our dreams, or doing what we can to be able to spend our weekends pursuing activities we love. But to be true happiness warriors, we, more than ever, have to constantly be checking in with our inner world making sure we don’t let the weight of adulthood wear us down. Here are some ways to fight for that happiness:
It’s such a cliche, but for good reason. If we want to be happy with our lives, it is crucial to constantly be cognizant of the good things we have and be grateful for them. It’s especially helpful to establish a routine in which we speak out or write down what we are grateful for. I like talking about what we’re grateful for in the car with my kids. It gives me insight into what they consider precious and it puts us all in a good mood. It doesn’t matter what you choose to be grateful for--gratitude for anything on a daily basis shifts your perspective and your mood if only a tiny little bit. That tiny shift sets you in the direction of greater happiness.
It is so easy to focus on what we have not achieved or what we have not yet done. To be happiness warriors, we need to stop look at what didn’t work out and focus on what did. I like to think about work skills I have acquired that I never imagined I would have, the fact that I now have an impressive repertoire of vegan recipes my kids love, the fact that I started working out at the age of 39 and have kept going nonstop for 10 months. These things can seem tiny compared to the big picture items we feel slipped out of our grasp, but it helps so much to remember you haven’t just been wasting your time--you have been busy and getting other important things done!
As we get older, we accumulate regrets. I often see this in the elders in my family and friends who are further along the path than I am. It seems we fill little sacks inside our hearts with pebbles of regret that weigh us down more each day. I get it because I have more than a few of my own. But I suspect most of the time, when we regret, we are being unfair to the younger version of ourselves.
To give you an example of what I mean: I have a 2 and a 4 year old. So many older moms have told me since the day my kids were born that I must appreciate every moment of their infancy, babyhood, toddlerhood, etc. They say they regret not having enjoyed their kids more when they were little.
I understand. My kids are delicious and delightful most of the time. I see them grow at lightning speed and sometimes wish I could slow down the clock. I also make a point of truly enjoying them at least once a day because I know I won’t ever get these days back. But since I am in the thick of it, I can also tell you: it’s darn hard to enjoy the moment when your actual physical needs aren’t being met. We are human beings at the end of the day. We need to eat, drink water, sleep, get some amount of exercise, and zone out (relax our brains) every day. When these very basic necessities are constantly interrupted or impossible to achieve, it’s tough. So, when women look at me wistfully and say how much they regret not enjoying these days more, I look back at them and ask them to also remember that 4 year old boys are in the habit of screaming instead of talking, which truly grates the nerves, and 2 year old girls, adorable as they are in bows and dresses worn with sneakers, are sometimes desperately impossible to reason with.
So look back and try to remember the everyday reality. Can you truly regret the choices you made or actions you took when you remember exactly what you were feeling and dealing with?
If the above doesn’t help, allow me to close this section with the words of a true expert: Eckhart Tolle. He says “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it.”
Being a happiness warrior is not just about learning to live with things and appreciating what we have. It’s also about continuing to grow and achieving our dreams. So, take a page out of your younger self’s book and write out your dreams! I used to be able to write my list out in the span of a lazy afternoon, sitting by a window and sipping tea. Now it takes me weeks and months. Quite simply, I am so often in “go mode” that I find it hard to connect with the dreamer in me. But I do have moments of lucidity when I am driving on a quiet road or when I first wake up in the morning. I get these flashes of insight into what I truly desire for my life and write them down. It's interesting to me and highly telling that I often rewrite the same thing without really noticing--it shows me how I really want to live my remaining years on earth.
Looking Forward (Realistically)
When I was in my mid-twenties and working at an NGO, I read a blog post called “No More Zero Days” by a guy called John Haydon. In it, he said: "A zero day is when you don't do a single f**king thing towards whatever dream... you got going on. No more zeros. I'm not saying you gotta bust an essay out everyday, that's not the point. The point I'm trying to make is that you have to make yourself, promise yourself, that the new SYSTEM you live in is a NON-ZERO system." I was so inspired by his message and truly galvanized to live with such determination.
At almost 40, I still agree with John Haydon and I am genuinely touched by the enthusiasm. In fact, I can’t wait to encourage my children to pursue their dreams with this fervor. But for me....
Taking my own advice from the above section “perspective,” I aim for 3 non-zero days a week and I will be thrilled if I actually have one non-zero day in which I work towards my greater dreams. With just one day a week, I will feel GREAT because I am painfully aware that there is only so much of me--and I pour myself out for my kids, my husband, my home and the other obligations in my life. It’s possible my younger self would look at this and say “oh, you don’t want it enough,” but I am the one in my present body and I feel what it means to cook three meals a day for a family of four, wash laundry, do school drop offs and pick ups, helps kids through difficult emotions, deal with night terrors, and worry about school enrollment, doctors appointments, and having seasonably relevant clothes in closets--and I am not even mentioning my other responsibilities. So, if I have a day or three a week where I am moving in the right direction, I call that a massive win!
Taking Care of Yourself
Remember, we can’t really be happy when we aren’t getting our basic needs met. So, check out my blog post Mighty Fixes Within Your Reach and take care of your most crucial necessities, too!
Finally, realize that this is mighty work. Working on yourself to adjust your perspective and your attitude in order to be happy is hard and worthwhile.
I got into Sarah Lawrence College’s writing program when I was in 11th grade. It was my dream come true as I had always wanted to be a fiction writer (and may still become one someday). I arrived in New York at the age of 16, without graduating from high school, leaving my family in Mexico City and my dearest friends in Switzerland where I had lived from the age of 11. I was petrified. One year later, at 17, I lived alone in New York City and commuted into Bronxville for school. I will never forget the heart-crushing pang of loneliness I felt the first morning alone in my apartment when the reality that I was living alone sunk in.
Thinking back to those days, I am amazed by my guts. But, frankly, I believe the inner fight to be happy may be even more awe-inspiring. So, if you are determined to be a happiness warrior and work through the inner issues that sap your joy, take great pride in your determination and effort!