Disclaimer: I got this question from an internet search. I have a lot of unsolicited advice to give, but I wanted to know what people actually wanted to know about. I found this question and it produced in me the following thought stream…
Maybe you’re past the age when a bevy of middle aged to elderly folks attempted to explain to you what would make you truly happy. With three young children in tow, my mother often attracted people who seemed desperate to sow their wisdom before it was too late. We were taught to be respectful to adults, and often looked on as an elderly person tried to impress on us some eternal truth he knew could guide us successfully to happiness one day. I still remember in particular the words of a tall white haired man with a slight crook in his spine who was a recent widower after a fifty year marriage. “Give 99 percent; take 1 percent,” he delivered the line as if he were the grandfather in a rom-com. I felt like I was Meg Ryan and needed to run after my one true love with this new found life lesson, even though I was twelve at the time. Never one to be out done, my mother waited until he was long out of ear shot and explained it was actually 100 percent. You had to give everything in a marriage and ask for nothing, she assured us. In case you were wondering my mother was not a happily married woman.
Aging left me with an unexpected question. Why were so few lessons from my childhood useful? Whether it was finances, education, career, or dating no one seemed capable of giving me even remotely useful advice. Okay, marriage does take a lot of giving. Still I felt unprepared for life despite being a humble kid, certain my elders should be trusted. Respecting my elders was supposed to make me wise enough to avoid life’s pitfalls. Though I must have avoided a few I found myself weighed down by the same regrets that that seemed to define my generation.
I blamed this on rapid social change. My mom lived in a error where men asked you out; you married young and toughed it out no matter what. This meant none of the things she knew about love and dating were useful to me. So my elders couldn’t give me good advice because they didn’t understand the crazy world in which I would live as an adult.
I realize now this is only part of the answer. The bigger answer is that happiness means something different to everyone. And no one believes this including you. When you present this idea directly any rational person will agree emphatically. But I’ve learned to read between the lines. When you aren’t directly discussing how natural it is that we want different things people begin to discuss life the way it’s really understood. The topics will vary wildly but the point will always be same: everyone would be happier if they did this one thing.
As a middle aged woman with no children I get to listen to half the parents I meet admonishing me to join them; while the other half explain to me why I should embrace life without kids. In the latter case they often explain that children take over your entire life with a look of regret. The two different messages tell me one thing: some people are happy having kids and some aren’t. No one excepts that whether or not I’ll be happy being a parent will depend on my feelings and not their feelings.
Happiness might be your career or it might be creating art or it might be religion. Hey, it could be selling everything you own and living out of a backpack.
Advice articles often consists of a list of do’s or dont’s. While these lists can be perceptive and involve science and research stuff, they miss the point. Each person needs to find their unique equation for happiness. Not believing this means we miss an important step to happiness. We never stop to listen to our own wants. Advice on happiness should instead begin with a question- what makes you feel accomplished? If you want a sage, find someone who has a life you’d actually like for yourself. I don’t mean in a stalker way. I mean someone whose awesomeness you are crushing on. You need to get them to tell you what it takes to get there. When you decide what happiness is to you it might mean you don’t care how to have a forty year marriage. Or maybe getting that answer is number one on your to-do list. No judgement here. (I included how to do it here if you didn’t read the beginning.) Find your own unique definition of happiness and embrace the journey. Because what’s true for everyone is the journey is it’s own reward.