Yesterday, I spent around 3 hours on the phone and on screen share with Dell (yes, I’m calling you out, you terrible corporation) trying to fix my laptop that cost more than $1000 less than a year ago, and had to actually send back for repair just a few months ago. Guess what happened after the 3 hours? Nothing got fixed. To make the saga short, I got off the phone in tears, feeling that life just sucks so bad. I only felt better after talking to my friend for almost an hour and venting about it.
I have different kinds of friends, but something that’s common in my relationship with each of them is always asking ‘how are you doing?’ and answering very honestly. It’s how I can tell the true strength and depth of friendship, because with some people I’m very hesitant to say anything negative for fear of burdening them with my issues or revealing stuff that can be used against me. With my close friends, however, I can always say how I really feel, knowing that they truly want me to be happy, and vice versa. That someone else cares about your well-being is probably why venting is so effective at curbing misery. How fortunate is it that someone who doesn’t share your DNA says to you in all earnestness that you *deserve* to be happy, and you say the same to that person. Thank god.
On the other hand, my friends’ sharing their confidences with me lets me know that we basically grapple with the same larger issues in life: finding love (and if found, making sure that’s whom we’re supposed to be with); having our senses of worth validated by the greater world; making sure we’re at the right place, doing the right thing; balancing meaning with making a living; and either complaining about nothing exciting happening or being overwhelmed by too much–or sometimes both of these at the same time. Although all these things tend to combine into one general feeling of unhappiness, talking with friends can tease out what is temporary (like my tech problems) and what really demands to be examined, and possibly worked on.
Of course, you can be a master at self-soothing and self-motivating through the bad days (you’re a peaceful dumpling, after all). But you can get so good at enduring and recovering from bad days, that you don’t realize how those days become bad weeks, and then bad months, even (gulp) a bad year. I only say this because I have been there more than once.
In our ceaseless pursuit of happiness, we come to believe that talking about being unhappy is equal to admission of failure. But it’s still worth asking yourself, ‘how happy are you?’ and answering honestly. As E.M. Forster said, “Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.” Self-examination doesn’t have be a painful thing, but something more calm and heartening like talking to your best friend over a cup of iced latte.
1. Can you identify your most obvious issues? Are they within your control or without?
Some things that cause us to be miserable are not really within our power to control. Tech problems, cancelled flights, horrible weather, etc. When you actually identify these as the main source of your chagrin, it’s likely to dissipate. But many things that we feel are outside of our control are actually within our control to varying degrees: any interpersonal relationships or professional setbacks, for instance, or an un-stimulating environment. Think about how much control you actually have. If it’s a terrible job you’re grappling with, you could recognize that you always have the power to leave, if it came down to it. Even if you don’t choose to exercise that now, just acknowledging that can help calm and empower you.
2. How lasting is this issue? Or would you be thinking about this one week or one month down the road?
Did this suddenly happen today, and it’s likely you won’t feel as strongly about it one week from now? Or is this issue something you’ve been struggling with for the past few months? If the latter, it’s also probably going to continue to affect you months down the road, unless *you* make changes.
3. How severe is this issue? Do you wake up happy and go to bed happy?
It’s hard to know just how happy you are, especially if your emotions change throughout the day much like your energy or hunger levels. But if you wake up and go to bed feeling happy, your overall wellness level is probably good. On the other hand, if you wake up feeling ‘Ugh’ and go to bed obsessing over something, it’s a sign you should take conscious steps to resolve that issue.
4. If there are issues that are long-term, within your control, and are affecting your happiness–commit to change.
Often, we know that the answer to resolving our issues is within ourselves. But we put a mental roadblock to that solution because we’re afraid of the costs of change. The truth is that there are also costs to staying the same, and that is continued state of unhappiness. It feels more manageable because you’re more familiar with it, but if you don’t want to be grappling with this same issue 6 months or 1 year down the road, you need to instigate change at some point. On the other hand, the transitional pain is likely to fade away much more quickly. Be specific about the changes you need to make, and even break it down into smaller steps. If the change you need is to get out of your town, you could start by saving up $X every month. If it’s finding a new job, it could be re-writing your resume and emailing contacts.
5. Give yourself some credit.
Don’t feel bad about the fact that you have to work through these things, or that working for your happiness is selfish or indulgent. It takes a lot of discipline, self-knowledge, and will power to go through your issues and decide what you’re going to do with your life. It’s a sign of maturity and strength. Give yourself that acknowledgment, which will empower you to keep going. This self-assurance is what really helps me not give up.
The bottom line is that it’s not possible to maintain a state of perfect happiness. But in learning to diagnose and work through your issues, you gain a sense of self-trust that you’ll always be able to keep the boat floating.
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Photo: lauren rushing via Flickr; Peaceful Dumpling