What we focus on expands.
Choosing to focus on life-affirming feelings is the surest way to create the experience you want.
~ Danielle LaPorte, from the Desire Map
I have dealt with depression and anxiety off and on throughout my life. I hate to admit it, but when I’m feeling sad or anxious, I am that person that sees the glass as half-empty– that sees everything as at least half-empty. It gets hard to see through the fog when you are really feeling low. The weird thing is though, I can see the half-full glass in someone else’s life. And I’m actually really good at helping them see it, too. But when it’s me? When I’m feeling overwhelmed and under-capable– not so much. I’ll also admit that, when I am in that hard place, I get more than irritated when I see inspiring quotes about how I am just supposed to be happy anyway. For so long, I assumed whoever wrote those stupid things had the perfect life. Perfect kids, perfect jobs, and, of course, perfect bodies.
I assumed this because I really believed that if I was thin I would be happy. No more sadness. No more stress. Never mind the fact that when I was thin I was still stressed out and overwhelmed. Nope. No room for logic here! Anytime that I was dissatisfied with my body (which was pretty much always) I would tell myself that if I just lost weight, all would be well again. Of course, still an absence of logic. It can’t be well “again” if it wasn’t well in the first place. I’m a reasonably bright woman. You’d think I’d catch on to this lapse in judgment. But no. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did catch on eventually. It just took me 30 years to do it.
Unfortunately, realizing that losing weight was not going to solve all of my problems also did not solve all of my problems. Go figure. And I’ll be honest, I was pretty irked for a while about that. It wasn’t the magic fix I had hoped it would be. This was when I realized that obsessively trying to control my body and mold it into the shape I deemed acceptable was just a fabulously miserable way to avoid the miserable things I was trying to avoid. (You can read more about that here.)
I actually was even more frustrated with myself when I looked back at how much of my life’s energy had been devoted to such a fruitless endeavor. What a f*cking waste of time! What a ridiculous way to spend my life! How could I be so shallow? But here’s the deal with all of that. I really thought it would make me happy! I really did! And not because I am unintelligent or illogical. I didn’t come up with this path to happiness all on my own. I learned it from my mom. I learned it from my grandparents. I learned it from friends. I learned form every TV show and movie I ever saw and from every magazine I ever read. But that’s a topic for another post.
Here’s the thing about happiness. We all want it. We are all trying to get it. The Dahli Llama talks about how ALL things are striving for happiness. He actually states, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” But then he also says that we often end up doing the very things that cause us unhappiness in our effort to be happy. According to The Buddha, “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” It’s also quoted as, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” I couldn’t figure out definitively which was the more accurate interpretation, but either way, the gist is the same. Happiness is not the destination, it’s the journey.
So, hopefully you can see how important happiness is. It’s not just some frivolous desire. It’s a soul desire. It’s a core desire. But in order to create this state for ourselves we have to stop trying to find happiness in the places it doesn’t exist. We have to start doing things that make us feel good. You want to look back on a happy life? You have to start living a happy life. And a life full of punishing workouts, food we can’t eat or don’t enjoy, and obsessively stepping on the scale does not a happy life make.
You know what else doesn’t build a happy life? Anything you are doing that makes you feel bad. And that can include, but is not limited to, the following: comparing yourself to others; comparing yourself to who you used to be or how you think you should be; negative self-talk; constantly criticizing yourself or others; eating foods you don’t like; not eating foods you do like; doing exercise you don’t enjoy; staying in situations (relationships, jobs) that are not good for you; letting fear make your decisions; not doing things you want to do because you are afraid you won’t do them perfectly or because you are not ______ enough yet; holding onto hurts and pains from your past; trying to control things that are out of your control (hint: this is almost everything); doing things to impress others; blaming others. Feel free to add any of your favorites that I might have missed.
I know, at this point, you are probably thinking, “No duh, Megan. That’s a no-brainer list. We all know that.” But here’s the rub: we know what doesn’t contribute to our joy, but we keep doing those things anyway! I will be fully honest and tell you that I have done everything on that list. And often not just once. Talk about not learning that a hot stove burns.
“Why do we do this?” you may ask. I don’t know why. Well, I do know why. But I know MY why. Yours may be different. You have to figure out your why. And again, it’s important to remember, we aren’t doing these things because we aren’t smart enough to figure out they suck. Everything we do is motivated by a desire. That desire usually is connected to wanting to escape hard feelings and to get the good feelings– the happiness.
And we are back to happiness. Danielle LaPorte, who wrote the amazing book The Desire Map (which I highly recommend– find more about it here), writes, “Feeling good is the primary intention… So choosing to focus on life-affirming feelings is the surest way to create the experience you want.”
And in that quote is the answer. You’ve probably heard about the concept that what we focus on expands. Another way to put it is that we find what we are looking for. When we are focused on all the things that are not making us happy, that is all we see, that is all we experience. We have to shift focus. It’s not easy, but it is possible. It requires determination, awareness, and a true desire to want to feel happier more of the time. The focus needs to be on what brings happiness into our lives.
Do you even know what makes you happy? I didn’t. I had to experiment. I had to try things. I had to look at the way I did the things I chose to do. Was I doing them in a way that could help me feel good? If not, how could I bring good feelings in? And that is the question you should tattoo on your brain: How can I bring in good feelings right now? It really does help. Even if you are in a bad place and it only helps a little bit in the moment, it’s still worth the effort. Because even a little bit better is better than not better at all. At least, I think so.
So I went on a search for what made me happy. I actually had to start with identifying what didn’t make me happy first. Dieting, hating my body, 60 minutes of cardio and then weight lifting everyday, being mean to myself, berating myself for not being better at the things I did (my job, my parenting, belly dance, pole). All of those things just sucked the joy right out of me.
What have I found that does make me happy? Reading, time with my son, working with my clients, not stressing about food, yoga (as long as I don’t start to compare myself to where I think I should be– same goes for belly dance and pole), dancing just to dance– not to make it “right”, time with friends and family. These things light me up. They bring a smile to my face and my heart. It’s a really good start, I think. And I’m always on the look out for more.
For me, the path away from the hot stove I kept burning myself on to a more joyful life experience has been winding and crooked. And when I got lost or fell down, I would often quit. For a while at least. But I tend to be one that gets back up. And when I get re-focused on doing the things that bring me happiness– true happiness, not size 2 pants happiness– that path straightens out and is easier to travel. It doesn’t turn into a path of perpetual bliss, because that’s not a real thing. But it does feel better. It really does. And remember, feeling good is the primary intention :o)
PS: If you are curious about seeing what you just read about in action in my real life, click here. It’s the down and dirty of what it is really like to try and choose happiness in the moment. When the moment really, really sucks…