I know you’ll never print this in your column, because it’s too hard a question (even Dear Abby would reject it), but anyway, here goes: how can I be happy? I have all the trappings of a great life, and yet I feel I’m only half-alive. I didn’t have a traumatic childhood and have had a pretty good life overall. I am 37 years old and considered attractive and successful. I have good friends and get along well with my family. Most people think I have it all. But I know I don’t. What’s wrong with me?
Blue in Normal Heights
Surprise! Foolish me will attempt to answer your life-challenging question for the gods in only 700 words (more or less). Let me start with a quote:
“You can do anything you want to do. I know I have said a lot when I say that, but I mean it…blunder ahead with your personal view…the real work of life is the result of a magnificent struggle”. Painter Robert Henri.
The good news: you can be happy. Happiness is available (but not in the Designer Department at Neiman Marcus). The bad news: happiness involves taking many risks, from now until the day you die. Attaining happiness will often be uncomfortable and will inevitably be hard work – you will have to “blunder ahead” with your “magnificent struggle”. But really Mr/Ms.. Blue, what else is there worth spending your life on? Buying more stuff? Remodeling your house (again)? Buying the newest computer/camera/cell phone? Chasing status/wealth/prestige and never getting enough? You get my drift.
We create our own happiness by INVENTING OURSELVES. As maturing men and women, we live the hero’s/heroine’s journey: we must leave our families and go out into a largely hostile world where people are bound to give us a hard time.
Like true heroes and heroines, we have dragons to slay. These dragons stand in the way of our happiness. However, our dragons are not mythical, but internal; they usually include: our own self-hatred, the ways we punish ourselves for not being perfect, and our fears of not doing it “right” (e.g., not having enough sex, or making enough money, or building the right body, or wearing the right clothes, etc.)
“If at first you don’t succeed, you’re doing about average”. author Elmore Levinson.
Happiness rarely comes around the first try. Perseverance is crucial: to be happy, we need a soft-heart and a hard ass. A soft heart is the loving-kindness we give to ourselves, to soothe and forgive ourselves as we “blunder ahead” on our own unique path to greater and greater happiness. On the OTHER hand, we want to be mature adults, not childish or dependent. We need a hard ass, a toughness, a resiliency. We know when something is REAL and IMPORTANT so we can kick ourselves in the ass when we need to break out of a comfort/half-dead zone.
We may be scared. So what? I’m sorry to tell you that being scared is no longer a valid excuse; we can take action while feeling afraid. It won’t kill us; it may kill us NOT to. A half-dead life is more likely to kill us (spiritually, psychically and physically) than a life of action with fear around the edges. If we’re waiting to feel brave so that we can act brave, we’re going to be waiting a long time. This is what separates real men and women (whether they’re 20 or 80) from 50-year-olds who still act like little boys and girls…wanting some kind of “magical” mama (or daddy) who will come and make it all better before they have to do anything.
If we’re willing to take a chance on happiness, there is a good chance that we may fail. And this is scary. But isn’t the alternative – going through life half-alive – even more frightening? Taking a chance on happiness means taking risks…experimenting… falling down…perhaps not initially succeeding. We need to keep going anyway, especially when it gets uncomfortable (this is when many people quit). For my clients, many of their major life changes came after the age of 35: it may be that long before we are able to handle the temporary discomfort that comes with risk. At age 37, you’re right on track!
It sounds like you already have a lot going for you, so keep going and build on what makes you feel alive…gradually, over time, you will blunder ahead and create a totally “alive” life for yourself that brings you joy and satisfaction. This is the real work of life: that “magnificent struggle” that is uniquely our own and that no one but us can obtain. You may call me naïve or overly idealistic, but I am neither. I am a realistic/optimistic psychotherapist who supports his clients in this long, hard but highly rewarding journey toward their own happiness. It is do-able and you can do it.
It’s your move now…