Want Happiness? Do This One Thing

I often hear this from clients: “Well, I shouldn’t complain. There are people who have it a lot worse.” And, yes, that’s inarguably true. Just take a peek at the front page of today’s paper for confirmation.

But here’s what I say to them: You’re right. But that doesn’t negate your pain, your heartbreak, your grief. And it doesn’t make you wrong or selfish to focus on navigating your own issues. In fact, not to do so is personally irresponsible.

We all seek happiness. When asked what we want for our kids, we say we just want them to be happy. Happiness is something we universally chase — but I’m not sure we always know when we catch up with it.

I’m not the first to suggest that happiness comes in moments. Those seeking permanent euphoria will always be the most disappointed amongst us. Those who expect a mix of sadness, complacency, and happiness will most surely experience their happiness most acutely. And, perhaps, their sadness and complacency as well.

It’s taken me a lot of years — both in my personal life and in working with clients — to define what keeps us from the elusive happiness we so desire. Yes, there are always extenuating circumstances which create unhappiness; we lose people we love, we’re betrayed, we’re disappointed in who we’ve become or not.

But there’s one trait unhappy people share and that’s their inability or reluctance to make the hard decisions. Simple, right? But so painfully true. When you ignore or run from hard decisions, you freeze yourself into a icy block of unhappiness.

What are hard decisions? They’re crossroads. They’re the times in life when your gut asks you to reevaluate your options, to truly challenge yourself and your awareness by accepting some really difficult shite.

But hard decisions really aren’t all that hard when you think about it. They seem hard because the right choice for you may not be the popular one. The right choice may be one that hurts others, or creates chaos.

So, a hard decision is not really a presentation of two equally attractive (or unattractive) options from which you must choose. A hard decision is one for which you already — on some cellular level — have the answer. The question is, are you willing to heed that answer, or at least acknowledge its veracity?

A friend of mine is contemplating leaving her dreadfully unhappy marriage. “But I don’t want to make the wrong decision,” she says, “What if I regret it?” My answer to her is, “What proof  is there in your marriage to make you think that’s even a possibility?”

My friend knows her right answer. The marriage is beyond broken and there’s no evidence to the contrary. But, in her mind, she’s facing a hard decision. She doesn’t want to hurt her husband. She doesn’t want to move out of their home. But she knows she can’t stay a nanosecond longer and have any chance at what’s so painfully eluding her: a happier life.

It’s easy to get caught up in the concept of the hard decision. You can hem and haw until you unlock life’s mysteries. God knows, I made every excuse not to leave my marriage. And some of them were really good. But all along, I knew the answer: My only shot at happiness was to get out of my own way, and to simply stop making what I deemed a hard decision easier by trusting my gut.

Hard decisions present themselves when you go against your grain or take on something you perhaps shouldn’t. Should I stay in this relationship? Should I have this abortion? Should I let my son have an after-prom rager in my home? Should I buy that bigger, more expensive house? If you’re asking yourself the question — be it big or small — you’re already more than halfway to the right answer for you.

I’m not suggesting you walk through life like a callous boor, crushing the souls of others in the wake of your hard choices. One way to experience happiness in this life is to be at peace with those we love. Self-sacrifice is at the core of many of the relationships we hold dear. But when you so stridently ignore your internal barometer that you’re locked into an emotional version of the Chinese finger trap toy, it’s time to take a listen.

Next time you’re faced with a hard decision, ask yourself: Is it really that hard? Or do I already know the answer? Accepting the true answer — your North Star — whether you act on it or not, will free you from the unhappiness of indecision, and move you toward the moments of happiness that surely await you.

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