I slouched into my seat, exhausted and disappointed with myself. I’d said goodbye to my girlfriends and was on an early train home instead of topping off the weekend with the conference’s closing party. This had not been a work conference; this was Blissdom – so why wasn’t I feeling blissful?
I’d planned to attend it months ago when, in a somewhat infantile jest, I had declared that this month – the month I turned 40 — would be the “Month of Me.” But I was less than half-way through the month and already defeated from fatigue. How could it be possible to be tired from doing things that I loved?
I kept my head down, avoiding eye contact with the other passengers now filing into the train. A pair of long legs appeared beside me. “Mind if I take this seat? Everything’s filling up back there.” I looked up and chirped a forced welcome, “Of course not.”
Half a bag of Cheetos and two wines later, we had moved from pleasant banter into real, heart-felt discussion. Less than a year ago, she’d torn herself away from an abusive husband. While most teenagers would revel in a parent-free house for the weekend, she was catching a late train back home from a working event because her children felt nervous when she was away.
Highly educated with a stable, well-paying job, I couldn’t help but wonder why she would have stayed in a long-term abusive relationship. She had the means to leave, but she hadn’t. At least not until recently.
Answering my unasked question, she explained that she actually felt more in control then, than she did now. Then, she had learned a pattern to his moods and could predict when an outburst was on the horizon. At least she could have her eye on him and monitor a barometer of sorts. Now, he wasn’t in the house, so she was no longer intimately in-tune with his fluctuating moods or even where he was.
Yet despite these unknown elements, she confidently told me that she and her children were much happier now. Her difficult and hard-won journey reminded me of what I had already learned about happiness, albeit on a path far different from hers.
Lesson #1: You won’t know until you try it
Lisa Sansom, a positive psychology consultant and speaker, notes that “we are really bad at predicting what will make us happy. We don’t really know what our future self wants.” So if we can’t predict what will make us happy, then we just need to try it and see. And, most importantly for me, we need to not beat ourselves up if it doesn’t give us the positive emotions that we’re chasing after.
Lesson #2: Call your mother
Okay, it doesn’t actually have to be your mother. But research continues to show that maintaining and building relationships is a deep source of happiness for most people. “There’s no one thing that will result in well-being,” explains Sansom, “but many, such as Dr. Martin Seligman, who authored the best-selling book Authentic Happiness, believe that relationships are a central facet in being able to flourish.” My seat-mate and I had one thing in common – a strong family bond that even a long train ride couldn’t deter.
Lesson #3: No invitation required
Happiness is not an event, with invitations and a date on the calendar. It’s a way of living, which means you don’t need an invite but you do need to show up if you want a piece of the action. Sansom agrees that, like most things, if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen. “If you want happiness, then you need to focus your attention on those things that make you happy – you really need to look for them. If you don’t look for them, you won’t find them.”
Living the status quo is not only more comfortable, it requires less energy. Trying new things, working on relationships, and looking-out for what makes you happy are signposts on the path to a well-lived life. I know this. I do. But I’m grateful for the reminder.