In honour of the International Day of Happiness this week, I took a little time to reflect on my own Year in Happiness. It is something I thought about a lot this year. A LOT. During the never-ending self-reflection required in writing a memoir, it was unavoidable.
And there is one Lesson in Happiness that stuck out above all else: Stress & Happiness are not mutually exclusive.
Now maybe this is obvious for you, but for me, I had always equated happiness with an absence of stress, and inversely, unhappiness with the presence of stress.
I assumed you could only be happy if you were stress-free. But somehow I had found myself in the confusing state of being happy but still stressed. I was sure I was happy, but then I would wake up in the middle of the night with worries – and then I realized I was failing to recognize the difference between happiness & stress. I realized, it is actually possible to be happy, while still being stressed.
I don’t even remember what triggered this discussion with myself, I just remember at some point last year asking myself are you happy? And the answer was an unequivocal: Yes. Humph. When did that happen? Could I pinpoint a moment in time when something switched for me? It certainly was a switch, for among the reasons I left my corporate career a few years ago, Happiness was very high up on the list.
I can pinpoint the moment I realized I wasn’t happy – It was a beautiful winter’s day, sunny and crisp. I should have been enjoying my day out snowboarding but instead of my usual “Yahhooooo”s as I flew down the hill, I found myself muttering get out of the way ***hole or wrong hill buddy under my breath. I knew something had to change – when the very thing that had always brought me joy could no longer do it for me – I knew I was actually unhappy.
It was a strange realization to come to, it seemed, even to myself, that I must be happy. I had a fantastic job, a wonderful partner, great friends, no financial worries, and I was sailing along in my career but the further along I went, I was seeking out happiness with an ever greater fervour; I played soccer on a team of good friends once a week, climbed with another group of friends twice a week, did dance classes, and went on dream vacations. But it was all form. The substance just wasn’t there. I was piling on fabulousness to make up for the fact that I wasn’t leading the life I was meant to lead. But it just wasn’t working:
I had everything but felt nothing.
I normally have so many passions I can’t find time for them all but during those months I was waking up every day excited by nothing. The same week I came to my snowboard-induced revelation a colleague announced he was leaving our firm, when I asked him why he told me a story about wanting to be able to be present for his family, a story that’s details sounded much too much like my snowboard revelation.
In her book The Happiness Project (Website) Gretchen Rubin says: But doing what you love is itself the reward. And as sometimes dehumanizing as this whole starting-over on a new career path has been – I have to agree. Although I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I became happy, there is no doubt the trigger was following the path I was meant to be on.
I started thinking about this a lot when I was working in Ethiopia, because 2 years after making the decision to leave my corporate career to follow my passion for humanitarian work, somehow, out of nowhere, stress crept back into my life – and it confused the hell out of me.
This is an excerpt from my journal at the time:
On the happiness note though, I can’t say enough about how good for the soul it is to follow your dreams. Yesterday I was listening to the rain pouring down and thinking of how it’s not even dampening my spirits. Even though I just lived through month after month of downpours in Colombia and have months of downpours ahead of me here in Ethiopia still, I have never once this entire year let it dampen my spirits, I have never thought “I’m not happy”. I don’t really know when it happened, but, I’m happy. Though Happiness is not to be confused with stress. Even having found happiness months ago, I am still stressed. Maybe it takes longer to get rid of stress. That is what I am working on now.
So, when did the shift happen? How long after “following my dreams” did happiness kick in? I still don’t know the exact moment the shift happened but I know that I got happy somewhere in Colombia. I’m not sure exactly when but it was about the same time I had Coffee with Jesus (a much-needed road-trip) (Coffee With Jesus Blog Post) and really started to “get” the situation there, and felt useful in my work.
Since then I have been happy but I am far from being stress-free, maybe by the time there’s an International No-Stress Day, I’ll be stress-free.
Until then, Happy is a pretty good place to be.