I don’t think I’m alone, or even in a minority of people, who derive happiness, self-worth and fulfilment from the world around them. “Success” is a centrepiece to American life, as is the need to quantify and measure it and everything that goes into it. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is a concept that has been around since the early 1900s.
Measurement and comparison drive a lot of what we do, and eventually, for many of us, it hardens within us as our mental construct for happiness and self-worth – whether we know it or not. We view ourselves through the world around us; we view our worth in terms of how we “measure up” in it. Yet when purpose, validation and happiness come from the world around us – a job, school, some athletic, academic or professional achievement, a relationship, our net worth – we will always be dependent on those things to provide us with the happiness and meaning we seek. We will always move through life demanding that the things around us make us happy, give us meaning and make us feel that we are enough. No matter how much we may think we are in control, we are in fact easily manipulated by both ourselves and others – fear and greed powerful motivators that make us easy to influence. Consciously and subconsciously we jump from one thing to the next in search of our happiness – thinking in the moment that this one thing will make us happy (a new relationship, lover, material possession, achievement, etc), only to realise that when it doesn’t or no longer does, we have already moved on to the next thing we are sure this time will. If this is our framework for happiness and self-worth, no matter how happy and content we may think we are, we are not, and at some point in time this world brittles until it cracks and breaks, no longer able to give us what we so deeply need – validation and love. It is at this point that we discover the true depths of our unhappiness and longing.
My world, long cracking, finally broke in early 2016 soon after leaving Rentpath, the company that had acquired Lovely, which I had co-founded with Doug back in 2009. In the absence of the people, problems, triumphs, daily ups-and-downs and constant grind that gave meaning to my life up to that point, this world could no longer give me what I needed. It could no longer tell me who I was or what I was worth. I could no longer look to it for problems to fix or a future to pour myself into to build. None of that existed. The magnifying glass I used to inspect and tinker with the world around me, which I could bend to my will, was suddenly a mirror with only me in its view. What was my worth when there was nothing by which to measure it? In the absence of that measure, who was I? These questions – questions I was able to avoid for most of my life – revealed to me a loneliness and despair (after a few months of intense desperation) that had been there all along, where I realised for the first time my truth: what I thought was happiness up to that point was simply relief masquerading as such – relief that in my mind I was not a failure. In fact I was deeply unhappy. I was nothing. I plunged into an emptiness and void without purpose or meaning to contemplate myself at the deepest level: Who was I really, and what inherent worth, if any, did I have? In the weeks and months ahead, I learned lessons that sound cliche unless you learn them through direct experience: that life is a miracle, each and every breath precious, that we are enough and that we deserve to be happy. I learned that true, durable and enduring happiness can only come from within. I learned to love myself.
From love, peace can grow, and from a place of peace joy begins to shine – the calm, gentle feeling of being lit up from the inside . As I navigated the depths of my emptiness in the spring and summer of 2016, as I learned to love myself and accept that I was enough, I began to create the stillness and space for peace to take hold. I started to slow down. I began to let go. I began to surrender. I was no longer in control, and that was okay. In this stillness and surrender, joy began to emerge. It wasn’t the big moments or triumphs I needed for joy, nor expensive things, but instead the small things in my daily life, mostly free, that began to light me up and make me feel alive: the smell of freshly-ground coffee beans before my morning pour-over; cooking myself a meal with items fresh from the market; feeling like a kid running down a mountain; watching Benson my dog chase down the tennis ball I had just thrown to him, grin ear-to-ear. In mid-to-late 2016, I could finally start to answer the question I could not answer earlier that year when Alex, my therapist at the time, first posed it to me: what brings you joy?
Finding the joy in my life required slowing down to find it. Prioritising joy in my life took more work (perhaps the subject of another post). But before I could do any of this, I had to understand that while I thought I was happy, I was not. This self-awareness turned out to be what saved me, and what eventually put me on a path to answering a question that changed my life forever.
What brings you joy? Do you know? If not, how can you find out?