“When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” – Helen Keller
What does it mean to live a happy life, or to find happiness? Many of us assume happiness is tied to various external circumstances – finding the right job, the right romantic partner, the right city to live.
When we aren’t happy, there’s a reason. Someone or something to blame.
I used to feel that happiness was something I needed to “get.” I tried again and again to find it – taking a new job, moving to a new city or neighborhood, pursuing a romantic relationship. I thought if I changed my circumstances, I could find a magical formula for happiness. But soon after each change, new problems would arise, and I’d find myself wanting again. The issues in my life were circumstantial, and so happiness was, too.
A few years ago, I was having a difficult time at work, even though I loved my job. The problem was my relationship with my co-worker. She was talented, creative, and ambitious in ways that I was not, and we stood in stark contrast to one another. She was outspoken while I held back, concerned with the politics of our company. She wanted to try a new approach, and I resented the fact that she was so young, eager, and naïve. Working alongside her made me feel jealous and resentful – who was she to tell me what to do? I’d been working in this industry for a long time, and I was good at it!
Frustrated after a particularly bad day, the build-up of small resentments suddenly overwhelming me, I decided to go for a walk to clear my head. I thought about our team meeting earlier that afternoon. My co-worker had criticized a project I was working on, pointing out its potential flaws.
I felt she’d made me look bad in front of everyone, including my boss, and wondered how I could continue working with her. She had shaken my confidence. I was miserable, and it was her fault. If not for her, I would be happy!
I wandered the streets for over an hour, pondering my next move and desperate for a solution to my growing anxiety and anger. I cried in frustration, because I didn’t know what else to do. Then an image popped into my head. It didn’t last long, but it was long enough to shake me out of my hopeless state.
The vision was an image of me holding a giant boulder over my head, about five times bigger than I was. I was so burdened I couldn’t move, and yet, I was reluctant to put it down. I understood instinctively that this boulder represented judgment. It was a brief moment of deep acknowledgment, and I felt it in my gut.
But strangely, I also recognized the vision wasn’t just about me judging my ambitious co-worker. I was judging myself, and it was weighing down on me, causing my suffering.
We don’t like to admit we judge, but we do it constantly. Judgment is what separates us from each other, the cause of our distress. We judge when we believe others aren’t living up to our expectations. Judgment leads to our blaming circumstances, people, and other external factors for our own unhappiness.
We also turn that judgment inward, wreaking havoc on our spirits, whether we realize it or not.
Since then, I’ve come to understand that cultivating happiness requires an internal reset from judgment to compassion. The more we blame outside forces or people for our own unhappiness, the more we blame ourselves, too, perpetuating the cycle. Happiness is not acquired through finding the right circumstances, but by actively practicing compassion for both yourself and others despite the circumstances. This means accepting who you are (and where you are) without judgment.
Make no mistake, this is a tough practice.
Since my boulder epiphany, I’m learning to cultivate more compassion for myself and others. There are three steps that have helped me do this:
Step 1. Get quiet.
I like to go for a run, walk or hike on a daily basis, where I can clear my mind and immerse myself in a physical activity. Being in nature and being active allows me to create some distance from problems so they don’t consume me. Moving my body gives my mind and heart some space to process my feelings in a healthy way. I’ve also begun a meditation practice in the morning, which helps me focus and reduces my anxiety when I’m hit with stressful situations throughout the day.
Step 2: Pay attention.
I notice when feelings of suffering come over me – fear, jealousy, frustration. I acknowledge the feelings and sit with them for a while. I remind myself that I’m doing my best; that these feelings are temporary and they aren’t based in truth. They are simply my current perspective and my perspective could change.
An interesting thing occurs when I practice this technique. The feelings of anger and frustration become weaker, so they aren’t taking hold of my psyche and weighing me down. I feel lighter.
Step 3: Forgive.
When I acknowledge and let go of judgment, I can better connect with people I once saw as “problems.” This makes it easier for me to forgive myself when I make poor choices. I can move beyond my suffering – beyond my mistakes, pain, and doubts.
Understanding the root cause of my unhappiness – judging myself and others – changed my experience at work. While I still struggle, I recognize when I’m falling into old self-defeating patterns. I can take a step back and practice compassion.
I know my worth isn’t tied up in whether or not I get praise for an assignment, or how I measure up to someone else. And my co-worker’s worth isn’t dependent upon how she’s perceived, either. Slowly but surely, I feel the boulder getting lighter.
When we extend compassion instead of judgment, we are allowing ourselves to accept and embrace our own lives, and to forgive ourselves for mistakes we’ve made or people we have hurt. It lifts a huge psychological burden – one that you might not realize you’re carrying.
When you free yourself from expectations that don’t matter, there’s a true sense of joy in being who you are, not who others expect you to be. When you let go of judgment, you are cultivating freedom to live an authentic life. That is happiness.