Until recently, I’ve always considered myself high on the neurotic personality spectrum. A couple of months ago, I was taking two antidepressants and an anti-anxiety medication every day. I thought calm and happy were emotions that just didn’t naturally occur within me – that there was something wrong with me and I couldn’t help it. I thought happiness was something that happened to you, something that existed in outside stuff like fancy dinners, money, and alcohol, not something you could actually have inside you at all times. My boyfriend’s encouraging comments like “life is good” just came off as condescending to me. Yeah, maybe for you.
After many panic attacks, mental breakdowns, public crying fits, and days spent in bed sulking and feeling sorry for myself, I realized that the medication wasn’t working. I had to at least try something else. So I quit my job and started doing yoga. I stopped taking my medication.
I realized that in order for me to actually change, I had to stop being so goddamn cynical about everything. I owed it to myself to give enacting some real change an honest shot. I silenced the part of me that would have laughed and rolled her eyes about how typical it was for this white girl to be having her Eat, Pray, Love moment.
I used to tell myself that happy people were dumb and I was smart because I knew that life was really about meaningless suffering and work. I can probably blame misinterpretations of Nietzsche for that, as well as a strong inner drive for self-preservation. I had been making excuses not to be happy. Saying “I’m depressed” was a way of protecting myself both from failure but also from so many great joys of living. I had to be okay with being vulnerable and make a conscious decision to be happy.
Yoga and meditation helped me to clear negative thoughts in my head and relaxed me. I listened to my boyfriend’s encouraging words instead of shooting them down immediately. I read the lessons in my Buddhist self-help books without immediately looking for a counter-argument.
One of the books I read, Zen and the Art of Happiness, made a huge impression on me. This introduced the revolutionary concept that nothing can make you happy except yourself. Not your dream career, not your significant other, not that Birkin bag I’ve always had my eye on.
Today, I am happy. Not all of the time, but most of the time. I wake up feeling calm. I have a better understanding of my emotions and feel more in control. I am able to laugh at things that would have ruined my entire day in the past. I no longer feel a compulsion to be perfect. I’m more interested in other people and they’re more interested in me. I understand that many people want the best for everyone else, and that people around me generally want me to succeed. Life is good. A couple of months of therapy and having understanding and patient friends definitely helped, but ultimately the change had to come from inside me.
The following are some of the lessons I’ve picked up on my journey to lead a happier life. Some are taken from the aforementioned book, some are smart things my friends have said, some I learned from TED talks, and some might have been stolen from movies.
1. Choose happiness at every turn. Shit happens. Sometimes something happens to you that’s out of your control. I’m a vegetarian, and a couple of weeks into my transition into this new mindset, I was accidentally served something with meat in it at a restaurant. I only realized this after I had already eaten some of it. My initial reaction was to panic and feel terrible for inadvertently breaking my moral code, as well as feeling fearful and angry that I would become sick. I was faced with a choice of how to view the situation. I could be angry for the restaurant’s perceived carelessness and cause a scene. Or I could accept that people make mistakes, forgive and try to learn from the situation, and choose to not allow negative emotions to ruin my evening. I chose the latter, and it definitely made me feel better than anything that could have been accomplished by screaming at a manager.
2. Remember that nothing is inherently good or bad. The value we give events and people largely exists only in our heads. Amazing, right? If we decide something is good, it’s good. If we decide something is bad, it’s bad. We have a startling degree of power to define things. You can look at a situation like getting fired as a failure, something bad that happened to you, and feel crushed and victimized. Or you can take a step back, realize that there is likely some benefit to be found within the situation that you may not be initially seeing, and move on.
3. Live in the moment. Don’t think about something dreadful that “could happen” – if it only could happen, then it’s actually not currently happening! “Could” should be a trigger word for you to re-evaluate your thoughts. Thinking something can happen or fearing that it will happen likely brings nothing positive to your life. Don’t waste another moment thinking about it. Stay focused on the present.
4. Remember that other peoples’ behavior is up for interpretation. Someone’s not super friendly to you? Maybe they have crippling social anxiety. Someone is dismissive or flippant with you? Maybe something terrible has happened to him recently in his personal life, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. Don’t immediately assume the negative. People aren’t out to get you – we’re usually too wrapped up in our own personal lives and problems to really give you more than a second thought.
5. Don’t regret. Forget your embarrassing moments and mistakes. It may come as a surprise, but you’re probably the only one who even remembers them. Forget the things you should have done or wish you did. Thinking about that literally offers nothing positive to your life. These were simply opportunities to learn and make better decisions in the present moment.
I do believe that some people have chemical imbalances in their brain, an imbalance of serotonin perhaps that causes them to feel sad more often. However, I feel that too many people are misdiagnosed with this and prescribed drugs that they don’t need. Happiness could be available to them with just a few conscious tweaks of their thoughts.