Recently, I met up with an acquaintance. I enjoyed talking with her -- she has a great sense of humor, she hosts parties, and her friends tell me she's always there to help people out.

But she's been working at the same position within her company for seven years. It's an entry-level position with job responsibilities that include filing and data entry. Most of her colleagues are recent grads that stay for a year or so before moving on to bigger endeavors.

She doesn't have any plans to change positions or move to a different company. When I asked her how things were going, she replied that everything was fine. Her job is stable and helps her pay the monthly rent.

Recently, though, she's had a change in heart. She admitted that she realized how easy it was for her to stay complacent. She resists change, but also feels that there's nothing for her to look forward to. She confides that she worries that time has been passing her by.

Are you as happy as you say you are?

Here's the problem:

It can be surprisingly hard to tell the difference between when you're happy or just settling with what you have.

There are times when you just know that you're happy. You get that rush of excitement, a thrill, or your heart beats a million times a minute.

But what about the other end of the spectrum? You know, that mellow and soothing feeling. The feeling that everything is in its place and you can just sit back and relax.

How do you know that your life is in order, versus simply convincing yourself that everything is OK?

It's hard to say for sure, but I believe there are telltale signs. Signs that, if you look closely enough, are indicators that it's time for a change.

For instance, observe the way you communicate with yourself. Self-talk is a method we commonly use to debrief ourselves after a difficult situation, to get us through obstacles, or to evaluate how we feel. It can also be used to console ourselves when things aren't right.

When you feel content, you use phrases such as:

  • "I'm so relieved."
  • "I love waking up every morning."
  • "Things are as they should be."

On the other hand, if you're feeling complacent, you might tell yourself:

  • "It's OK if I couldn't achieve what I wanted."
  • "Maybe someday."
  • "You can't have everything."

While the latter phrases may be true, they're also blanket statements for dissatisfaction. Even if things look fine on the surface, it feels like something is not quite right or missing.

The framework Jeff Bezos uses

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, says his decision to leave his high-salaried finance job to start Amazon was very easy. In what he calls the "regret minimization framework," he imagines himself at age 80:

So I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, "OK, now I'm looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have." I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this.

I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal.

I knew that if I failed I wouldn't regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision.

At 80, Bezos wants to be able to look back at his life and have lived with as few regrets as possible. He knew that if he didn't go ahead and try working on his startup idea, even if it resulted in failure, it would be a lifelong regret.

Though it might be comfortable to stay in one spot for the time being, most of us end up regretting the things we don't do, as opposed to whether or not we succeeded.

How to implement change

To improve, it's important to know where you are in your progress. The first step is to recognize what you have. Even if you're not where you want to be, there are many things to be grateful for -- whether it's good health, relationships, or even just being able to enjoy a nice day.

The next step is to see what you want to accomplish. Maybe you want to exercise, travel more, or learn a new skill. Once you recognize this, you can map out the steps you intend to take to improve each day.

Do something that scares you, something that is out of your usual pattern. Whether it's sending an email to someone you don't know or pulling out a map and planning where you want to travel.

You can be content and embrace change at the same time

Living up to your full potential is about doing things that are terrifying. It means taking risks. Inevitably, it means accepting that pain, discomfort, and rejection are just a part of the process.

Being content isn't simply about being satisfied where you are. It's also enjoying the process you take to reach your potential, with all the bumps along the way.