What do you do when your career is moving along nicely, your relationships are going smoothly and your health is good--but you just aren't as happy as you'd like to be? That was the question facing me about two months ago.
A while back, I wrote a column from an interview with executive coach and best-selling author Wendy Capland, and as a follow-up we decided she would coach me and that I would write about it. We talk about once a month by phone and most of those conversations revolve around my desires for career advancement, or sometimes work-life balance. But in one of our recent sessions, I posed the problem of happiness instead. I'd been making steady progress on several of my career goals (for instance, I topped 1 million readers a month for this column for the first time). Things were going great but, I said, "I'm just not feeling the joy."
Her response was to give me an assignment: Create a list ofthings that make me happy so that I can make sure to make those things part of my life. It was a great idea, and something everyone should do a few times a year. Here's why:
1. It's your job to make yourself happy.
The people who love you are (or should be) committed to your happiness. But no one knows as well as you do what will and won't make you truly happy. Ultimately, it's your job and no one else's to make sure your life as joyous as it can be.
2. It's too easy to get hyper-focused on work.
Maybe your work makes you happy. That's certainly true for me. But even the most satisfying job is full of stresses and pressures. Meanwhile working long hours and taking too little time off has become a norm in our society. Thinking about what really makes you happy, whether it's certain aspects of your job, or being with your family, or something else altogether can help you focus your attention on what really matters to you. And if your work doesn't make you happy, it can help you motivate you to make a change.
3. It's too easy to get bogged down in the trivial.
There was a time when, if I'd died, they could have written on my tombstone: "She always attended to her email promptly." At some point, it occurred to me that I was not necessarily focusing my best efforts on what would most advance my career, or what mattered most to me in life, or what would make me happiest.
That's a temptation and a danger we all face. The simple, busy tasks of our day-to-day lives are always right in front of us, and they always need doing. Stopping to think about what really makes you happy can make you take a second look at items like these and think about how much of your effort and attention they're getting, and how much they really deserve.
4. It reminds you to make time for fun.
That was certainly a big part of my problem. It was summer, and in the Pacific Northwest where I live, you had better have fun in summer because winter tends to be gloomy and miserable. But I was juggling a hectic travel schedule, stiff work deadlines, and the need to find a new location because the house my husband and I rented was slated to be torn down to build a development. That meant house-shopping in a booming real-estate market, securing a mortgage, and then moving--stressors in themselves.
I was working hard all week and spending every weekend driving from house to house with my husband, hoping to find one we both liked and could afford. Fun had gone completely by the wayside. Making my happiness list forced me to see just how much it was lacking, though. I found myself filling it with recreational activities I used to love but hadn't done in a long time, such as horseback riding, or hadn't done but wanted to try, such as belly dancing. I couldn't even remember when I'd last been to the movies, so I put that on the list as well.
5. Happiness takes practice.
"Joy, like a lot of things, is a practice," Capland told me. That made a lot of sense. We get good at what we pay attention to, and we get good at what we do over and over. So if you make the time and space in your life to make yourself happy, and then do it again and again, you'll get better at it. And happier.
6. You can't get what you can't envision.
The best way to get something that you want, happiness included, is to visualize it. So that was another assignment Capland gave me: create a vision board and fill it with images of things that make me happy. I should then display it someplace where I could see it frequently. "I've done it a number of times and every time I've done it, I've gotten everything on the board," she says. "The process of doing it activates something in you."
Once, when she badly needed a new car, Capland says she put an image of a slate colored Porsche Panamera on her vision board--even though they cost more than $78,000--because she thought it was the most beautiful car she'd ever seen. She wound up with a much less expensive BMW that looked strikingly similar. "I'm envisioning your year of joy," she said.
7. If we're not happy, we're not our best selves.
Capland made this point to me, and of course, she's right. We bring our whole selves to our work and to everything we do. Many years ago, I took a job at a daily newspaper, because it was offered and because I thought working at a daily paper was something every journalist should do some time. But the work itself--not to mention the 40-mile commute--was grinding and uninspiring. To my great relief they fired me after a few months if only because I was making everyone around me unhappy as well.
8. You shouldn't put things off.
There is another reason for my lack of happiness. One of my husband's and my closest friends, and the best man at our wedding, was terminally ill and fighting for his life. I spent much of the spring and summer in denial about this. So that, when he died in early July, even though it was expected it was somehow still a shock.
His death, so much younger than he or we expected, made me think a lot about the choices I make and how I spend my time. And also what truly makes me happy. I may think I need to make time for things like movies and horseback riding but what really feeds my soul is being with the people I love.
So--although I haven't found time yet to book myself a belly dancing lesson or even start on that vision board--I have spent many more hours these past weeks just being with my husband and our friends. I still have lots of work, but I'm managing to accept more invitations and welcome people into our not-yet-unpacked house more often than I used to. Because you can really never get your fill of connecting with others, or of loving and being loved. Even a long life isn't long enough for that.