October 2, 2020

Happiness Is a Direction, Not a Place

by Petra Brunnbauer
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Which way to happiness?

The quest for happiness

As some of you already know, I spent a lot of time looking for happiness. I started struggling with depression in my teenage years. And I never found the way out until my early thirties, over 15 years later. When I look back now, I always surprise myself that it took me that long to get better. I mean I literally tried everything I could find to get my happiness back.

And yet I struggled for almost half of my life with depression and anxiety. Now, some of my friends have jokingly said that I should enjoy it while I can. Because my midlife crisis will probably hit soon. Oh, wow. I don’t even want to think about that.

But I am not scared in the least. Because during my journey, I did learn a few very important things.

As I have put the pieces back together over the last few years, I have come to realize that the things I learned are constant. It means that they are true and present all the time. It also means in a sense that I can’t “un-learn” them. Just like if you learn to ride a bicycle, chances are you will remember how to ride one even if you don’t for a few years.

“Happiness is a direction, not a place.”
                                        - Sydney J. Harris

In essence, where people would experience a midlife crisis, I have already been there and done that. In a way these past decades really were a crisis of existence. Because of things that happened, I lost my sense of trust, my self-identity, and my sense of belonging. It took me many years to put back together who I am and what I want.

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Happiness really is a direction

So where many people lose themselves in “mid-life”, I have already done that. For example, talking to my friends, a lot of them worry about their kids finishing school and moving out. They are not sure what they are going to do with themselves. Most of them gave up their careers to raise their kids for the last 18 years.

During this time, they always put themselves last and their families first. This inevitably led to the fact that they lost themselves and took on the identity of the family unit. When they look in the mirror there is no more “Jane” or “Lisa” or “Stephanie”. They are “mom”. And now comes the time to untangle their own identity. Although they will always remain “mom”, of course, this is the first time in decades they get to think about who they truly are.

Happiness and family

Trying to figure out my own identity was, without doubt, a large part of my later depression. It’s a scary thing. Because I noticed just how unhappy I was with my life, with absolutely no idea how to fix it. There were my own expectations of what my life should have looked like. There were family expectations of how I fit into the family and what that should look like. And between all those shoulds, woulds, and coulds, I had completely lost myself.

I think it was this loss of purpose and this loss of direction that kept perpetuating my depression every year. And so I started looking for a new direction, happiness. For many years, I made the mistake of looking for happiness everywhere around me. I travelled the world in search of happiness. Of course, I tried physical pleasures like great food or retail therapy. I also tried achievements, like graduating from university.

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Looking for my keys

You can probably guess that none of those things worked to make me truly happy again. I would feel happy for hours, days, or weeks, and then my depression would creep back again. And you have probably tried some things on your own, just to feel the same way. Maybe you finally bought that new car you wanted, but the rush only lasted as long as the new car smell. Or your family moved into a new home, yet you still feel empty inside.

Fulfillment and contentment still seem elusive, even though we do all the things to “get” happier. At some point, maybe when we are alone in the shower or lying awake in bed at night, we feel the emptiness. We feel the confusion at why we feel this way. And the frustration and maybe even the anger and sadness.

Happiness and retail therapy

For me, it really was a rainbow of emotions that flipped between not knowing why this was happening, to becoming irate with myself for not being able to feel better. And then, inevitably feeling sad and exhausted with the whole situation. This was usually followed by a quiet acceptance that this was life. And that I should really be grateful for all I had because many people simply were not so fortunate.

Today, I think gratitude is a great daily practice because it comes from a place of joy, not defeat. But back then, it really just meant I was talking myself into giving up and accepting my situation. It meant I opted out of life. Instead of searching and fighting to feel content and fulfilled, I surrendered and gave up. I tried to make myself feel better about my choice by looking for something to be grateful for.

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Let’s talk about the little old lady

The answer I found might surprise you, but I think you might already intuitively know this. I love this short story and it really drives home what we tend to do all the time. So, here it goes.

One evening, an elderly lady was in front of her house, down on her hands and knees, searching for something on the sidewalk. The sun was setting and it was getting darker and darker by the minute.

Her neighbors were just leaving their house to go for a walk when they noticed her hunched over, searching the sidewalk.

“Is everything ok?” they asked her. “Did you lose something?”

“Yes,” she said “I lost my key.”

“The sun is setting, so it will be hard to find just one key in the yard or on the pavement out here,” commented the neighbors. “We’ll help you look and hopefully we can find it faster that way. Do you know where you might have dropped it? On the driveway, in the yard, or out on the sidewalk?” 

The little old lady and happiness

“It’s better not to ask me that question....” said the lady. “Because the fact is that I haven’t lost the key outside at all. I’ve lost it inside the house.”

The neighbors looked at each other in disbelief. One whispered to the other “I always thought she was a little crazy!”

“If you know you lost your key inside then why are you out here in the last daylight looking on the sidewalk?”

They were about to walk away when the lady stopped for a moment and looked up at the neighbors.

“I was just following your example,” she said. “You go on looking for bliss in the outside world without ever asking yourself the primary question: where have you actually lost it? And even if I tell you that you have lost it inside, you will keep on looking outside yourselves… only because of one simple fact - there is more light out here than there is inside. So it is easier to search.”

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Have you been looking on the sidewalk?

After coming across this story, it really made me think. If I was being honest with myself, I was the neighbor. Although I knew I had lost my happiness inside of me, I went looking for it on the outside. I tried to find it again with trips, food, clothes, shoes, a new car, and things that distracted me. And like the little old lady said, I did that because it’s much easier to look outside than inside.

Everyone tells you, buy this xyz product and you will be happier. Travel here and you will have the adventure of a lifetime and be happy. Buy a new house, eat great food, get your hair done, the more material things you have, the happier you will be. The more success you have, the happier you will be. People tend to equate success with happiness, when it actually can be quite the opposite.

Finding the key to happiness

All the advice I found followed the same theme. “Just make something of yourself and you will be happy.” “Once you have a husband and kids, you will be happy.” I followed that advice for a very long time, until I actually started looking inside myself for answers. I started examining where I felt I had lost my “happiness”. And I started looking at how I could live more in line with what I wanted.

Maybe that is the most difficult thing to ask yourself. What do you truly want? You are so used to asking “what do my children want and need?” “What does my partner/spouse want and need?” “What do my parents want and need?” The list goes on and usually we come dead last.

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Small steps to happiness

1. Explore what you want

We usually start by listing all the things we don’t want. Or the things we are grateful for. But the point of this exercise is to really look inside and think about what you want. Do you yearn for more me-time? Do you wish you could learn a new language? Has it been your dream to get more fit? Or bigger? A dream trip around the world? A new career or job? Whatever it is, have the courage to really ask yourself without judging how realistic your dreams are. Make a list of 10 things you really want. Take as much time as you need to create your list.

To get started, you can start by doing a brain dump in a journal or on a piece of paper. Just write down all the things that make a happy feeling inside you. You can also do this over several days or weeks. Then review everything you have written down and pick the things that generate the biggest happy feeling inside you.

Another great way to find out what you want is to volunteer. By connecting with your community, you can meet new people and try out helping in different fields. You may run across new ideas and inspiration for what you really want. You might also meet people who introduce you to new things you have never even thought of before.

Happiness and what you want

2. Make a commitment to small steps

Once you have made your list, make a commitment to small steps. Moving in the direction of happiness is not usually instant. Especially, when we have been looking for some time. Many things are pulling us in different directions and finding our own happiness can be very difficult. Even if you feel like you can’t make any changes yet, make a commitment to small, consistent steps. Set a timer and take 15 minutes of time for yourself every day. Sign up for that online language class. Whatever it takes to get moving toward what you want.

3. Keep checking in with yourself

As you move forward, it is important to keep checking in with yourself. Only you know how you feel inside. You will need to listen to yourself and how you feel, to figure out if the direction you are heading is what you want. Relying on your intuition is an important skill to use here. Especially, if you have ignored your intuition time and time again to put others before yourself. Now it’s time to evaluate the steps you are taking to make sure you feel content with your choices. If you have that little nagging feeling that something is off, don’t ignore it this time. Make changes, until you feel in tune with yourself.

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The Takeaway

If you have figured out that something is off in your life, then you have already taken the first step to change. You have become aware that something is going on. But, before you start chasing your happiness in the things around you, focus inward and find out what it is you really want. Start off by exploring what gives you that balanced and content feeling inside. Think about where you lost your happiness to begin with.

You deserve happiness

Happiness is a direction and not a place you will suddenly arrive at. The key is to start with small, consistent steps that move you into that direction. Especially when you are stuck in a daily rut, it’s difficult to see how you could ever be content and fulfilled. It is not going to happen over night, so commit to small steps to get started. Commit to one small change you can accomplish and feel comfortable with. And then another...and then another. One step at a time.

Always making sure that the change creates a feeling of contentment for you.

The most important thing is to leave any self-doubt or judgement behind. We have been trained all our lives to ignore our own needs and make sure everyone else is taken care of. Now is the time to take a little bit of that care back and apply it to ourselves. It’s essential to put yourself first because your needs have to be met to move in the direction of happiness.

You deserve your happiness. Explore your dreams without judgement and go for it!


authentic self, bliss, contentment, happiness, self development

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