For most of my lifetime, I found it difficult to feel happy. If I made lists of what I love to do and pursued to do them, I would eventually feel let down. The moments slipped away or they were epic fails. I recall saying to therapist after therapist, "I have everything I want. I have no horrible situations. Why am I not happier?" What I didn't know was that underneath the list of what I love was something else I didn't yet have defined: I didn't know what qualities in those moments to connect to. I sought happiness from outside events instead of also connecting with my inner "why" of those events. Connecting with my inner "why," the qualities in the moments that matter to me, I could cultivate a life I love in what matters most to me.
THE DAILY LIFE
When I read The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, I made a list of what I would love to experience in each area of my life. I put this list by my desk with the intention to start making a conscious effort to create a life I love.
I started with my relationship with my sons. At the time, I was a single mom of 3 boys, 1 in middle school and 2 in high school. I chose to drive my sons to and from school so that I may have quality time with them first thing in the mornings and first thing after school. Despite this choice, I found myself feeling stuck as a taxi mom, shuttling them to and from school 1 1/2 hours a day. In addition, there was another 1 1/2 hours of mom-taxiing on days of extra-curricular activities, which was most of the week.
For those moms out there, you know the drill. Packing dinner in the car because the drive home from practice would be long and late, not to mention the angst knowing they still had homework to do. The initial hope that driving my kids around would be quality time was now a slog. I wanted a slow down. I wanted a family life that didn't revolve around school and after school schedules. I resented the school system for creating a lifestyle for my sons that made for 12-16 hour weekdays plus events on the weekends. I was burnt out, and I saw that my sons were also burning out.
MOMENTS SLIPPING AWAY
I decided I was going to at least make the best of what we had. I started with dinnertime. I knew that families who eat at the dinner table tend to have closer bonds and deeper connections. I recalled the dinnertime my parents, sister and I enjoyed. I wanted that with my sons, dinner together at the table with bonding conversations. We had 1-2 weekdays at the dinner table depending if it was an extended weekend the boys were going to their dad's. I chose to set up these 1-2 days per week with the intention of having wonderful dinnertime together.
During this time, I was in my 'year of health' with a restricted diet. I cooked all my food and never ate out, making sure everything I ate was exactly what I knew my body could digest without pain. This health commitment made for a lifestyle of home cooking. Despite the hectic family schedule, this health priority in my life made dinner at the dinner table a doable goal.
No matter how tired my body was, I would make dinner, set the table, and light a candle as our centerpiece. I called the boys to the dining table for our time together. This was the moment I looked forward to all week. Finally, some downtime to BE together, sharing conversation over a meal.
However, regardless of how I set it up, the moment slipped away. The meal was done before I could savor the time together. On good days, the conversation was dry, matter of fact, and lacking heartfelt connection. On hard days, the conversation was a teenage son complaining in a way I internalized as feeling unappreciated or disrespected. Despite all my efforts to set the intention, I felt disconnected & alone at the table. Plus, I still had the kitchen to clean up, all by myself.
THE MISSING LINK TO WHAT MATTERED MOST
Months went by, and something changed. It wasn't the school dynamic. It wasn't my health (that took a few years). It wasn't the conversations at the dinner table. It was me. It was my inner landscape, how I started to change from the inside out.
We hear the saying, "Happiness comes from within." Seriously, what in the world does that mean? How do we even go about achieving happiness from within? I know I didn't learn it from school. I know my parents tried their best, but they didn't have a 'happiness from within formula' to teach me. I was 36 when I found a mentor and a book that opened the door to feeling happier. I walked into the world of mindfulness, meditation, and self help books that addressed living with intention: mind, body, and spirit.
As I practiced mental awareness and redirecting my mind to what mattered most, I began to see this was a life skill. We can learn how to cultivate a life we love. By focusing on what we want more of rather than focusing on what we don't want, life changes. By noticing our thoughts rather than being our thoughts, we are freed from unnecessary mental hamster wheels. By allowing our uncomfortable feelings without having to buy into what the mind may make them mean, we can avoid getting emotionally derailed and instead have the ability to remain levelheaded despite the feeling.
For me 'happiness from within' became a practical, applicable life skill. I had mental framework to help guide me when life felt like it was missing something. I was able to realign with who I really wanted to be when life was challenging. I could not be 'so emotional' and learn to be the eye of inner peace in the storms of life. I learned ways to recenter, refocus, and recharge. I felt happier and now knew how to connect with it.
HOW I DEFINED WHAT MATTERS MOST TO ME
What tipped the scale from 'tendencies of depression' to 'happiness from within' was defining my "why" in the things I loved. Recall the dinner table experience? I was trying to feel more connected to my sons by expecting their dinner table interaction to trigger in me the emotions I sought. To expect the external world to fill our cup of happiness is a formula for disappointment. However, to cultivate within what we inherently love about the external experience is how we create happiness from the inside out.
I didn't know at the time that I was creating a 'happiness from within' life. I was simply practicing into a life I wanted. I wanted to be together at the dinner table. I saw this experience was a let down week after week. However, I learned that if I connected with the values I wanted rather than the feeling, I would increase my willingness to show up as well as my connection in the external moments.
I set out to create a list of my values for family, specifically time with my sons. Here was/is my list:
I decided to write about how I connect with these values ALREADY. I also wrote about new ways I can connect with these values. I meditated on how these values FELT in my body. I gained MEANING and PURPOSE in everything I do with and for family. I was deeply connecting with my values for family, the inherent part already within me that no external circumstance needed to fill.
As the weeks went on, I began to cook dinner without expectation. I chopped vegetable as if infusing them with love, delighted for their goodness in our meal. I set the table without needing a compliment about table setting, and enjoyed the beauty of it. I lit the candle thinking about the inner light in every one of us.
When we ate together, I was no longer disappointed that the time was only 10 minutes-ish. I savored the moment, and in-kind, the moments felt timeless. I Listened. If one of the boys was moody that day, rather than say to myself that "he always ruins the dinner time together," I chose to notice that thought and redirect it to, "I accept my son's mood and will hold the space for him." I was less reactive and more responsive. My response was now aligned with my values.
I learned that when I align my thoughts and actions to my values, I am creating a life I love. I also learned that when my feelings get riled up, I can listen to the message they have about a value in misalignment or being threatened. I learned to be a listener versus a reactor. I learned to feel intense feelings while remaining levelheaded. All this because my values anchored me.
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT TO KNOW WHAT MATTERS MOST TO YOU
Your values tell you why you feel the way you feel. Your values tell you what to prioritize. Your values give you a compass for decision making. Your values are not in flux like feelings can be, so you can lean on them when life gets hectic or when you get triggered. Your values help you to catch your mind's thoughts that are unhelpful or unserving. Your values help you reframe thoughts towards what matters most.
A value-focused life versus an accomplishment-focused life gives us an anchor for meaning and purpose in the process of life. Rather than waiting someday when, we have within us what matters most already.
Get a free guide to defining what matters most to you. This has been a foundation for creating a life I love. May it help you do the same.