We have four teenagers headed to high school — two of them 9th graders at new schools this week. Remember how nerve-wracking it can be starting high school? I can never resist offering a little advice at an occasion like this!
I’ve made a lot of happiness mistakes. I know you will make some of those same mistakes. But there are certain things I’ve finally learned that I hope you learn earlier than I did.
For starters, the best way to be happy is to make kindness the central theme in your life. Usually we think that happiness comes from getting what we want. But what I know now is that happiness comes not so much from getting, but from GIVING. It turns out that happiness usually doesn’t come when we’re thinking about ourselves, or about what we want.
So when you are feeling down, or disappointed, the best way to get your happiness mojo back is by helping someone else.
The second thing is that to be happy, we need to let ourselves feel what we feel. We live in an age of anxiety, and when we feel stressed out (or sad, or disappointed) our world offers us a host of ways to numb those negative feelings, to not really feel them. We can spend hours on Facebook avoiding our feelings. Or we can have a cocktail to “take the edge off” our fears. Or we can eat that whole pan of brownies. The problem is that when we numb unpleasant feelings, we numb everything that we are feeling.
So to honestly feel the positive things in life — to truly feel love, or joy, or profound gratitude — we must also let ourselves feel fear, and grief, and frustration. Your emotions are how your heart talks to you, how it tells you what choices to make. If you want to be happy, you need to practice feeling, to practice listening to your heart. This is the way to know who you are and what you want.
Finally, to be happy we need to forget about achieving, and instead focus on the journey. Many of your peers will spend their time striving for more: more money, more stuff, a bigger house, a faster car, more popular or important friends, more prestigious jobs. But when they arrive wherever they have been working so hard to get to, odds are, they’ll feel let down. (And, to be honest, it’s usually worse than just feeling let down. They may find, after working 12 hour days year after year, that despite their awards and achievements, they wake up one morning to see in the mirror an exhausted and unhappy person fast-tracking it to old age and loneliness.)
I know from experience how easy it is to think thoughts like, “If I could just earn more money…” or, “If I could just live in that city…” or, “If I could just get into that school…THEN I could be happy.” But when we think things like that, we’re almost always wrong about what will make us happier. Instead of wishing you were somewhere else, enjoy where you are. Right now. You are always already right where you need to be.
As Katherine Center once said: “You are writing the story of your only life, every single minute of every day.”
My greatest hope for you is that you are writing a story in which you can experience great gratitude, and profound compassion. I hope you are writing a story in which you are happy.
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Special thanks to Marielle and Macie, who put together this video; to Blake Farrington who got it started; and to Gonzalo Brito, who played the guitar piece in the background.