Happiness Starts with You

Happiness Starts with You

At a dinner with girlfriends last week, one asked us whether we would pursue a hypothetical opportunity to go back in time by twenty years. All of us answered no. 

We silently took rapid stock of our big life decisions in the last two decades: where we work; who we married; and how many children we have. Perhaps a do-over would deliver us to a happier present. We were not persuaded by the allure of the potential promise. The idea of revisiting our twenties was completely unappealing. Despite a more carefree existence, bumbling along and making errors was a key part of the experience of that time. The underlying leitmotif of the teen years still prevailed. We felt that we just had to get to the next hurdle, find our way, and arrive at the glorious future of our dreams. 

From our current vantage point, it is abundantly clear that going back in time would not necessarily make our lives more wonderful. Life would certainly be different, but we don’t actually know how. It could be worse. The only certain thing in a redo is that we have to experience yet again the life lessons that can only be learned by living. Who knows how long it would take to learn them the second time around? Would we learn similar lessons? The most important and fulfilling discovery for me has been to love myself. I have come to accept my shortcomings and my unfulfilled dreams, such as having limited patience and never having the chance to be a neuroscientist. But I am also fiercely loyal and a strong linear thinker. Loving myself has taught me to reconcile my disparate talents and limitations. 

Self-love has also removed the pressure of my expectations surrounding happiness in my daily life. I am accountable for my own contentment. Expecting someone else to make me happy is a dead end. I cannot rely on my children, my friends, or my husband to spark a light. In turn, it is not my responsibility to make someone else happy. Relationships often provide a natural gateway to bind people in this unnatural dance. We do all sorts of things because we think it will delight the other person, and consequently make us more likeable, even loved. We believe that if the other person is happy, we will be happy, too. This line of reasoning has persuaded me to shoot clay pigeons in upstate New York and zip-line in the tree canopies of Costa Rica, despite my fear of heights. Giving up this practice of pleasing someone else, with the notion that it will make me happy, has been liberating. I now have the freedom to discover what actually does bring me joy. Self-love has taught me to be content. 

The road to truly love yourself has been challenging, and will always continue in some way. Once you have accepted who you are, you can find what is most meaningful and important in your life. Stick to what you know is working. Empower yourself and determine your path to happiness. Don’t leave this to another person. No one can make you happy. Only you can.

Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.

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