Being happy

Dec 19 / Laura Apolo
Being happy sounds simple enough and it's not supposed to be complicated, yet trying to obtain it kept me in a state of struggle for much too long.

I spent so many years of my life chasing happiness, only to discover what I was really chasing was approval. The funny thing is that as soon as I got the approval, I found it left me feeling empty and unfulfilled - sending me on another binge of chasing. Now and again I'd get some joy out of it but it was always short lived and hardly worth the investment I'd made to get it.

The other day, I was watching Grand Designs, an architectural home show that takes us with a design entrepreneur on the adventure of building their dream home. This particular design was 'minimalist', and it looked incredibly simple. Creating it was anything but.

Watching it made me realise that anything that looks effortless is often encapsulated in illusion, maybe that's why we find it so fascinating. As humans, we naturally want to believe the illusion, we want to believe the magic we are seeing. We don't like it when the bubble bursts.

Back in the days when I was writing corporate training, I would spend painstaking hours on constructing just the right sentences, and marry these with the perfect images that captured the meaning I needed to convey. People thought I just whipped it up, easy as pie, if only they knew the work that went in. Perhaps if I had understood that at the time, I'd have been less frustrated, and less needy about proving myself. 

It's the same with my relationships. A great deal of investment has gone into building my relationships to what they are. People think I'm lucky and perhaps I am but that's the reason I always get a good carpark, not the reason I have good relationships. I invest time, love, and compassion in my relationships, and I expect to get a reasonable balance in return. That's not luck.

So, what's all this got to do with being happy? 

Well, it's the stuff that brings happiness. Not work, not people, although they form part of it. What really brings happiness is the contribution. The connections that result from the contributions we make. Well, for the most part. You see, I used to think that it was all you needed to create happiness. Being happy was was as simple as making other people happy. Actually, I think I read that somewhere, and whilst that has some truth to it, it's only part of the formula. There's still something missing.

It took more than a decade of people pleasing and overworking to prove myself to find that such happiness is short-lived and impossible to maintain. 

Sustainable happiness still eluded me.
Now, I've been reading most of the popular personal development book list since my early twenties, which is longer than I care to admit. And, I've learned a great deal from them. Not much is better than that 'aha!' moment of realising something that's about to unlock doors for you.

Yet books on happiness would be tossed aside, unfinished. They would simply frustrate me with their simple explanations and unrealistic suggestions.

Apparently, all I had to do, most advised, was simply decide to be happy. Then go and do whatever made me happy. Oh, yes, and stop worrying about what other people thought of my choices. It was that simple. 

I honestly felt like it was some kind of universal joke that I didn't get. Over the years my frustration intensified and transformed into feeling jaded. As I continued to try to prove myself worthy of happiness, more an more people disappointed me, betrayed me, and took advantage of my generosity. My inner joy faded and my hope with it. I started feeling like all I wanted to do was escape, and that's when my food addiction really kicked in.

Eating delicious food gave me the moments of sweet joy I craved. I could fit in little morsels between miserable meetings, and lunchtime became an joyous escape to sit quietly in the food court to watch other people live (apparently) better lives. Several years passed as I immersed in a food coma to cope with the stress of unsuccessfully chasing happiness, as I tried to continue to manage my life. My health rapidly deteriorated.

Whilst my inner light had faded, there was still a spark and it yearned and craved for me to stop ignoring my inklings, and suppressing them with food. Knowing what you're doing to yourself and pretenting you don't is a useless investment of your life essence. I knew this and began listening to my inner voice. It was so quiet, and seemed to be speaking a language I didn't understand, yet I knew I could if I wanted to.

Coded messages came calling from my heart.
I stopped needing to escape when I agreed to learn to listen to my inner voice. Gradually my food addiction was replaced with a craft addiction as I began honing in on this elusive part of myself. Well, it was probably more an online shopping addiction where I purchase lots of craft supplies. Instead of chasing happiness through work, I began looking for it in creativity. I was on the right track, just not on the right train, yet.
Being able to express ourselves creatively is, I'm sure, a natural human desire. I believe we all have it. Only for most of us it is drummed out of us through school and the social expectations to grow up and get on with building a life.

In my family, creativity was not considered important and certainly not something you did on purpose. There were always more important things to do than to paint or stamp. If you were going to be creative, that was fine but whatever you were creating should also be practical and pragmatic, like knitting or sewing. Needless to say, I spent the next few years struggling to give myself permission to actually admit I enjoyed being creative. Then another few months giving myself permission to actually be creative. These days, it's simply part of my everyday life. Yet still, it did not bring me the sustainable happiness I'd been seeking.

Oh, sure I love it, and love sharing it. But there was still something missing to this formula and I had not been able to figure it out, yet.

Then, on a rainy weekend, when I didn't feel like cleaning, crafting, or watching TV, I unexpectedly found it. The missing ingredient to my happiness formula. I found it at 5.12am on a Sunday morning after listening to, of all things a Christmas Romance Novella audiobook! 

Like all romance stories, the format went something like this: Girl not happy with her life, goes home for Christmas hoping to simply escape the stress and disappointment of her life for a few days. Girl meets guy who annoys her but can't get him out of her head. Girl realises that she is happy and gets offered a chance to stay instead of returning to her miserable job. Girl turns down offer, thinking she has to return to her commitments (which she doesn't really need to do). Girl has unexpected magical moment with boy, and realises all she has to do to be happy is to give herself permission to make the choices that will make her happy. Girl throws out all sense of obligation to her old life, and starts making choices that make her happy (like taking up that new job offer).

Now, throughout enjoying the in-between antics of her holiday romance, I found myself getting frustrated that she couldn't see that happiness was right there. All she was missing, and everything she was asking for in her life was right there in front of her. She couldn't see it because she didn't give herself permission to have it.
At the end of the book, I'm lying in bed thinking about how she had it all along, all she had to do was embrace it and give herself permission to have it.

To give myself permission to have it... echoed in my head.

THAT'S IT!! That's what it is, that's the secret ingredient!

I had not done that, yet. In all these years of chasing, proving, and trying to be who I thought I needed to be so I could have a happy life, all I needed was permission from myself to accept and embrace whatever makes me happy.

It's been right there, the WHOLE TIME! Tears streamed down my face as I realised. I felt both happy and sad at the same time. Happy because for the first time in my life I understood that it's been me holding myself back, which meant that I could change this. I was no longer a victim of circumstances.

Yet sad because I've lost so much time, and opportunity by not realising sooner. I sighed, wiped my tears and laid in silence as I processed this wonderful insight. I laughed at the protagonist of the story, and smiled at myself as I saw that her ignorance was also my own. I turned my head to see my husband, blissfully asleep and completely unaware of my 'moment'. He'd be pleased. He likes it when I'm happy. Something I'm about to be much more often.

I share this with you because I'm in awe of how simple it is. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I didn't know already. I just didn't realise that I hadn't already applied it to myself. I hadn't yet given myself permission to be happy. I mean, I thought I had but what I had given myself was conditional love, and what I need to be giving myself is unconditional love.

That's what permission to be happy is, giving yourself unconditional love. Space where there's room to make mistakes, change your mind, disappoint people, and to simply not know and try anyway. Until this dawning moment, I had not really given myself that at all. In fact, I expected to be happy without being allowed to do any of those things. Hmmm... little wonder then that I've been living with an undercurrent of inhibition and frustration.

It's time to let that go. Out loud, and here with you, I gift myself permission to be happy. I'd love for you to join me, you can do it too. It really is that simple. 

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