Have you ever had a conversation that changed your life?
You’re not looking for anything profound or meaningful at the time, and then, out of nowhere, someone drops some words of wisdom that change your perspective forever.
I admit, it’s not an everyday occurrence, but when it does happen? That’s a moment to be treasured and remembered.
One of those moments happened when I was 18 or 19 years old. I was in college at the time, and it felt like things just weren’t clicking. I mean, I was doing fine in my classes, but I was overworked and stressed. In my non-school time, I had a part-time job I hated. To make matters worse, my boss wasn’t giving any of the staff many hours, so I never seemed to have enough money.
I was talking to my dad about everything, and I had just finished explaining the work situation by saying “If I could only get a new job, then I’d be happy.”
He had been listening before, but when I said those words he whipped his head around to stare me right in the eyes. There was an intensity in his face that surprised me, and he said, “Don’t ever say that.”
I was stumped. “Say what?”
” ‘Then I’ll be happy.‘ Don’t EVER say that.”
I still didn’t get it. “Why? What’s wrong with saying that?”
He settled in. “Throughout your whole life, you’re going to hear people say that. Over and over again. ‘When this or that happens, then I’ll be happy.’ It can be anything they want or think they want, but it’s always the same. ‘When I get a new job, then I’ll be happy. When I get that promotion, then I’ll be happy. When I get a new car, then I’ll be happy. When I get a new boyfriend or girlfriend, then I’ll be happy. When I get married, then I’ll be happy. When I have a child, then I’ll be happy.’ And if you keep saying that, you never will be.”
A light bulb clicked on in my head, but I needed more. “Why do you say that?”
“New things and new people can give you a temporary lift up, but if you’re unhappy with yourself and your life before you get them, you’ll fall right back down again afterward. If you’re unhappy with yourself and then get a boyfriend, you’re not going to be happy. You’re just going to be unhappy with another person. You can’t put the burden of ‘making you happy’ onto someone else. It’s not their responsibility. You have to find a way to be happy with what you have and who you are at the moment, and then everything else is a bonus that adds to it.”
His words had the ring of truth to them, but I still had a major question. “But what about when you’re in a bad situation, like the awful job I have? How can I be happy with that?”
“‘Happy’ doesn’t mean ‘always having fun.’ That’s what you see on TV or in the movies, but it’s often more about contentment, about being okay with what you have and who you are. Don’t get me wrong, ‘contentment’ isn’t easy. No matter your circumstances, there will always be bad elements in your life, so you have to work to find the good parts and appreciate them.”
“I get that, but what if I don’t have enough money to do everything I want to do?”
“You never will.”
“I don’t mean you’ll never make any money. I also don’t mean it’s wrong to want a job that will cover your bills. I mean, even if you get a better job that covers your bills, there will always be something that’s beyond your reach. You might get an apartment with a roommate, but then you’ll wish you had an apartment by yourself. After you get that, you might want a house instead of an apartment. Then if you get the house, you might see a nicer house in the next neighborhood over. Or maybe you want to be able to take a vacation, then if you do, you might wish you could take a more expensive vacation like your co-worker did. No matter how nice your stuff is, you’ll always see something that’s nicer, so you never actually reach your goal. You never reach happiness. You have to be happy with what you have now. Then, if you end up getting the nicer things, it’s a bonus – but you didn’t need them to be happy.”
“And what if I’m unhappy with myself?”
“That takes work, too. But it’s worth it. Take note of your good points and your accomplishments, no matter how small. Appreciate them. Develop them. Make yourself someone you can be proud to be.”
I’m not going to tell you how many years have passed since that conversation, but my dad’s words have been proven true time and time again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those 4 words:
“…then I’ll be happy.”
Make no mistake, they are toxic. Shift the perspective a little, and you can see how harmful they are…
“Once I get [X], then I’ll be happy” = “I need [X] to be happy” = “If I never get [X], I’ll never be happy.”
That’s a dangerous game to play.
Also, those four words make happiness a future possibility, not something you can attain in the here and now.
When something is always in the future, you will never reach it. It will always stay there, just out of reach.
So bring happiness into the present. Into the now.
I have seen people with more money than I could spend in a dozen lifetimes, and all they ever talked about was how nice it would be if they had more. And I have also seen people who endured unimaginable pain who still could find reasons to smile and find happiness in their lives.
Happiness is not something that is handed to us or bought.
It is worked for.
It is a struggle.
It can be elusive and skittish, and when our circumstances change tragically, it may feel like it will never return.
But that is never true.
It is still there.
And you can find it.
One final note: please understand that these thoughts are not directed towards people dealing with more extreme circumstances. For example, I would not look at someone trying to find a way out of an abusive and/or violent domestic relationship and say “You should just accept your life and find a way to be happy with what you have.” That would be ridiculous. These are some thoughts offered to those of us who are fortunate enough to only be dealing with the “normal” nastiness and pain in life.