“How do you do it? How do you just let things go? How do you get to be happy?” Sadly, the person asking me these questions rejected every one of my suggestions. I got a litany of can’t, and tried but it didn’t work, and I don’t know.
So here’s the big news: I have my shit days too. And like the Friends theme tune says, sometimes they turn into weeks, months, even years. Not years plural, actually – but some individual years have been ones to forget.
That said, I’m sure that even those years, the worst individual years, had days, weeks, maybe even a month or two that were pretty good. At the very least they will have had perfect hours.
Don’t rush off – I’m not going to talk about those bad times. I don’t need to. I already have. They’re done. I’m more interested today in answering those questions again, just in case somebody reads this who isn’t so fixated on can’t, failed, & not knowing. Just in case, given that this is going out on the 1st January, someone reads it who thinks can and maybe next time it will work and I might not know yet but I’ll keep trying to figure it out.
First thing: understand that ‘simple’ isn’t the same as ‘easy’. Whenever I say, “it’s really simple”, I don’t mean, “It’s really easy.” What I mean is that the concepts are simple. Anyone can understand the ‘how’. Applying it is the tricky bit. I’m not going to under-play that because if you want to be happy – if you really want to be alright when it is not all right – then (sorry guys) you are going to have to work at it.
We seem to be hard-wired to take the path of least resistance, and that path is always to ‘give in’, to withdraw from the arena, to accept the can’t, to assume the failure is permanent and unalterable.
Or to wait until the arena changes its shape, until our external circumstances have been altered by someone or something else…to wait for the magic wand to make all the bad stuff go away.
That is a choice we are allowed to make…it’s just that it is one that makes for a miserable life, if we apply it to being happy, if we apply it to letting go of the stuff that no longer serves us, if we apply it to our relationships, our home, our careers, our lives.
The point about the fairy tale wasn’t that she found the prince, the point was that the golden carriage turned back into a pumpkin. Magic spells have limited life-spans. If we want the happy-ever-after we have to do the work. You’ll notice that the fairy tales never tell you about the ‘ever after’, about what it took to do the ‘living happily’ bit.
Second thing: understand that you do know what you want. Be brave enough to claim that much: the wanting of it. It might take a while before you get to claim the “thing” – whether that is an actual thing, or a way of being, or a place. The first step is to own the ambition. Acknowledge it. Speak it. Don’t worry if some people laugh at you or tell you why you will never get there. Just smile and say: but still, it is what I want.
And then ground that in your values.
Ambition aligned to values equals purpose.
Having a purpose gives us direction. It gives us the yardstick by which we can measure our decisions. The simple rules is: does this serve my purpose?
If that sounds selfish, then maybe in one sense it is, but only to the extent that your purpose is truly and wholly selfish. Values-based living doesn’t really allow for wholly selfish ‘purpose’. I’m not saying that’s a rule. I’m saying that’s the nature of the thing.
Most human beings want to help. We want to be of service on some level. That might be service to other people, or to animals, or to the planet. We might have different views on what ‘helping’ looks like. But most of us acquire values like ‘sharing’ ‘loving’ ‘helping’ at a very early age. We might not express them very well; we may even be “educated” out of them, but as a social species they are pretty much innate. So if you feel that you are being ‘selfish’ in your quest for happiness – dig into that – dig in to what it is about what you want, that you truly want. You might find a deeper reason, a deeper meaning.
Or you might not. Yet. Don’t worry if not because…
…it seems that happier people tend to be kinder. And kinder people tend to be happier.
I don’t know if the cause & effect relationship has been fully established. Personally, I think it’s a virtuous circle. The happier, the kinder, the kinder, the happier – and on round again. What’s not to love?
Third thing: accept that you might misunderstand yourself. When you claim the wanting, be prepared for the possibility that you might have dressed it in the wrong clothes. Allow room for the wanting to shift, or at least wear different-coloured shifts.
When I first decided I wanted to follow my urge to write, I thought I wanted to write short stories, and I thought I wanted to be a travel writer. It took a while to realise that really I just want to share my view of the world. It took even longer to realise that I also wanted to be a poet. Claim your longing as a child that needs to grow and find its own way in the world.
Fourth: let your child stumble and fall, and not be put off by learning to walk, and then run, and then jump for joy, and fall again, but keep on getting up.
Fifth: decide to let go what does not serve you and/or your purpose. Simply make the decision to do it. That is a major step.
Decide that your past is not going to determine your future. Determine that you will not keep bringing past hurts, obligations, arguments, difficulties, into the present moment. The present moment is where you get to be happy. The present moment is where you do the work that brings you more happiness.
Decide to live in the present and work for the future, leave the past behind.
Make the decision. Commit to it. Find a way to remind yourself of your commitment often, because you will forget. We all do. We all have to be reminded.
Write it down somewhere you will see it often, or attach the idea to a picture and put the picture on your desk or on your wall – only you need know what it signifies.
Sixth: implement that decision. We have to be ruthless about this, because it can be emotionally difficult, and things that are emotionally tricky, we will shy away from. Path of least resistance remember.
Some of the ‘things’ you may need to let go, will not be things at all. They may be careers that you are heavily invested in. They may be dreams that you hadn’t realised you’ve outgrown. They may be people.
However, being ruthless in letting go what we no longer need, does not mean we have to do it in an instant. It simply means that we commit to doing it: slowly, progressively, consistently, eventually.
Start with easy things. Start with actual stuff – physical objects that you realise you don’t want, don’t use, don’t love. Sell them. Give them away. Throw them away. Whatever feels most appropriate. Do it consciously. This isn’t a “just get rid” exercise. This isn’t decluttering. This is a thoughtful exercise. Think about how this stuff came into your life, and why you now want to let it go.
Since Clive died, I have been slowly selling off his treasured books. I will never read them – they are of no interest to me – and books are meant to be read. I am selling because they are too valuable to simply give away. I am selling because he would want me to recoup some of what was spent acquiring them.
This last year I started doing the same with his model railway kits, locos, wagons. I will never recover a fraction of what he spent on these things just as he never got around to actually building the lay-out, but it matters that I get something from them just as it matters that I am putting the models back into circulation. I like to think of those locos running on thoughtfully built model layouts. I like to think of someone else researching the LMS and maybe even building the layout Clive didn’t. I like to think that the models will continue to be respected. They are not throw-away toys to be sold off at 50p a time.
So yes, by all means be thoughtful in ‘how’ you do your letting go – and let it take as long as it needs to take, so long as you remain consistent in the intention.
From things move on to whatever else is getting in the way.
I have been surprised by some of what that is turning out to be.
I’ve cancelled a major holiday that I was really excited about when I booked it pre-Covid…but it’s just been hanging around too long. And I have concerns that didn’t exist pre 2020. The enthusiasm has gone for that one. It finally felt better to just accept the loss of a deposit, and regain the headspace for other adventures.
I’ve decided to let go of long-held traditions as another way of drawing a line under the past. The Christmas period was a good time to reinforce this because so many of our family traditions get tied
up in the way we ‘do Christmas’.
One lesson I learned along the way, was that it can be useful to distinguish between a tradition and a ritual. A tradition is something done purely & simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. A ritual is something done with intention and meaning. The line between the two might be blurred, so it is worth questioning which it is. I recognised that things I’d thought of as rituals had merely become habit. I learned that there are other ways I can honour the intent AND do things differently.
So I did. Simple things like when I put the tree up, and when I will take it down. It included, how I spent key dates during the holiday season, which involved everything from sleeping, being with people, being alone, to what and when I ate. Even what I watched / didn’t watch on TV. Music – I threw away recordings that I’d played every year for 30 years.
These might seem like silly things, but they create a critical space in the brain, and they build critical new neuropathways likewise. They reinforce that we can change. If we can change little things, we can change big things.
Most importantly, they involve practicing the art of asking: Why am I doing this? Does this serve my life-purpose?
We need that practice, because not very far into this journey we will find ourselves questioning who we choose to spend our time with and why. And at this stage of my life, I want to spend my time with people who radiate positivity.
I don’t mean unbounded, idiotic, unrealistic glee – actually after watching Adam Hills last night, I do mean that – sometimes it’s actually the best response – but mostly I just mean the kind of positivity that acknowledges that individual set-backs only amount to decades of miserableness, if we choose to enable them to do so – I mean the kind of positivity that refuses to do that.
I want happy people around me. People who say I can, I will, I am. People who smile and say, even so, this is what I want and I am going to do everything I can to move towards it. People who say I might not know YET, but I’m working on figuring it out.
And I definitely also want to be one of those people.
Have a very HAPPY 2023 – whatever life throws at you, commit to being happy anyway.