(Shift | Sara Fabian) One day, I was complaining about not having enough days off to escape work and treat myself to a vacation. I was feeling stressed and tired. I can recall my stepfather looking into my eyes with a deep sense of peace and compassion.
“I hear you,” he said. “I know you work hard. Sometimes, I imagine myself jumping out of bed and going for a walk, whenever I want to.”
His words came like thunder. It was a wake-up call to remind me how blessed I was and how much I was taking it for granted, as if nothing was ever enough. And there he was, my stepfather, trapped in a wheelchair by a severe form of multiple sclerosis, dreaming of a nice walk in nature. That day, he was my teacher.
For too many years, I spent a lot of my precious time complaining. I thought I never had enough time, money, or love.
Many of us get stuck in the habit of projecting our happiness into an imaginary future instead of living in the only reality that is, the present moment. We often think thoughts like:
The day I get married, I will be happy.
The day I can afford a bigger house, I will be happy.
The day I make x amount of money, I will be happy.
Looking back on my life, I came to realize that I didn’t know how to be happy. I continuously kept myself busy, always running somewhere so I could achieve more or better. Turning my happiness into a project and waiting for “the big things” to happen so I could finally feel joyful and satisfied.
“When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a rat racer. Here’s what I mean by that:
In his book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar (a Harvard professor, leading researcher, and author) defines four different happiness archetypes:
Nihilists have lost their joy in life, both present and future. They find no pleasure in their work or private life and expect no future benefits or rewards. They’ve given up and resigned to their fate.
Hedonists live for the moment and give little or no thought to future consequences and plans. Because they feel unchallenged by future goals or a purpose, they are often unfulfilled.
The rat race archetype often sacrifices current pleasures and benefits in anticipation of some future rewards. This is likely the most familiar archetype to many of us (continuously setting new goals, never pleased, always busy).
It doesn’t mean that setting clear goals for the future is a bad practice. We all need a purpose and a clear vision. If we don’t even know what we want, how could we ever get that? The problem occurs when we attach our happiness to future outcomes without being able to see and appreciate what’s already good in our lives.
Rat racing is all about hunting for happiness, chasing an illusion, and never feeling content. The more we achieve, the more we want: another house, another car, another job, or more money.
True happiness comes from keeping a healthy balance between the present and the future. It’s when we are capable of enjoying both the journey and the destination, focusing on today’s gifts, as well as our dreams, goals, and desires.
“Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”
The day I shifted my perception from stressed to blessed, everything changed. Here’s what I have learned and what worked well for me:
1. Happiness is a verb.
Research has shown that happiness is 50 percent connected to our genes, only 10 percent attributed to life circumstances, and 40 perfect correlated with our thoughts and behaviors. That’s why happiness is not a noun; it’s a verb. For those of us who are mentally healthy, it’s an attitude, a continuous inside job.
Many people are afraid to be happy, since they could lose it one day, and they let their worries ruin their joy.
I cultivate optimism and trust the flow of life. I shift my focus from what could go wrong to what could go right. Whatever I fear, it hasn’t happened yet. I embrace my future with the genuine curiosity of a child, and I choose to believe that something wonderful is waiting around the corner—that we live in a supportive Universe where everything unfolds perfectly, and things happen for my highest good.
If I see life with negativity, fearing that bad things could happen to me, my actions will likely attract the very things I’m trying to avoid. I’ve stopped letting my mind play with me and stress me with unnecessary fears, worries, and concerns about things that haven’t happen yet.
I nourish my mind with healthy thoughts, like this one:
“Life loves me. All is well in my world, and I am safe.”
2. I sweeten my life, every day.
I have seen that many beautiful moments and small pleasures come at a low cost or even for free.
If I don’t have time for my hobbies, I make it. I read a good book or watch a fun movie that brings me the joy and laughter.
I gather with non-judgmental people who love me just the way I am. The mere act of having a good conversation over a cup of coffee charges me with a high dose of positive energy.
I go for nice walks in the park and connect with nature.
I play with my dog.
I sometimes light a candle or some nice smelling incense. (Jasmine is my favorite.) It stimulates my creativity and makes me feel good.
I’ve stopped waiting for the VIP moments of the year (like my birthday) to embellish my house with fresh flowers.
I have created the habit of drinking water from a wine glass with a slice of lemon in it.
I enjoy my morning coffee from a beautiful cup with a red heart on it, to remind myself that love is all around.
I use the beautiful bed sheets and the nice towels instead of saving them for the guests, just because I’m worth it.
“Yesterday is history; tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift; that’s why we call it present.”
3. I grow dreams, not regrets.
The need for stability and security (including on a financial level) is a basic human need. No wonder we start rat racing if we don’t have enough money! But what is “enough”? Isn’t that a subjective qualifier, based on our individual needs and expectations?
I have met many wealthy people who were unhappy because their ego always wanted to get more or better. It’s like when we think, “Okay, I’ve got this house now, but when I can move my family into a bigger one, I will finally be happy.”
Another reason we project happiness into the future pertains to limiting (often culturally inherited) beliefs around money that keep us stuck in a survival mode.
Take my example: Years ago, I used to work in China. I lived in a beautiful compound in downtown Shanghai, all paid for by my company, and I was single, with no loans, debt, or financial commitments. It all looked wonderful, but deep inside, I was so unhappy!
I knew I always wanted to travel the world and meet people from different cultures. I had enough money to afford that, and still, I was so afraid of spending! Even today I am thankful to the good friend who insisted on me following her on a trip, because that’s how I finally managed to break that wall.
You see, I was raised in an Eastern-European middle-class family. As a child, I often saw my parents saving money for the “black days” of their pension years (the time when one would not earn a salary and could potentially “start starving.”) As a result, I followed the same behavior once I started to make my own money.
So here’s what I’ve learned: I won’t spend my precious younger years saving everything for my retirement. Saving money is a form of self-care, and something I currently do. However, I know I won’t die with my savings account, and I won’t look back on my life with regrets once I’m older. I invest in myself and in my learning, and I spend part of my money on experiences, making sure I gather more precious memories than material things.
“You will never regret what you do in life. You will only regret what you don’t do.”
4. I do what I love and love what I do.
We spend the majority of our lives at work. So if we’re not happy with our jobs, we’re not happy with most of life—another reason some of us start rat racing and hoping for something different.
Too many people live their precious lives in survival mode, like robots. Frustrated or drained on Monday mornings and looking forward to the weekends so that they can feel alive. When we’re happy with our work, there’s nothing wrong with Monday mornings.
If you find yourself stuck in a job you don’t like, know that you always have a choice to step outside your comfort zone and work toward something new. It may not be easy to change careers, especially if you have limited education and people depending on you. But it’s possible to do something you believe in, something that brings you genuine joy and fulfillment.
The key is to work toward that something new while also cultivating joy in your daily life so you don’t fall into the trap of waiting for the future to be happy; and also, to remind yourself that no matter what happens, even if your circumstances are never ideal, you can still be happy.
“The most important two days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”
5. I stay away from perfection.
To me, being a rat racer felt exhausting. I didn’t know how to have fun and relax. I was too busy trying to be perfect and do everything perfectly. It was tiring, and it made me feel like I was never good enough or worthy of the best things life had to offer.
Even when I transitioned into the job of my dreams, I was still unhappy. I kept thinking:
“The day I get to make that much money a month, I will be happy.”
“The day I know everything about this job, I will be happy.”
You see, even people who love what they do can be rat racers, if they are struggling with the need for perfection.
Today, I aim for progress instead of perfection, and I enjoy each step of my professional journey, celebrating every new lesson and every kind of achievement, no matter how big or small.
“If you look for perfection, you’ll never feel content.”
6. I mind my own journey.
Another thing that keeps us trapped in rat racing is the behavior of comparing ourselves to others—the money we’re making, the status at work, the house we live in, and so on.
I now know everyone is on their own journey, and each time I dedicate moments of my life comparing, I find myself in someone else’s territory, not mine. It’s like trying to live in their story and life experience instead of my own.
I’ve come to understand that when I shift my focus and attention from other people to myself, I suddenly have more time and energy to create good things in my own life. So many people complain about not having enough time for themselves. If you want more time for yourself, mind your own business and see what happens.
“Comparing yourself to others is an act of violence against your authentic self.”
7. I am grateful.
In the past, I rarely said thank you or counted my blessings. Today, I practice gratitude as a morning ritual. I focus on what I have, rather than on what’s missing.
I make sure I start every day being thankful for my health; for having a loving family, a wonderful life partner, and a great job I love; for the creativity flow that helps me write such posts and the opportunity to share my insights and experiences with the world; and for the air I breathe and the sun that caresses my face.
“If the only prayer you ever say is Thank you, that will be enough.”
I might not always get what I want, but I know I always get what I need. I see every day as a fresh start, a new opportunity for me to taste more of this juicy experience called living. Life is a precious gift and I intend to spend as much of it happy as possible.
And now, I would like to hear from you. What is your happiness archetype? What makes you truly happy?
About the Author
Sara Fabian is a women’s empowerment coach and inspirational speaker, on a mission to help professional women to discover their unique strengths, gifts and talents, boost their confidence, find their calling and live a meaningful life of purpose. For weekly inspiration, subscribe to her free newsletter at sarafabiancoaching.com or follow her on Facebook.