When I was a child, like many, life seemed simple. I didn’t think about if I was happy or not, I just lived in the present moment. But if anyone had asked me about ‘when I grow up’, I would have absolutely assumed happiness would be mine.
At five, I had my future planned out: marriage, children, dogs, and then some more children. Easy peasy. Oh and of course, marriage to my Disney Knight in Shining Armour, in later years to become my Hollywood Hunk with associated Halo.
But then I hit thirty, and reality hit. Maybe it wasn’t that simple for everyone. Maybe George Clooney really wasn’t going to marry me. And if I really was going to be single, how on earth could I be happy? Happiness was clearly dependent upon certain things: a loving partner, healthy children, family, friends and scrumptious food (sorry the last one just slipped in!). Now, whilst I can’t deny that family and friends are integral to the joy and love in my life, and that a partner and children would very likely bring those things too, a few years back I decided to look long and hard at my situation, and ask myself the question: is happiness really dependent upon certain things? And if so, what?
Then came my first awareness of ‘the Happiness Contract’ as Robert Holden, founder of the Happiness Project, calls it. When I am married I will be happy. When I have the perfect job I will be happy. When I have children I will be happy. Lose weight; get fit; the dream house. The list is endless. Yet when we get these things, we tend to quickly move on to the next deal breaker, and live in a never-ending cycle of ifs and whens, rarely to feel truly fulfilled now. I soon came to believe that this self-imposed contract, encouraged perhaps by family, friends, the media, culture and society was not a good idea. I needed to break the contract – and quick. This seemed possible to me, to throw away that belief system that happiness was down to ‘when I get this’ and ‘when I do that’; but to truly feel happy as a single person – absolutely not. It was a lot to expect of myself to let go of thirty years or so of ingrained contractual arrangements with my head and heart. Yet, I thought it worth a try.
Psychologist, Professor Dan Gilbert, says we have to beware of trusting our imagination, when it comes to happiness – it is all too often wrong. Having children makes you happy. Wrong, not statistically so. Getting divorced makes you unhappy. Apparently not. And money – well it makes you happy until a certain point, but then the law of diminishing returns kicks in. All to be discussed at a later date. But the point is, I didn’t want to feel that my happiness was reliant on certain variables, many of which were beyond my control.
Skip to now, today, as I write. I think I have truly shifted my belief system. To be happy is simply not dependent on certain things – although I can’t deny that good health, friends and family without doubt help. Yet for me I think now that happiness is something that comes from within. It is a choice I make. It is an awareness that happiness is here, present, within grasp, however good or bad my day, whatever ups surprise, or downs beset, me.
In the words of Robert Holden:
“During my 8-week happiness program, I ask my students this question: Could you be even happier even if nothing in the world around you changed? What is your answer: yes or no? In the most recent class, the score was 100 percent for “yes.” How could this be? Well, common answers include, “I could choose to accept myself more” and “I could choose to see things differently” and “I could choose to enjoy my life more” and “I could start making smarter choices.” The one thing in common all these answers have is choice. Your happiness rises when you stop chasing happiness and start choosing happiness.”
So do I still think a loving marriage would make me happy? Of course I do! Do I regularly lapse into my Hollywood reveries? Regularly (although now George is taken, my focus has had to shift). But is my happiness dependent upon this? No. Not at all. I am single and truly happy and I genuinely never, ever thought that could be. But just so you know – I’m still looking, so do keep an eye out for me!