inspiring joy filled living

Why I Stopped Chasing Happiness

Photo by Ivan Samkov:

August 28, 2023

When I was sixteen I started counting how many crackers and apple slices I would allow myself to eat per day.  In my teenage mind it made sense.  I wanted to lose weight and look like the gorgeous, happy girls on the covers of Self and Cosmopolitan. They all had big smiles and tiny bodies.  My not yet fully formed frontal cortex thought it was brilliant, lost weight = happiness.  So I counted crackers and fought the feelings of passing out as I would slide out of the metal desks at school, trying not to stand up too quickly or worse yet draw any attention to my highly self-conscious teenage self.

I remember standing on the scale and feelings of victory would wash over me as another pound vanished off my body.  It was euphoric.  I felt strong and fearless. I felt proud.  I smiled back at the girl in the full length mirror, trying my best to ignore the nagging headaches and gnawing dull ache that hunger inevitably brings.  

No matter how much weight fell off, it didn’t feel like enough.  There was still another pinch on the back of my legs or stubborn bit of arm “flap.”  What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and hug that sixteen year old and twenty year old and thirty year old and all the other ages were weight ruled over my happiness.  Where my self worth was measured by the size of my jeans and destroyed by a decadent slice of chocolate cake.  Where gaining five pounds felt like the equivalent to social suicide.  

In college, I treated my undiagnosed anxiety with alcohol and late night binges.  In the ten years that followed I didn’t trust myself to have milk and cereal in the house.  It was my drug of choice, something I could buy unsuspectingly, and melt away into a world that brought comfort to my chaos.  Then the morning would come and waterfalls of guilt and shame would drench me.  It was a cycle that viciously trapped me for several years until an extra 20 lbs hung on my frame.  

One day I decided I was done.  For real.  I had tried before, but never with that kind of conviction.  I threw out the cereal and went to the on-campus gym.  Every day at 4pm, instead of heading home after class,  I got on the elliptical machine.  And started picking up weights.  I even signed up for a step class.  For the first time in my life I gave up the yo yo dieting of Slim Fast drinks and pressure from Cosmo magazines.  Luckily this was before social media and #hotgirlsummer, so it was much easier to control the noise.  Slowly I began to find myself, the more confident version who liked the bit of muscle that was starting to appear.  This new girl wasn’t so angry or judgemental.  And the bit of squish was no longer nearly as offensive.  My number goals began to shift from pounds on my body to how many pounds I could curl.  Or how much time I could do on the treadmill.  Miraculously around the same time, the desire to drink myself into oblivion also diminished and I began to enjoy waking up in the morning without a hangover headache.

Crossing over the bridge to 40 last year has brought a new sense of reflection.  In the last two decades the desire for escape has certainly waxed and waned.  To lose myself completely and leave all my cares and worries behind.  To have control when I felt like I had none.  

I wish I could tell you it was a straight line.  A recovery long left in the rearview.  But here is what I can say.  In the last twenty years I have found more grace and compassion.  When pounds have made their way back onto my frame, I don’t berate and throw guilt instead I go to Costco and buy salads.  I take a walk.  Sometimes we need to eat really good food, pasta drenched in a delicious cream sauce with a glass of Pinot Grigio.  Life is too short not to enjoy it.  But I have also learned that moderation is the key to balance, one slice of cheesecake vs. the whole cake.  

One of the best pieces (pun intended!) of advice I have been given is that you cannot fix an internal problem with an external solution.  In other words, you can’t fix your emotions with pie.  As much as I would like to believe it, tacos and margaritas won’t fix hurt feelings or disappointments.  We can only find the peace and comfort we are searching for when we seek emotional balm and soul solutions.  For me, it has been so important to speak my feelings.  When I let them out, their power seems to release.  The cyclone of hurt can find an outlet.  I’m no longer at their mercy, playing and replaying the words over and over again.  

Happiness can wear a thin veil.  It can make us believe that if I do/buy/drink/eat/wear/sacrifice/give in/compromise this, then I will be happy.  That cause brings effect.  Just as my teenage mind believed:

lose weight = happy

The truth is happiness can be manipulated and twisted.  We can be sold a bill of goods, brilliant minds in the advertising world remind us of this all the time, that we too can be happy just like the smiling faces we see in the ads.  

But let me offer another idea.  Instead of chasing happiness, we need to choose happiness.  The difference is in deciding what actually makes us happy.  Jesus said it’s really simple, love me and love others.  Yet it is so dang easy to get distracted.  To fall into the trap of what everyone else is doing.  Social media highlights the dream home makeovers, the island vacations complete with all the kids smiling at the camera, and scoring tickets to Taylor Swift.  To remind us of all the places we aren’t going and things we don’t have.  

None of these things are bad.  Beautifying a home can be very rewarding and I love going on vacation.  Seeing Taylor Swift perform live would make me super happy, but I believe the danger comes when our happiness only rests on those things that are outside of us.  On the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and the bags we carry.    

So it begs the questions, what makes you happy? Truly, in your bones happy.  Let’s strip away and pair it down.  I think many of us would say undistracted, fully engaged time with our family and friends when we feel seen and heard, brings the best kind of happiness.  After watching my Dad walk through six years of cancer, I would add good health to my list.  My list continues with knowing that…

God is in charge and I am not

The beauty of nature and the joy found in helping others.  For me personally, one of the greatest highs of my life has been performing live. Channeling my inner Whitney while letting my voice unfold and belting out those delicious high notes.  A good night kiss from my hubby and bear hugs from my kids.  Beautiful roses and the whisper of a sweet smelling candle. A phone call with a good friend and listening to my kids playing together in the backyard. Dipping my toes in a chilled pool on a hot day and watching tiny drops of rain dance on my garden. The first sip of hot coffee on a wintry morning and laughing with my brother over childhood antics. Texting with my mom because you never know what new emoji she has discovered and watching my girls play softball with their friends.

A night of laughing and dinner with good girl friends and singing loudly at church. Holding my best friend and husband’s hand of 16 years and talking about where we have been and our dreams for the future. Having the pleasure of teaching music to sweet kiddos (this year I’ll be teaching in the classroom TK-8th grade!) and seeing their eyes light up when a new song clicks. The beautiful language of storytelling. Perhaps the best part of writing this blog has been the connection and the incredible responses.  I love when my story intersects with someone else’s and getting a glimpse of seeing life through their eyes.

I have found myself down the rabbit hole.  Chasing happiness like Alice and the White Rabbit, feverishly and without regard for consequence, fixated on everything outside of myself.   Yet the harsh truth is that comparison is the thief of joy that robs us of the happiness we could be experiencing if only we took off our blinders long enough.  Oftentimes we don’t see the reality behind an instant captured in time.  The entire bag of marshmallows that were used to bribe the children into taking the perfect family Christmas card photo, the credit card bills piling up, the job insecurity, many sleepless nights waiting to hear about a diagnosis, the depression that has slowly taken up residence, the list goes on.   

I wish I could say I was “cured.” That I have it all figured out and under control, yet my humanness continues to remind me that I am fallible.  The allure of shiny objects on Instagram still grab my attention and the new BOGG bag is adorable.

Yet the shift began to occur within me when happiness became a scavenger hunt.  When the dial on my awareness was set to max speed.  To recognize as often as possible the millions of ways joy is woven into my days.  As someone that spent too many years giving comparison a seat at the table, I am making a more conscious effort to not hinge my happiness on the external.  To be as present as I possibly can with the sweet people in front of me and celebrate their wins as if they are my own.  Gentleness and understanding flourish alongside joy and happiness.  The more we seek, the more we find, and the more we can give.  I am not so naive to believe I have the strength to do this myself.  The more my eyes focus on Jesus, the more possible it becomes.

Choosing to seek happiness is a gift for ourselves and for others.  We love to be around people that are filled with joy, it is contagious and life-giving, and oftentimes the joy has very little to do with circumstances.  Of course this doesn’t mean fake it.  It doesn’t mean that we are robots without real feelings.  Pretending to be happy is not happy.  Real happiness allows us to flesh out and recognize the actual pain and heartbreaks.  Sifting out our very real problems gives us the ability to see their severity.  It creates space and an invitation to allow our loved ones into the center of our hurts, a catalyst for living beautifully and authentically.

I love the message of carpe diem, seize the day, and yet I recently learned the rest of the quote.  

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero

The translation is “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one”

What a beautiful reminder to seize or “pluck” the day because we don’t know what the future may hold.  With both hands, being as present as possible we have the opportunity to experience as much joy as we can every single day. Choosing happiness, rather than chasing it.