We live in a time where everything is possible. Power, fame and abundance aren’t limited anymore to the “chosen ones” but can be achieved virtually by everyone. In a way this is great. We have more or less equal opportunities and for most people in the Western world the sky’s the limit. Unfortunately, this limitless opportunities don’t seem to make people any happier, but rather anxious and stressed out. So, where does it go wrong?
Many of us have equaled our outer achievements with our inner worth. As if our achievements reflect back who we are on the inside. If you live in a society where it’s easy to get a bachelor’s degree and you don’t have one, doesn’t that mean you’re stupid? And if you live in a society where you can date every man and woman freely and you’re single, doesn’t that mean you’re unlovable?
It takes an extremely high level of consciousness to not fall for this line of thought, it’s simply ingrained in all of us. It’s the reason I went to university and dedicated four years of my life to a study I would never work in. During my masters degree I started to realize that this is not what I wanted. I still didn’t know what it was that I wanted, but for sure my student job as a waitress was suiting me better. I felt a lot happier being a waitress, interacting with people, moving around, not having to deal with deadlines, doing work of which you never know what the impact is going to be, working full-time and being tied to a contract. When I made the decision to not pursue any job in academia more than five years ago, I often caught myself explaining to people why I was a waitress. Even though I was doing what was making me happier, I felt the need to tell people I was “more than just a waitress”. At times, I did indeed feel inferior and I started doubting my choice, even though every cell in my body knew that it was not going to make me happier to participate in the rat race of society. Under slightly different circumstances, I might have chosen to get a job I thought I desired, completely ignoring what really makes me happy which is not social acceptance, but freedom.
Making this decision is not easy, which I think is the reason so many people are unhappy with their “perfect” lives. Whether we like it or not, as human beings we are hardwired to be socially accepted. And our modern society doesn’t make it easy for us to not equal our status and outer achievements with our inner worth. We see all the great things other people achieve and we feel we have to keep up with them. Social media like Facebook and Instagram only make it easier to follow (the positive aspects of) the lives of others and the pressure to achieve only grows. Just like The Very Hungry Caterpillar we hope if we just “ingest” enough achievements, we will one day turn into a beautiful butterfly. But life is not a children’s book, so we wait for this moment in vain. Instead of raising our happiness-level, we only raise our anxiety-level.
It’s a tragedy, because we are capable of having “perfect” lives, but in the end we’re only chasing ghosts. Not because a “perfect” life is not possible, but because we’re looking for happiness in the wrong things. I’m pretty sure all I’ve written so far is not new to you. Intuitively, we all know that this is not the way of achieving true happiness. So, how come so many people continue fooling themselves and pursue happiness in this way?
Because the other way is just far too scary. In order to be happy we have to connect with ourselves and start cultivating our self love again. And that’s not easy. It’s like Indiana Jones hunting for a treasure: you’ve got to overcome many obstacles and therefore have to confront your fears.
Obtaining outer achievements seems to be easier than establishing a true connection with yourself. It’s less daunting to confront our discipline and diligence rather than our uncontrollable emotions and the unknown depths of our soul. For good reasons. Ever since we are small, we are taught that good achievements in school and sports club make us “good” and having strong negative emotions make us “bad”. Furthermore, we also learn that sticking to social norms is “safe” and deviant behaviour could be the cause of our demise. It makes perfectly sense that we’re all ignoring the fact that happiness can be found in embracing exactly this part of ourselves we were (unconsciously) taught to deny.
Fortunately, there’s more and more awareness around this topic and people seem to realize we need to look at happiness from a different angle. Instead of searching for happiness in our conditional achievements, unconditional happiness should be our greatest achievement. True happiness does not depend on other people’s expectations or appreciation, it lies in the acceptance of ourselves for who we are, not what we do. Again, we need to turn around our traditional line of thought: We first need to accept ourselves, before others can accept and appreciate us. But therefore we need to get to know ourselves which we do by connecting with ourselves.
So, how do we find this connection with ourselves? There are so many ways of connecting to yourself which I am not going to discuss in detail. But I want to help you with one simple practice you can do on a daily basis and which will help you tremendously. Start with mindfulness. Start with stopping, breathing and looking inside. This small action is what freaks out many of us. We are afraid of what we are going to encounter when we have a deep look inside. We fear to reveal things about ourselves we would rather not want to know. We’re afraid we can’t handle our unresolved trauma’s or that we’re not going to like whatever is deep down inside of us. We fear that we can’t handle our ugly character traits, our bad behaviours and our nasty thoughts. Some of us even fear our dreams. We fear that our inner beings want something that seems beyond our limits…
Do these thoughts sound familiar to you? Wells then I’ve got good and bad news for you. Let me start with the bad news: you can’t skip this step! You’ll have to dare stepping into the dark and unknown sides of your soul. But here comes the good news: What you are going to encounter is not nearly as bad as you imagine it to be. To the contrary. This is the part that’s waiting for you to connect with it again and it will feel like coming home.
Once you’ve come in touch again with this part, it’s time to listen to what it has to say. Listen to what you are really craving for instead of the things society has whispered into your ear. Don’t expect to get all answers in one day, this process will involve a lot of trial and error. Experience this trial and error mindfully as well. Stay connected with yourself no matter whether you are making a step forward or two steps backwards.
Over time you will notice that it’s going to be easier to observe what’s happening inside of yourself. Your inner observer will prevent you more and more often from making knee-jerk reactions which are based on your low self-esteem and are only geared towards getting approval and attention from others rather than doing what your inner being is really longing for.
As I mentioned, not only encountering our negative traits can be scary, but our true ambitions can be equally scary (or even scarier). First of all, you might want something that won’t bring you the social status you had been hoping for. Secondly, you might be longing for something that’s not giving you the financial security you had been hoping for. Isn’t it just scary if your inner being tells you you want to be an artist?! And thirdly, you might freak out if your inner being wants you to be bigger than you allow yourself to be (growing over the social norms can be potentially dangerous, too). I couldn’t say it more beautifully than Nelson Mandela:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are weak. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
Diving into our deepest fears is necessary if we don’t want to continue following the recipes to happiness according to society but would rather want to follow our own unique path to happiness. Once we’ve cultivated the connection to ourselves and have trained our mindful inner observer, we soon notice the shifts in our lives. This doesn’t mean we’ll instantly have money, a great job and our dream partner. It means we won’t have all of this to start with and still we’ll experience profound happiness because we start to experience happiness from within. Happiness from within does not depend on outer situations but from the feeling of contentment about the simple things in life and life just as it is. Most of all, happiness starts with being content with who we are, just the way we are, regardless of our achievements.
Consider this process (let’s call it life) as a journey. When you’re travelling you’re also not waiting for the moment you’re in the airplane back home again, aren’t you? Even though you know you’re going to have moments of being in trouble, feeling lonely and maybe feeling misunderstood, you’re still looking forward to your journey, because you know that all the small struggles on the way are going to be worth it. Not only are the beautiful experiences going to outweigh the bad ones, the bad ones will also help you enjoying and valuing the good ones more. Every traveler knows this is the way it works and the travel of life is no exception to it.
The travel of life is going to be a long journey, that’s for sure and it will take a lot of practice to keep calm when the pressure of society is almost suffocating you, but take this feeling of pressure as a reminder to take a deep breath and realize that you are exactly where you are supposed to be and that there is nothing you need to achieve, other than inner peace and a moment of stillness.