We have a philosophy, here, in the United States that paints a picture of what success is supposed to look like.
Actually…”paint a picture” is a little soft. Let’s say, instead, that we have an algorithm we use in the United States that is intended to mimic what we think success requires.
If you work hard, you will eventually become successful in whatever it is that you do. When you are successful, THEN you will be happy.
Sound familiar to you?
It’s a philosophy I lived by for years. And let me tell you, I’ve worked my BUTT off trying to get myself happy.
Buuuuut…funny story. It hasn’t actually worked.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to say that my hard work did nothing. It absolutely did. My hard work got me through college and grad school. My hard work is what helped me to pay off my student loan debt. My hard work has kept me employed. I am not knocking hard work, here. I promise.
But did it make me happy?
I want to back up a little bit, here and get more specific about what I mean by “happy.” I’m not talking only about Disneyland happy (you know, where people are paid to smile all day long, with no room for any emotion other than unbridled enthusiastic bubbly glee). I’m not talking about “weeeeee!!!! I’m so happeeeeeeee” kind of happy. I’m talking about the kind of joy one feels when one knows it’s all okay, even when it isn’t okay. I’m talking about the kind of contentment that smiles through tears. It’s the feeling you have when you have lost a loved one, and your best friend drops by with a casserole dish and a shrug as if to say “I know you’re hurting, and I can’t fix it. But I can at least feed you.” And all you can think is “I’m still in a lot of pain…but damn. Thank you. I’m so grateful I have you in my life.”
I’m talking about the kind of happy you feel when you’ve hiked up a mountain, you’re drenched in sweat, and your muscles are straining from the effort…but then you pause to take a swig of water and look out at the view before you and you think “F*** me. This is breathtaking! There is no other place I’d rather be than right here.”
THAT is the kind of happy I’m talking about.
I’ve felt it. I can tell you I feel it often in my life, now. But it wasn’t hard work that got me here.
You see, what I’ve discovered through all my blood, sweat and tears is that it was only when I stopped pushing so hard against life that life started feeling like a blessing. It was when I stopped believing that the world had a knob on it I personally had to turn in order to make it rotate around the sun that I was able to see the miracle of gravity doing its job without any need of my attention.
I don’t mean to say that I stopped engaging or participating in life. I didn’t find a “get out of adulting free” card. What I mean is…I stopped “working” at life and started simply responding to life…or maybe it would be better to say that I started dancing with it. I stopped “pursuing” happiness. And you know what happened? Happiness found me.
I’m sure you’ve heard some version of this from numerous sources. Maybe you read a zen proverb somewhere like “do nothing and everything gets done.” Or maybe you watched a clip of the secret where they talk about “manifesting your reality.” You might have skimmed titles in self-help books sections that read “the art of not giving a f***.” They all, basically, say the same thing. STOP. TRYING. TO. CONTROL. EVERYTHING. IT…..WON’T….WOOOOORRRRRK.
But if you’re anything like me, it’s a hard sell. Do nothing and everything gets done? I’m sorry, have you met my pothead cousin? He does absolutely nothing and let me tell you…there is no magic happening there. The magical art of not giving a f***? Trust me, babe, I know PLENTY of people who do not care about much of anything. They are, currently, living in their parents’ basements and are taking anti-depressants to cope with their felt sense of inadequacy. Nice try.
That isn’t, it turns out, what the zen masters of old meant, though. These writers and speakers and bringers of wisdom were not trying to wave a flag saying “meh…just give up. Life sucks. No point in trying.” Rather, what they had all come to realize is we are all basically in a massive river, barreling down in more or less the same direction. Some of us, out of fear, desperately try and cling to branches on the shoreline. We say “Noooo! I don’t know what’s coming! I want to stay HERE!” That’s what we do when we cling to relationships that are not working. It’s what we do when we assign our identity to a job. It’s what we do when we refuse to move on from any circumstance that does not appear to be serving us.
Some of us go one step further and try to go against the flow to get back to a point in the riverbank we believe was “better.” You know these people. These are the folks who live in nostalgia. They talk about the “good old days” that we need to “return” to. These are the ones who say things like “enjoy high school, darlin. These are the best years of your life.” (Sidenote…that’s a lie. High school years were NOT the best years of MY life. College wasn’t, either. So far as I can tell, every day that has gone by has been a smidge better than the one before. Soooo….to hell with nostalgia).
SO…what zen masters and manifesters of today are trying to communicate is something more like “hey…this river we are all floating down? We don’t actually have any control over where it goes or how fast. And struggling against it really just adds unnecessary suffering. But being utterly lazy and victim-oriented isn’t great, either. That’s like blindfolding yourself as you go down the river and being surprised every time you get thrust against rocks. The BEST way to navigate is to keep your eyes open and be mindful. Stay alert. Look around you and see who is in the river WITH you. Try to have fun with it!”
When I am able to do THAT….stop clutching for branches on the shoreline, stop trying to move upstream, and stop trying to predict and/or control where the water is going next…when I’m just observing, paying attention, and having fun with the flow of life…THAT is when life transforms into a theme park ride. It’s still terrifying, sometimes. But damn if it isn’t interesting.
Okay…so now let’s move out of the realm of platitudes and esoteric babble. Let’s talk logistics.
What does it look like to flow down the riverbank – alert, but not fighting against the tide of life?
The short version is…It looks like falling in love with the process of whatever it is you want to achieve rather than clambering against the outcome.
Here’s a more concrete example.
When this pandemic started kicking into high gear, I did what I usually do. I sped the hell up. I took a moment…processed some of my emotions…and then got up and said “okay, it’s time to start getting to work on setting myself up for sustainability.”
To begin with, I leaned on my knack for building diversified income streams. I signed up to be a member of a few shopping apps, for example. I figured – I’m able-bodied. Healthy. My risk is significantly lower for catching this thing, and if I catch it, my risk for being thrown into the hospital is lower than it is for the average person. I also started funneling more effort into my private practice. I worked ferociously on building a wellbeing course (to match the theme of May – which is Mental Health Awareness Month). I launched more meetup groups. I started writing more podcast scripts. At my primary place of work, I started pitching ideas for taking community health to a virtual space. Can we deliver classes online? How about doing clinical health education appointments online? What are our options, here?
Basically, while other people around me were bunkering in and trying to process the changes in the world around them, I was busy working on my pivot-plan. Most of my childhood and coming-of-age years were defined by constant change. So I’m comfortable being nimble. I know how to white-water raft in the flow of life.
But then…I noticed something interesting.
My sleep quality started to decline. Not by much. I was still getting reliable sleep. But I had gotten used to 7 – 9 hours. It was inching down to a number closer to 6. If you have read any of my other work, you know I have struggled with sleep in the past. I used to suffer from chronic insomnia. For YEARS I would go to bed and wrestle with the sheets hoping against hope that sleep would find me. Having done the work required to get to a place where the bed and I have a solid relationship, I’m extremely attentive to that area of my self care. If my sleep is going down, I now take it as a sign that something is seriously wrong.
I stepped back and looked at my actions. Yes – I was diversifying my income well…but was I being effective? Was I really adding value? And were the systems I was starting to put in place sustainable?
No. They weren’t. Working 10 – 12 hours a day for 6 – 7 days a week is fine for some. But I know better than anyone that it isn’t a good formula for those with a more sensitive nervous system like the one I’m packing.
Contrary to what many might think, highly sensitive people are capable of being incredibly productive. It’s why so many companies love having them in their workforce. They are creative. They tend to work well with others (Not always. But often). They are good at integrating complex information and finding the patterns involved. BUT – they are only able to do all this, consistently, when they honor how they are wired. A highly sensitive person can get a job done extremely well and often more efficiently than the average person can…so long as they are well rested. Deprive them of the rest they need and they turn into a puddle of gloopy, resentful, emotional goo. I know this, because I’ve LIVED it. I know it because I’ve seen it over and over again with the clients I work with. If you want to have a smartphone, you’ve got to be willing to carry a charger around with you…because the battery runs out fast. HSP’s are the same way.
In reflecting on all this, I stepped back for a moment. I considered what I was doing. How much of this was useful and was worth keeping? How much of it was just my ego going haywire out of a sense of fear of the unknown?
Then I asked the question…”what, in all this, brings me joy?” I knew from past experience that focusing on the outcome of my work never goes well. I run myself ragged chasing after the North Star of “done.” My best work happens when I’m in love with the process. Ironically, the outcomes which stem from that end up being far better quality, too.
Then I went back and put together a system that felt sustainable. I would spend this much time writing my book, this much time on my blog, this much time on podcasting, this much time on courses….and so on and so fourth. I mapped it out and kept the focus on ease, tranquility and sustainability. I treated it like a workout plan that would be challenging enough to feel the pleasant burn of growth….but not so challenging that I would render myself useless for the following day’s “workout.”
My sleep improved. My stress levels went down. My work quality went up.
You see, as much as we have been brainwashed in our culture to think that hard work will bring us success, and that success will bring us happiness…the truth is that we’ve got it backwards. Prioritizing joy makes us more creative and productive. Creativity and productivity leads to success.
If you are skeptical and don’t want to rely on my personal experience, alone, you might consider seeking out the validation of institutions like Harvard (perhaps you’ve heard of it?)
Shawn Achor, PhD, has done extensive research on the relationship between happiness and productivity. He’s written books and, yes…of course…even has a TED Talk on the subject:
His research matches my personal experience. Creating a model of work that allows room for self care and happiness leads to greater levels of productivity and joy. What stems from that is often success (though, if you’re happy in your work, who really cares about external markers of success, anyway?)
I bring all this up because it seems to me that a lot of people are taking this time of chaos and uncertainty to start asking meaningful questions about how they want their lives to look, and to what degree they are living in alignment with their values. If you’re smart, you’re looking around and trying to decide how you might fit into an AP (after pandemic) world.
Whatever comes up for you, I want to encourage…no…IMPLORE you to think about what brings you joy. In my case, I get tremendous joy from writing. It’s why I’ve been prioritizing it more, of late. I also get joy from creating content for the Healthy Sensitive and having conversations with other HSP’s who are looking for ways to create lives that reflect their preferences and temperaments. But that joy is stifled as soon as I treat it like a “hustle.” That isn’t the relationship I want with my company. The Healthy Sensitive is my happy place. It remains my happy place when I don’t push hard against it. As soon as I stop working “hard,” and start working “Smart” …everything feels right. I’m back in my integrity, and the value of the work improves.
So I will leave you with these questions:
What is something you want to change in your life? What is an area that you want to grow and/or improve?
What would it look like to make that area of your life a playground…an open terrain for creativity, curiosity and experimentation?
IN SHORT….WHAT IF YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORK HARD?