When we are at the peak of our careers it can feel like we have blinders on to everything else in our lives. From the lawyer who misses his father’s 60th birthday party because he is trying to make partner to the Project Manager who fears if she takes vacation then she won’t seem as serious about her job and might miss out on that next promotion – they might feel like this is their time to “make something of themselves”.
Striving for an achievement or promotion is an incredible quality. It sets leaders apart from the rest because they are willing to go that extra mile, but what do their personal lives look like? Are they happier? Or do they spend so much time working that they get tunnel vision and block out all of the other things that are important in their lives?
Happiness: noun hap·pi·ness \ ˈha-pē-nəs \
a state of well-being and contentment
Eventually something happens and we get that “wake-up call”. We learn that happiness is a state, not an emotion or feeling.
Dr. Laura Kubzansky, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, has conducted research on the topics of happiness and health benefits. In both her 2007 study, which followed over 6,000 men and women, and her 2012 review of more than 200 studies she found that emotional vitality — defined as a sense of energy, positive well-being, and effective emotion regulation — appeared to improve health, including a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, and lower levels of inflammation.
Do you remember a time in your life where you recognized the things you were doing and the reason you were doing them were not aligned?
For me the wake-up call started off soft and then got louder and louder the longer I chose to ignore it. When I was working as a trauma critical care nurse I had the privilege of working with individuals and families after a tragedy, a time when they were at their most vulnerable. I started to see a pattern as I worked with these families through the grieving process: they all entrusted me with their deepest, darkest regrets.
The most common one I heard was: time.
“I wish I had spent more time…” they would say. What they meant is that they wished they had prioritized spending time with people who are important to them instead of getting lost in their daily routines with laser focus on their next achievement.
It wasn’t until I was promoted to the Director of Nursing that I woke up and realized happiness doesn’t come from achievement. I would spend the next two years trying to figure out how to fix this “happiness problem” by moving to a new city, getting into a new relationship, and starting a new job.
It turns out – none of those things were the answer and within 12 months I had failed at all of those things.
I was at a crossroads where I was tired of my “problem”. So, I gave myself 30 days to change it. I remembered a conversation I had a year earlier about where I would live if I could live anywhere in the world. The answer: New York City. So, I left my relationship, quit my job, packed up a couple suitcases, and drove to the city.
The biggest hurdle at the time seemed like figuring out how to get there, until I realized showing up wasn’t enough. I made a list of all of the things I had wanted to do, learn, and see. I made a separate list of all of the people I wanted to follow up with and become a better friend to. Then I started crossing things off the list like I had a 3-month deadline. Whenever I would cross something off the top of the list, I would add something new to the bottom.
Twenty-one months later, I am still in New York City because I found my happiness.
I am not suggesting you completely reinvent your life and your career like I did, but I do think there is value in imagining what your life would be like if you only had three months left to do everything you wanted to do. In doing so you will reveal some of the regrets you might have later so you don’t have to have a traumatic wake-up call to realize you need to make some adjustments to how you are living your life.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what to put on your happiness bucket list, here are some things you can try:
1. When you catch yourself saying, “I will do that when…” it’s a good indication that the thing you’re putting off should be on the list. (example: “I will visit my family more when I finish this project”)
2. If you use the word “should” a lot then add the thing you should be doing to the list. (example: "I should go on vacation, but…")
3. If there is something you want to try, but it feels really uncomfortable to try something new. (example: “I’ve always wanted to try…”)
4. If you’re blaming being too busy as the reason why you can’t do something. (example: “If I wasn’t so busy then I would…”
The time to invest in your happiness is now, when you are thriving, and the benefits to your emotional and physical health will help you solve not only the quantity of your life, but also the quality.
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