I went hiking in the Santa Cruz mountains a few weekends ago. It was one of those hikes where you go downhill first. And it’s all fun and games until you have to turn around and go all the way back uphill. Hiking-wise, I’m badly out of shape. It was my first hike in almost two years. About half way uphill, I realized I was tired, out of breath, and hoping for the hike to be over.
How to create unhappiness 101.
It was a familiar feeling. Years ago, I had often found myself in almost identical circumstances. At that time, as I hiked up, a monolog usually played in my head. It went something like this:
“Wow, I’m really tired. How much further do I have to climb?” Glancing up at the steep, never-ending path ahead, “that sucks! It’s so steep, and it looks like it goes on forever. There’s no end in sight.” Long Sigh. “Ow, my thighs really hurt. I’m so out of breath. I wish I could be done now. I can’t do this much longer. How am I ever going to make it to the top? I’m so miserable. I wish I were home now. Whose brilliant idea was this anyway? Urgh! ”
Glancing up at the steep, never-ending path once again, “wow, crap. It’s so steep! There’s no way I’m going to make it. I want to cry. Look at everyone else. They look like they’re having fun. How come they’re having fun? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be more like them? And how come I’m always the last person on these things anyway? I’m so out of shape! I hate this. I hate myself for being this way. My stupid thighs hurt. Why can’t I be stronger? I’ve always been like this. It’s just the way I am I suppose. I’m so tired. I really can’t do this anymore. I need a break.”
After every break, another such monolog would ensue. Eventually I would make it to the top, tired, miserable, and unable to recall much about the hike.
A different hike.
A different monolog played in my head on my recent hike. It went something like this:
“Wow, I’m really tired. How much further do I have to climb?” Glancing up at the steep, never-ending path ahead, “wow, it’s so steep, and it looks like it goes on forever. Oh well, no point worrying about that. I just need to take one step at a time. Step step step. Step step step. I’m going to look at my shoes while I do that. Wow, my shoes are muddy. I’ll have to wash them. Step step step. Step step step. The air in my lungs feels so good. I’ll focus on my breath. In and out. In and out.” Silence in my mind while I observe my breath. Silence in my mind while I feel the air around me. Silence in my mind while I listen to the sounds around me. Silence in my mind as I watch my shoes take steps.
“Oh, cool, a banana slug! I want a picture.” Many pictures at all angles later, “time to move on. Step step step. Step step step.” That leaf on the ground is pretty. It’s so pretty here.” Looking up and around me, “the moss on the trees makes this forest look mystical. Fairy-tale like. The air is so cool and misty. I’m want to breathe it all in.” Deep Breath. Deep Breath. Deep breath. “Ow, my thighs hurt. I guess I haven’t done this in a while. It will get better the more I do it. I’m sure it will. I’m out of practice. I wonder if I can think of a song to help me keep pace. What’s a good one? Step step step. Step step step. I’m a little out of breath. I’m going to take a break.”
Just like that, and before I knew it, I was at the top; tried, happy, and having enjoyed the hike.
Same person, same situation, different time, different experiences. I had learned this in the intervening years:
Our circumstances do not make us unhappy; our thoughts about them do.
I can choose my thoughts, so I can choose to be happy.
I ran into this idea repeatedly in the years that I was figuring out what happiness meant to me (see my About page). My therapist told me that my allegedly unhappy circumstance was just a fact, and discouraged me from “telling myself stories about it.” Eckhart Tolle, in “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose,” speaks of the voice in the head, how it controls us, and our tendency to tell ourselves stories. And Byron Katie, in the “The Work” asks, “who would you be without that [unhappy] thought?” So, I started to examine my thoughts, and observe how they influenced my happiness, or lack thereof. And I started to find that I had often made myself unhappy.
My twenties were messy. Since my childhood had been relatively straightforward, I assumed adulthood would be the same. It was anything but. I was confused. I couldn’t understand what was happening with my life. In disbelief, I said to myself repeatedly, “I cannot believe this is happening,” “this CANNOT be happening,” “this SHOULD NOT be happening,” or “this is not my life!” As if saying those things would help. I thought about what I felt my life should have been like, and mourned that it was not that way. I focused on the things that were wrong, and missed the things that were right. I thought about how horrible this or that was, and felt sorry for myself. As I had those thoughts and believed them, I made myself miserable. Just as on my hikes years ago, I made myself miserable thinking about my breathlessness, my achy thighs, the steepness of path ahead, how far I still had to go, and that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know that I had a choice.
In my early thirties, I found myself divorced. Prior to that, the thought of a divorce scared me on many levels. On one level, I fully expected to be miserable. I was terrified of how unhappy I was going to be. In the early days after the decision was made, I was broken. I felt dead, like I had no soul, no existence, nothing. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I was nauseous for days. The pain was excruciating. My future looked like a black wall starting at me. “Here it is,” I thought. “This is the dreadful unhappiness that I knew was coming. This is my new reality.” Thoughts of my past and future were too painful, so I tried to live in the moment. I was too scared to imagine what a life alone would feel like after having been in a 13 year relationship, so I didn’t.
Instead, I thought about all the things that were wonderful, and felt deeply grateful for them. Ex. and I handled our divorce in a kind, loving, and respectful way, and I was deeply grateful to him. My older sister became a rock on whom I leaned heavily, and I was deeply grateful for her. My co-workers cut me slack at work, despite it being a very busy time; and I was deeply grateful for them. My two lovely sisters moved me into my new place, unpacked my things, and settled me in; and I was deeply grateful for them. My friends went above and beyond for me, checking on me constantly, going out with me, doing things for me, and listening patiently as I talked about my feelings; and I was deeply grateful for them. I ran to calm myself down, which made me feel healthy and alive, and I was deeply grateful for that. I made new friends and had new experiences, and I felt deeply grateful for them. I found a new and wonderful love, and I felt deeply grateful for him. For the first time in years, I felt truly alive. I felt loved. I felt lucky. And a year after my divorce, I realized that I had just had the happiest year of my life!
The facts may not change.
Having the happiest year of my life didn’t mean that all the hard things went away. I had to get used to never seeing the person I had been closest to for 13 years. I had to get used to waking up alone, and coming home to an empty house not knowing whether those things would ever change. I had to learn to buy groceries for one. I had to cook alone for parties. And clean alone. I had to find people to go with me to restaurants I loved. I had to take trips alone. And get hotel rooms for one. I had to learn to ask for help when I needed heavy things moved, or walls drilled. Or try to do them alone. I had to decide for myself whether I needed to change my car’s electrical system and tires when the mechanic made suggestions. I had to figure out how much to spend on rent. And on other things. I had to decide alone what to do with my investment plan. And my retirement plan. I had to plan a future for one. Alone. I never had to do those things before. They were hard.
But I didn’t think about them more than I “absolutely needed to.” I dealt with them and moved on. I also tried not to tell myself stories about them (e.g. now that I’m planning for a future for one, it means I will be alone forever…boo hoo hoo!). Just as I didn’t think about the steepness of the hill, my achy thighs, and my breathlessness on my recent uphill hike. And just as I didn’t tell myself the story that since I was too tired, I would never make it to the top of the hill.
Yet, I didn’t live in denial. I “absolutely needed to” acknowledge what was happening in my life so that I could move on fully. I spoke about my feelings with those close to me, reflected on my life, and went to therapy when I needed to. Then, I moved on. And, I found that although the facts of my life didn’t change, my life felt easier and happier.
When I was first introduced to these ideas, I thought that if I lived this way, I would just be “fooling myself.” Sure, happy thoughts could make me feel happy for a while, but my harsh reality still existed. I would eventually be forced to go back to it. So, what was the point?
I found out that the point was this: if I felt happy, I was happy. It was as simple as that. I needed nothing more.