Some people are born knowing what they want to do with their lives. They have never not wanted to be an astronaut or a veterinarian or an artist, and they begin working toward this dream at a very early age.
Good for them.
But if you are like most people, you didn’t inhale your life’s purpose with your first breath of air. Many things sound appealing, but nothing really jumps out at you as the one. You feel as if you’re drifting, just waiting for something to happen.
You wonder how some people can be so certain about the life they want and wonder if you’ll ever feel that way about yours.
The good news is you can.
Why Things Get in the Way of Your Happiness
There was a powerful Superbowl commercial a few years ago for job search site Monster.com. Small kids were filmed saying things like, “When I grow up…
For people not working in an ideal job or living the life they wanted, it was a wake-up call to connect with their earlier dreams.
No one wants to be any of those things in the ad, but because we don’t always know what we do want, we have a hard time saying no to the wrong things and saying yes to the possibilities in front of us. Mediocrity drifts in because we have nothing with which to combat it.
Before we know it, this limbo leads to getting sunshine blown up our skirts and working full-time as yes-men.
We get caught up in the status quo, following trends and accepting things as they come to us with minimal complaint. We tolerate things we never thought we would: long commutes, debt, unfulfilling work, and unhealthy relationships.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. We can usually manage to live pretty good lives despite our lack of focus. But if you have the nagging feeling things are not as good as they could be – that you are missing out on something, even if you don’t know what that is – today is the day you start moving into focus, going from just ‘pretty good’ to ‘incredible.’
How to Clear the Path to Happiness
This focus results from 2 distinct actions, both the ‘chipping away’ of the negatives and the ‘adding up’ of the possibilities. Both work in concert, clarifying your life down to the essentials so you can see your options more clearly.
This is the sweet spot when your dreams have a fighting chance of making themselves known to you and you have the space and energy to bring them to life.
#1: Chipping Away the Negatives
Like Michaelangelo chipping away at the marble that would eventually become the statue of David, you must also chip away what is not ideal in your life. The things that drain your energy, cause you distress, or add extra work without extra benefit are holding you back from identifying your dreams and making them real.
What would you NOT miss in your life if it magically went away tomorrow?
- Home maintenance
- Unhealthy relationships
- Poor health
Take a piece of paper and list every single thing without guilt. No one else will see the paper but you, and it doesn’t matter if you have 1 thing on the list or 100. There is no judgement here, just a simple exercise to determine the size of the block containing your David. You have to give you chisel some direction.
What bothers you about each thing specifically?
Because we are creatures of habit, we have a tendency to replay things in our lives. You may hate your job and your relationships and your duties at home because all make you feel subordinate to other people’s needs or like people are not listening to you. The irritant might be cleaning house for your entire family every weekend while they relax, but the root problem is feeling unappreciated and not speaking up about your needs.
A great exercise on finding the root cause of your feelings is The 5 Whys. You continue to ask yourself why something bothers you until you get to the real problem, one you may not have even realized in your surface complaint.
The reason we advocate getting to the root is to understand what is really draining your energy and causing you distress so you won’t repeat it with new activities and relationships going forward. It’s like your friend who keeps dating losers. Until he/she figures out why, it will be the same type of mate and the same type of turbulent breakup time after time.
What irritants can you change, reduce or eliminate from your life?
This is where you start chipping away. You have a list in front of you along with the real thing that’s bugging you about them.
Now you see your irritants in black and white, and now you can do something about them.
Brainstorm at least 3 ways you can change, reduce or eliminate each irritant/root cause in your life. Don’t think about how others will react or what is realistic. Just brainstorm the options without thought to judgement. You might be surprised at how many realistic options you have in front of you.
Some things you can do right away, like reducing the irritation of your commute by listening to soothing music, podcasts or books on tape. Others are first steps toward bigger plans, like halting your credit card spending immediately to stop increasing your debt as you begin work to pay it down, leaving the junk food at the store to begin your path back to health, or rebalancing your relationships as you learn to speak up for yourself.
In the instance of the weekend housework, you may discover you are doing more than expected by your family, or that they think you enjoy housework or that their efforts won’t live up to your expectations. A conversation with them about the problem may be all it takes to rebalance the work load, saving you from vacuuming around them with resentment on Saturday afternoon as they surf the Internet and watch movies.
As you start chipping away, don’t try to change everything at once. Focus on one thing at a time, appreciating the space that opens up when you do and how your overall energy level and outlook changes in response.
#2: Adding In the Possibilities
Once you’ve started chipping away at the negatives, you’ll have more space and energy in your life. It’s a good feeling, one that will give you better rest at night, more enjoyable relationships, and more energy to pursue the things you enjoy. You won’t feel the need to crash out on the couch every evening just to recover from your day. So let’s find a place for you to utilize this newfound energy for happiness.
What would you like to add to your life?
Much like you imagined your life without its irritants before, now you are going to imagine the possibilities. This list is sometimes harder than the negatives list because we so easily identify what is not working. Possibilities are often more subtle, and it takes some time to draw them out.
- What new things interest you? Learn a language, fly on a trapeze, dance the tango, make a movie, start a business, etc. Check out the lists at www.43Things.com or see what kind of meetups or classes are going on in your area if you need inspiration. Write down anything that sparks your interest as a possibility.
- What existing things would you like more of in your life? Exercise, friendship, free time, alone time, parties, travel, writing, culture, cooking, gardening, yoga, meditation, etc.
- How would you like to share your gifts with the world? Volunteer for a cause you support through your time, talents, and connections.
What inspires you about each possibility?
Just like we analyzed the negatives, we’re going to find out what energizes you about these possibilities and what needs they fill.
When you know exactly what feeds your soul, you can look for more of it in your life.
Your interests may all feed into one overall interest, like helping other people, feeding your creativity, discovering new things, or deepening your relationships with other people. Perhaps you like diverse things like scrapbooking events, your running group, and book club all for the same reason – you get to do these normally ‘solo’ hobbies with other people.
You can use The 5 Whys for this exercise, too, getting down to the nitty gritty of why you like to do certain types of things more than others. This is the magic, knowing what energizes you and looking for more of it in your life.
How can you add more of these things to your life?
This is where you start adding things to your life. Your list gives you a starting point to try things on and see what fits in the newly opened space in your life.
Make a list of what you want to add into your life and then put checks next to a couple you want to try first.
Some things you can ‘test drive’ almost immediately, like signing up for a class or buying season tickets to your local playhouse. Other things you can begin in small ways, like walking around the block after dinner every evening as you work up to more heart-pounding exercise.
Your bigger goals will take some time, like learning a complex skill, starting a business, or writing a book, but you can start taking steps now to make them happen. The important thing is to be open to new things and to look for the types of relationships and activities that feed your spirit.
If you are looking for direction, an effective strategy is to imagine what an ideal day in your life would look like.
- How would you feel when you woke up?
- What would eat for breakfast?
- How would you spend your day?
- What kind of people would you know?
- Where would you live?
When you have this idea firmly visualized, start thinking of the components that make up this ideal day. For instance, if you imagine yourself hanging out with artists or creative people, you should probably start looking for those kinds of friends now. If you want to be healthier, you’ll have to start exercising and eating better now. If you want to eventually live in a farmhouse, it’s time to stop buying things for your city apartment.
Whatever you visualize as your perfect day can begin to take shape with your actions now.
Creating Your Dream Lifestyle
More than likely, you will be stronger at one of these actions than the other. I am more of a “strip away the negatives” kinda gal and Warren is more of an “add up the possibilities” kind of person. But we both employ each side to create the lives we want, and when we can work together toward those goals it is even more powerful.
The beauty of this process is that it works for everyone on every type of goal. It is fully customizable to YOU. You can create a life with more of what energizes you and less of what drains you, even if you don’t figure out what you want to be until well into your adulthood.
And that, my friends, is the recipe for happily ever after.
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