“I wish that I had let myself be happier” is apparently one of the five most common regrets people have as they’re about to bite the biscuit. Even with all that morphine coursing through their veins at the end, people on their deathbeds still kick themselves for not letting happiness be more of a theme throughout their lives. (In case you’re wondering, “I wish I had worked more” didn’t make the top five regrets of the dying.)
I have a not-insignificant preoccupation with regrets. Living squander-free lives is kind of my motto (that and “the more pecan pie, the better”), so I tune into any conversation about the ways in which we might “if only” ourselves to death. Knowing what so many have lamented on the brink of death is like getting the answers to the test of life — or at least the wrong answers, which means we can live regret-free lives by knowing what not to do.
Not letting ourselves be happy reeks of our tendencies to do the following:
- Believing happiness is preordained or bestowed upon us. Researchers have demonstrated time and time again that it’s possible to take deliberate steps to get happier and to stay happier in life. Many of us think happiness is all about genetics — that we’re destined for a life of happiness or sheer and utter unhappiness because our parents were Miss Congeniality or Mr. Crusty Curmudgeon. Biology does have a big impact on our happiness tendencies, so our chipper mom or miserable dad’s genes will impact us. Circumstances in life, like if we’re born in a certain socioeconomic class, or if we have a debilitating illness — that has an impact on our happiness, too, but to a lesser extent than we might think. Our activities — deliberate actions we take to boost our well-being and happiness, have profound effects on our satisfaction with life. This breakdown of the “how of happiness” is sometimes referred to as the happiness pie. I’m sticking with the metaphor: how big can you make your “intentional happiness” slice of pie? What deliberate activities are you participating in to get happy? Plan a Zoom cocktail hour with your college roommate… look back on photos from your Best Vacation Ever… schedule a personal retreat day where you do whatever fills your heart with joy… spend time with people that make you smile…
- Shifting into autopilot— letting the days blur into weeks which blur into years which blur into entire decades. If variety is the spice of life then let’s aim to spice shit up around here. What are two new ways you can add novelty to your life in the next week? Try a restorative yoga class online… order Ethiopian food for a change… go for a walk at lunch… skip TV for two days (in a row!)…
- Feeling afraid to jostle our routines and lifestyles because we are supposed to be Responsible Adults. Countless clients I have worked with have longed to try new careers, go back to school, try a new hobby, move to a new city, get a makeover, whatever… and yet they don’t because they worry about breaking the pact they made with society when they turned 18 — you know, the one about having to fit into a mold. “I went to school to become an accountant; I can’t just switch careers and become an architect!” Um, yes you can. “If we move to Santa Barbara, what will happen to the kids?” You take them with you, and they’ll adjust. “I’ve had my hair like this since college!” Exactly. What permission do you need to give yourself to pursue happiness and fulfillment? How can you tap into the bravest part inside of yourself to see that it’s possible to live the life you’ve been dreaming of?
“It is only possible to live happily ever after on a daily basis.” This line by Margaret Bonanno has been a guiding principle for me (that and, “more pie”). Happiness is a talent, not an inborn trait. Let’s punctuate our lives with moments of silliness (bubble gum blowing contest, anyone?), unbridled joy, laughter, and vitality. I don’t want to get to the end and wish I’d let myself have more belly laughs, and I don’t want that for you either. Let’s die happy.