After having given up a very good job to go travelling, then setting up my own business focusing on wellbeing, I’ve done a lot of thinking about happiness over the past 12 months. I have thought a great deal about what I want out of life, about what it was preventing me from feeling truly happy, and about why I had been feeling such crippling anxiety.
When I set out on my epic 10-month travel adventure, I should have been on top of the world (literally!) After all, not many people can afford to quit their job and leave it all behind to explore four continents and 21 countries. But my biggest emotion by far as we boarded the plane was actually fear. Was I going to regret quitting my job? Were we making our future selves bankrupt? Will everyone think I’ve failed at my career if I take a year out? Am I too old to be sleeping in dorm rooms? (Turns out that the answer to the last question was actually yes, but I just about managed to get through it with earplugs!)
Previously, if I’d heard someone talking about having a “wake-up” or “ah ha” moment in their life, I would have been rather cynical. But now it’s happened to me, I can assure you that it really does hit you like a tonne of bricks. My wake-up moment came on a bus somewhere in Bolivia when instead of enjoying the spectacular views, I was yet again fretting about the future. On that 10-hour bus journey, I made a promise to myself that from then on, I’d focus a lot more on my own happiness and really tackle the anxiety head on.
The first thing to do was to understand what was going on in my head to make me – someone who had a happy childhood and lots of amazing life experiences – feel like wanting to stop the world and get off because my emotions were running so high.
Here are the six things I realised were killing my happiness and what I did to slaughter them…
1. Trying to over achieve
My parents are both retired teachers who gave my sister and I a lovely childhood. We always received a tonne of praise for all the positive things we achieved, and for this reason, we both became high achievers. But somewhere along the line, it’s as if I lost all perspective on what it meant to be successful. At work, I had become a total perfectionist and obsessed with doing every little task to a super high standard (when normal standard would’ve been just fine) and responding to everything immediately. I’m not a competitive person, so it wasn’t about beating other people, but it was as if nothing I did was ever good enough for myself. I’d never feel the sense of achievement that I should have done because I was always worrying about the next thing that needed to be done.
Now, I’m trying to focus much more on only doing the things that are important and not trying to cram every day full of doing too many tasks to the height of perfection. In the long run, my business is much better off with me not being burned out. I’ve also learned the valuable lesson that the world doesn’t end if you don’t finish something until the next day. In fact, I often come back to a task with fresh eyes and make it even better as opposed to working late into the night for no other reason than not liking to leave things unfinished.
2. Caring about (and making up) other people’s opinions of me
This one is very much related to the over-achievement killer of happiness. I realised that I’d become obsessed by what other people thought of me. I was devastated if someone thought I wasn’t doing a good enough job or if they didn’t like me. In fact, I’m quite positive now that 99% of the time, I’d made up the fact that someone didn’t think I was going a good enough job or that they didn’t like me. And the ironic thing is that in getting upset over someone not thinking I was doing a good job or thinking they didn’t like me, I was actually creating a situation where they didn’t think I was doing a good enough job and where they didn’t actually like me because I was being over emotional or uncomfortable around them… do you see the annoying pattern here?!
I’m much better now at being okay with not being liked or valued by everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still do my very best to get on with people and to do a good job. But I don’t let it get to me if someone is snappy, negative or critical because it’s actually probably far more likely to be something going on in their lives than it is about me. And anyway, I’ve learned that criticism is good. I have to remind myself that I’m not perfect, that’s it’s okay not to be perfect, that it’s fine for people to give me criticism, and it’s also totally my choice to decide to take any criticism positively.
I realised that I used to spend my entire life feeling guilty all of the time. If I didn’t respond to someone’s request at work immediately, I felt guilty. If I worked late to work on someone’s request and didn’t spend time with my husband, I felt guilty. If I went travelling when other people in the world are suffering, I felt guilty. If I didn’t go travelling and make the most of my life when I’d got so much more opportunity than others to do so, I felt guilty. I couldn’t win with myself, and it was a lot of guilt for one little brain to be carrying around!
I read something recently that reassured me and helped immensely with my feelings of guilt. It was by Gretchen Rubin who is a researcher who focuses on defining happiness. One of her many excellent points was that while we often feel that happiness is selfish, self-indulgent or inappropriate when so many other people are struggling, happier people actually tend to be more helpful and better for society on the whole than unhappy people who can become isolated and preoccupied with their own issues. So while I’ll always remain an empathic person who cares about others, I’ll also remember that I can’t care for others as best I can if I’m not taking care of my own happiness too.
4. Living in the future
I wrote an article recently about how we should ban the word “if” from our vocabulary. You see, whether it’s “What if” or “If only”, uttering either of these phrases involves thinking about the future in a very unhelpful way. “What if we run out of money” and “If only we had enough money” were two big culprits of mine, when in reality our financial situation was more stable than it is now! While I am still careful with money (and I’m not advocating that it’s wise to be frivolous with it), I’ve learned to live more in the present moment and just “be”.
There’s a great quote by Alan Watts that goes:
“Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is peeling potatoes.”
Whenever I start a response to my husband with “But what if…”, he calmly asks me, “Are you peeling potatoes?!” as a reminder to stay in the present moment. He has that annoying habit of picking me up on things like this… but I suppose I love him for it really!
5. Not taking care of my physical health
At my most stressed point at work, I was swinging from missing meals entirely to cramming chocolate biscuits into my mouth between meetings. I wasn’t drinking any water, instead surviving on bucket-loads of caffeine to stay awake, then wine in the evening to relax. This concoction, coupled with consuming too much blue light in the evening from working on my laptop, meant that I was lying awake half the night with my brain on overdrive. I wasn’t doing any physical exercise (because who has the time to go to the gym, anyway?!) And I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was also suffering from hormonal imbalance which was impacting my emotions even more. Suffice to say I was a car crash just waiting to happen, and it was no wonder I was near the edge.
I’ve since wised up a lot about the massive influence physical health has on your mental wellbeing. I now only drink one cup of coffee a day with breakfast, try to drink lots of water throughout the day and am only enjoying a couple of glasses of wine at weekends. I’m slightly addicted to the endorphins the gym provides me three times per week, and I am managing my hormones more with the help of vitamin B supplements and by inhaling an essential oil blend that’s specially formulated for balancing hormones. I’m not trying to show off here, and I’m certainly no angel (if you leave a chocolate bar anywhere near me, for example, you will regret it!) I’m just trying to highlight that there are lots of ways to improve mental wellbeing by improving your physical health.
6. Not investing in self-love
This ties in with the guilt one a little bit, but because it’s so harmful, I think it deserves to be singled out as a killer too. Previously, I would never have dreamed of buying anything to take care of myself, like an essential oils diffuser, a massager or luxury bath products for example. I’d be quite happy to spend the same money on a gift for someone else, or on necessity items like clothes etc. But when it came to buying things to look after my own wellbeing, I either didn’t even think about doing it at all, or if I did, I’d have felt too guilty about actually spending money on it.
Now I’m trying out a system where I allow myself a certain budget a month to buy something that’s going to help me feel mentally better, happier or more relaxed… and so far, it’s working out pretty well!
I hope this article doesn’t come across braggy or preachy. I am certainly not the world’s expert on happiness and I still have to work hard at it every day. But that’s just the point… just like with physical exercise, you do actually have to work at it, and my aim in this piece is to give some pointers that I’ve certainly found useful in killing anxiety. I feel literally as though as weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and if I can help even just one person to feel the same way then that really would make me happy!