The things I know about happiness

by Kim on September 3, 2013 · 54 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness lately. Maybe because I recently had a birthday and have reached the age where I thought I’d have everything figured out. (Ha!) Shouldn’t the questions be answered by now? (Double ha!) Maybe because I am about to go overseas again. Leaving my friends, family, and dogs behind always sends me into an existential tailspin.

I am an eternal optimist and I’m naturally resilient and these two traits keep me mostly happy most of the time. Still, I’ve said before that I consider happiness a moving target. Happiness isn’t something like a tattoo that, once embedded, stays forever. Happiness is not a destination. It’s not, Helloooo, happiness, I have arrived! Now fetch me a cocktail while I settle in for the rest of my life. 

It doesn’t work that way for me. I have to chase happiness. And once I catch up to it I have to work to keep it. I have a constant internal burn to achieve, to move, to create, to love, to converse, to collect, and I have to work to find the things that keep those torches aflame. I have to work to be happy, but the work makes me happy.

I recently took a personality test that noted one of my signature personality themes as Futuristic. “You are the kind of person who loves to peer over the horizon,” the test results said. “The future fascinates you. As if it were projected on the wall, you see in detail what the future might hold, and this detailed picture keeps pulling you forward, into tomorrow. You are a dreamer who sees visions of what could be. When the present proves too frustrating, and the people around you too pragmatic, you conjure up your visions of the future and they energize you.”

That description (along with my other signature themes of responsibility (“you take psychological ownership for anything you commit to and feel emotionally bound to follow it through to completion”), empathy (“you can sense the emotions of those around you and are able to see the world through their eyes and share their perspective”), activator (“when can we start?”) and connectedness (“things happen for a reason. You are sure of it.”), pretty much eerily sums me up. “Read this!” I said to Brian, pushing the test results towards him. He read the paper with a smirk on his face and said, “Uh, yep. That is you exactly.”

What I’ve struggled with until recently is how to be fully happy in the present despite my tendency to race like a bat out of hell towards whatever awaits me in the future. To be, essentially, happy right now despite whatever might be coming down the line.

I’ve learned some things.

For instance, I’ve learned that I love traveling but it doesn’t make me happy. Writing makes me happy, but I have a tendency to overwork. I become a hermit, hunched over my computer for fourteen hours a day, and that doesn’t make me happy at all.

Traveling fills the part of me that yearns to see it all, to meet new people and to be thrown out of my comfort zone. The hardest places to travel are my favorite. India is my favorite. Nepal is my favorite. I love feeling completely out of my element. Buenos Aires bores me. Spotless resorts and manicured lawns bore me. I like the grit and struggle of real life.

Traveling excites me and writing fulfills me but it has been the luxury of free time that has made me truly happy. Oh, the books I’ve read! The questions I’ve been able to ask myself and then answer as I trudged for weeks over the Himalayan Mountains. The things I’ve learned about myself while staring out of the window on a train as it knocks its way through India, soothed into a meditative lull by the clicking of the rails.

Kim in Nepal

Me in the Himalayan Mountains

Free time, time not indebted to someone or something else, has given me the space to develop the skills to be happy in the present. Mostly. I’m still a student after all. But here is what I have learned during this time of learning about happiness.

1. I have learned that happiness can always be accessed with gratitude. See that flower and the brilliant blue of the sky? Thank you. Thank you. Gratitude fosters happiness. Try it and be transformed.

2. I have learned that happiness is about embracing the scary and thrilling truth I am on the path that I should be on even if I occasionally trip and sprain my ankle. I am doing what I am here to do and it turns out that I always have been. Because every decision that I have ever made has lead me  here.

3. I have learned that happiness is about letting go of all the things I can’t control (which is everything) except for the one thing that I can control (me and my reaction to each situation).

4. I have learned to think of happiness as a smooth river rock that is just big enough to enclose in my palm. I picture this rock in my chest, near my heart. It is warm and golden and brilliant. And when I forget about happiness I close my eyes and focus on that smooth stone. I feel it inside of me and I know that it is here and always will be. I remind myself that I carry happiness with me wherever I go.

Traveling gives me the opportunity to test myself, to become a bigger and more confident person. Writing allows me to fulfill my life’s passion. But this gift of free time has given me the room to ask the deepest part of myself, what do you really want? Who are you? What feels natural and right? Giving myself the time and freedom to answer these questions has made me undoubtedly happy.

What do you know about happiness?


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