In the last week of 2019 I read an article that asked “What is one goal, that achieved, would make 2020 the best year of your life?” I spent the remaining days of the year thinking about what that goal could be, the only answer that kept coming to mind was “if I could learn to be happy.” So that became my resolution for 2020.
The reason I needed to learn how to be happy is that it seemed I did not know how to be; I have lived the majority of my life, ever since I first became ill, in a varying state of depression. I have had some bouts of happiness since then, but they always slowly returned to my very negative happiness set-point. Your happiness set-point is your general mood, when nothing in particular is going on. Specific events may make you happy or sad, but once they are over the feeling will slowly fade back to your set point, or sometimes not that slowly when negative self-talk quickly comes in to break the mood.
In January I decided that the first thing to focus on would be to work out what makes me sad, so I could eliminate the negatives. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it could be, but of course before I had come to any conclusions the news of a looming pandemic took my attention, and increasing my happiness was no longer top of mind. But the wheels were already in motion, but in spite of, or perhaps thanks to, the pandemic I still achieved my goal by the end of the year.
When the first lockdown struck, putting me out of work, I suddenly had a lot of extra time on my hands, time I used to catch up on my to-do list. As might load lightened, so did my mood. This taught me that the sense of overwhelm and not being enough that was caused by feeling that I was always having to play catch-up with life was a major contributor to my negative mood. So I focused on defeating my procrastination. As the year progressed my facebook feed went off the rails in a negative spiral. The news feed had always had a negative slant, but slight enough not to really notice; now it was glaringly obvious. This led me to the realization that social media is actually designed to dampen your mood. So in September, with facebook blocked, and my procrastination slowly being conquered, I turned my attention to what makes me happy.
It was actually fairly easy at this point of the year to figure out what makes me happy. In previous years I had tried to keep a gratitude journal to remind myself of what I valued most in life, as I had read that practicing gratitude is the best way to raise your happiness set-point. Maintaining a journaling habit has always been a struggle for me, and it was no different for my attempts at gratitude journaling. This year however I did not need a journal to help me practice gratitude: every time I saw the news and saw people’s lives being upended by the year’s events I was grateful that I still had all that really mattered to me. I was grateful that I lived with my wife and daughters and got to spend time with them, I was grateful that I didn’t have to worry about feeding them, that I had work to go back to, that we had a backyard to spend time in, etc… Now while this did raise my mood, it was not enough to counter my depressive tendencies completely. I knew I also had to include activities that made me happy.
This too was fairly easy to figure out. I have known for many years that personal development, reading, exercise, and cycling were among the activities that make me happy. The bigger question was: why wasn’t I doing them? The answer was twofold: first was that when I spent time doing them it caused me to feel a sense of guilt that I was not working on my to-do list, and it would grow that feeling of overwhelm that had such a negative effect on my mood. This meant that any sense of happiness these activities produced would be short lived and be followed by a deeper sadness, it seemed better just not to do them. The second was that for years I had played the martyr, believing that I could sacrifice my own happiness for that of my family’s. One of my primary goals in life is to raise my daughters to be happy and fulfilled adults, and I would feel guilty and selfish if I spent time or money on my own happiness, rather than theirs. A Darren Daily video I watched this year made me reconsider: it was about how this is a common trait of parents, we work hard and sacrifice our own happiness for that of our children, but the problem is that they learn from our example, and will tend to copy it as adults. This meant that my sacrifice was actually undermining my goal, the best way to raise happy and fulfilled children is to be happy and fulfilled yourself. If I want them to be happy I have to find time to squeeze happiness into my own life.
In late October I lay down on my bed to rest after cycling home from work, and was struck by this strange feeling in my chest, a feeling that reminded me of Wyoming, as the last time I had felt it was when living there. This strange feeling wasn’t going away, and after a few days I finally realized what it was: I was happy! I had achieved my goal for the year! Now of course I still experience specific sadness, when a particular event brings me down; but now instead of negative self-talk I have incredibly positive self-talk that brings my mood back up: a lot of “you got this” and “life is so great”, even when people badmouth 2020 my mind instantly replies “best year ever!” Kinda cringey, but you know what, who cares? Because as that voice at the back of my head says now: “I’m so happy!”
A little side note: this change in self-talk is a little peculiar as I had attempted to change it consciously earlier in the year. It would work to some degree, but whenever my focus was elsewhere my negative voice would return to bring me down. I understand how important changing your self-talk can be for changing your mindset and have used it to achieve other goals, but in this case I was finding it impossible, until it instantly switched over. So what one goal, if achieved, would make 2021 the best year of your life? Seems like a question worth asking, since asking it made 2020 the best year of mine, so far…