Thursday, November 24, 2011

What happiness isn't

I want to be happy, really and truly I do. However, I am starting to realize that happiness is not what I thought it was.

I am starting to suspect, with a sense of horror, that deep down I honestly WANT life to be just that bit too hard for me.

Looking back on my life, it appears that I’ve consistently done my darndest to engineer situations of high challenge, high stress, tight deadlines; beyond-my-comfort-zone difficulty left right and centre.

My schoolgirl self was a high academic achiever. I was also on high school teams for cricket, netball, rhythmic gymnastics, athletics, and debating. I also played in the school orchestra and sang in two different choirs. I also participated in public speaking competitions and won a national speech contest. When I write it all down, I am incredulous at how I did it all, but looking back with honest eyes, I remember loving school life.

After leaving school I threw myself into a student exchange in a small town in Japan; I felt that I was in over my head and that I couldn't last the distance, but stubbornly I refused to give up, to the point of borderline anorexia.

During university I worked two full days a week, while taking a full course load in law and Japanese. Since that apparently wasn’t enough, I also tutored in Japanese and did an associate diploma in Speech and Drama on the side. The mother of my then-boyfriend took me to task for not making more time for her son; while she had some nerve, I am frankly amazed I found any time to spend with that poor sweet guy.

I dropped out of law and went to work in Japan, where I got a job as a bilingual Legal Assistant and worked anything from 10 to 24 hour days. It was so exciting at the time; I remember bouncing off the walls in the middle of a deal, full of energy even late at night, humming the Indiana Jones soundtrack as my own personal theme song, cheering and exasperating my colleagues in equal measure. Once, for a whole week I finished work at 5am every morning and was back at my desk by 9am. I remember the day I finished work at 5:30am and raced home to start packing for a scuba-diving holiday; I made it onto the 7:30 am airport train literally by the skin of my teeth.

Later I went back and finished my law degree and got what by all objective standards was a great job at a top foreign law firm in Tokyo. I started work the week I found out I was pregnant with my first baby. That poor kid was dragged in utero to business trips in America and China, through endless late-night conference calls, and through high-pressure working days that went on and on and on.

I didn’t give up on this lifestyle even after she, and subsequently her little sister, were born, but already after a few years of trying to combine parenthood and full-time work I suddenly realized it was bloody hard, that suddenly I was very unhappy, and that I was barely holding it together any more. The lifestyle I had once thrived on was suddenly killing me.

I stubbornly ploughed on until my husband gave me the out I needed, by suggesting we relocate to Finland.

I tried my hand at being a stay-at-home mum, convinced that it was all I’d ever wanted to do and that I craved time with my kids above all else. After a year I discovered that, if anything, I was even more tired and beaten down than before.

Fed up, and exhausted beyond belief, I decided to embark on an "oxygen mask" quest for happiness. I would try to change and simplify my life for once and be kind to myself by getting rid of as many responsibilities and self-imposed burdens as possible. I would write a blog when and if I felt like it. I would exercise as the mood took me. I would dip into my Finnish textbook now and then. I would still have all afternoon and evening to enjoy and care for my children and husband, while having every morning all to myself… OMG, I would be enjoying that elusive, almost luxurious thing sought by so many women - *me time*!!

I assumed that this lifestyle change would make me feel happy, at peace, well-balanced, calmed and re-charged, and all that good stuff.

I am pleased to report that I no longer feel stressed or stretched too thin or operating at the limits of my own resources. On the other hand, I also feel flat. Restless. Anxious. Turns out that life within the four corners of my own comfort zone is a calm place, but also dull beyond belief.

Stress and self-imposed high expectations are gone, but those bastards went and took all of life’s bling with them.

It took me a while to work out that ironically, I really miss challenge and achievement. What's more, I can’t seem to manage without a bit of pressure. Without hard goals, time pressure, or self-imposed stress, I get very little done and feel crap about it, because I know I am capable of so much more. The stubborn S.O.B. within me WANTS to set difficult goals, to try and succeed at hard things, and to get recognition for effort.

And yet, part of me just does not want to take on any more challenges AT ALL. I feel so tired just thinking about doing difficult things. I really want to be happy just lying on the sofa, alone with my thoughts, writing a bit while drinking a lovely hot cup of coffee.

I think about going back to paid work, and instantly memories of my hectic life in Tokyo come rushing back at me with epic force, like a wall of dirty flood water – superiors and clients lined up in a row demanding agreement re-drafts, comments lists, spreadsheets, issues charts, timesheets, conference calls, talking points, meeting summaries, and all by 9am tomorrow; panic and anxiety a constant dead weight in the pit of my stomach; heart aching and eyes stinging with tears at missing my kids’ bedtime yet again; every nerve dreading telling hubby that yet again I would have to work over the weekend; head aching and whole body aching to lie down and sleep, preferably for about 3 solid days; running down to buy myself a hot chocolate and iced cupcake at the Starbucks in my building and trying to convince myself what a lovely treat it was and how it would completely fix my exhaustion, stress, and happiness deficit.  

I so don’t want that life back.

And yet, telling myself to kick back and do nothing is not being kind to myself; it’s actually doing me a disservice.

Oh crap.

Stay tuned while I try and figure out what to do; how to find a happy medium. At least now I know what happiness ISN’T.


  1. You need a challenge. You need to stetch yourself a little. There is no absurdity in this. Such things keep us alive and make us feel alive. Just do it on your terms and under your control. As for happiness, there are 2 types. One is being happy doing what we want and being where we want to be. The other is learning to happy in the self even without the things we want or the places we want to be. The latter has to be learnt. And it's a damned hard lesson.

  2. Steve, too right that I need a challenge, and possibly even multiple ones at the same time - as you say, the key is that this time it's on my terms, and something I want to do as opposed to something I think is expected or required of me. Your comment about happiness was profound, and so very true. I would say that most people never learn to be happy within their own heads and hearts. Here's to getting there one day.

  3. a couple of good reads for your happiness journey:

    Hector and the search for Happiness. Francois Lelord. The one is fantastic. So easy to read but with great substance.

    The Happiness Project, which was a New York Times Best Seller. (not as good) she does urge you however to join up and start your own happiness project... (see my blog for details)

    Anything by the Dalai Lama...

  4. The good news is you know very clearly what you don't want - i)a more than full time job which takes you almost completely away from your family, or ii)to be completely at home spending your life on looking after children and pursuing self interest. In your quest to try and find out what you do want to do from here I would encourage you to create a timeline - at the times you were happiest (or maybe here you actually mean fulfilled rather than happy?) and discover what common elements there are. Do the same for when you were most unhappy/stressed/unfulfilled. Then try and use the 2 to figure out what things you want and don't want. Then create a goal for what you want and an action plan for how you will get there. Don't worry if your goal evolves....your life experience has changed dramatically of late and it takes a while to figure out what you really want.

  5. Thank you, ladies, for the great tips. Lots to digest, and I'm so grateful for that.