I admit, the title is a bit tongue in cheek – the saying certainly is better than some of the alternatives such as, “I hope your New Year doesn’t suck,” or, “I hope your year is mediocre.” I sometimes wonder, however, if the phrase has any real meaning, or whether happiness is really something to shoot for anyways?
Over the holidays I was reflecting on Christmas holidays in the past and some of my experiences. 19 years ago, I was living in Ukraine with a bunch of other young people doing things like working in orphanages, teaching sex ed in the local university, and running coffee houses for local youth. I was reflecting on this mainly because it was a very different experience to be in such a different country over a holiday, but also, because the culture is so different there. One of the things they taught us before we went, over and over, was that we had to only say things we actually meant. They used the example of the phrase we so often use, “We should go for coffee.” See, here we say this all the time to simply be polite, as a way of saying goodbye, or, really, for no meaningful reason at all. There in Ukraine, if you say this, they’ll expect you to actually go for coffee and it’s a great insult if you don’t.
This got me thinking about the phrase that we say so often this time of year – “Happy New Year,” is ubiquitous in our communication at the beginning of January. In fact, as I type this, I’m pretty sure I’ve written it in at least 15 emails today alone. What I wonder is – does this phrase actually have any meaning anymore? If I put aside my cynicism over holiday expressions, I’d like to say it does. It’s a positive phrase of encouragement and well wishes for a new season of life. It certainly doesn’t do any harm. Or does it?
I wonder if we should truly be chasing happiness. I know I certainly haven’t had great success in my life chasing it, particularly when I’ve struggled with depression and even with anxiety. I know I’ve had innumerable times where I’ve been around others, seemingly happy themselves or wishing others happiness, and wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” Does this mean I’ve never been happy? Of course not, thank goodness. I’ve had plenty of happiness in my life, but it’s never been the primary focus of my life. I also know that when I’ve chased happiness, I’ve met with very little success.
If I look at my experiences, and the experiences of the clients I’ve worked with over the years, it seems to me that feeling happy is a by-product of a more important process – that is, finding meaning. See, we can find meaning in life even if we’re depressed, anxious, dealing with trauma, in the midst of an addiction, and more. I can’t say that it’s always possible to find happiness in the midst of these things.
So how do we find meaning in our life? I’d like to offer a few suggestions that I’ve noticed improve the chances of finding meaning in our day to day lives, and thus, an increased chance of being happy.
Engage in Meaningful Activities
One of the things my clients hear from me frequently is that sometimes we have to do the things that we know help us feel better before we feel like doing them, as opposed to waiting to feel better and then doing them. In this case, if we’re stuck feeling like life isn’t particularly meaningful, sometimes we may need to do things that we know have meaning for us, even if we don’t feel like it; by doing so, we greatly increase the chances of shifting our mindset and experience into a meaningful one.
Some examples of things people you might find meaningful could be:
- Spending time with friends and family
- Being creative through music, visual arts, dance, or otherwise
- Reading books that get your brain engaged, or are on a topic you have a curiosity about, or books that simply make you laugh
- Volunteering your time and/or skills for a worthy cause
One of the things I’ve realized over the holidays is that I need to spend more time investing in myself, and particularly, in learning. This realization came after reading an article that quoted Warren Buffett, which you can read here if you like. It’s been a wild 3 years here and I’ve been focusing on the business and program development a lot, but my own personal growth has not been as much of a focus. I’ve committed to spending more time reading, and pursuing education and I’ve already taken steps toward that by booking a conference in January, doing an online course, and I’m planning more for the coming year.
What is one actionable step you could take now to pursue a meaningful activity that maybe hasn’t been a priority lately?
Evaluate Your Current Activities
I’m fascinated by metrics, data, and analytics. It’s the geek in me that loves measuring results. I don’t know if I’m such a fan of these same things when they are measuring how I spend my time in the “off hours.” When I look at things like how much time I’ve spent on a screen, how much time I’ve spent on social media, how much of my reading is on Google News versus something I actually care about. There’s a lot of time spent in distraction versus intention.
Being intentional is hugely important when it comes to finding meaning in life. I’ve noticed that I get far more satisfaction in the activities I’ve intentional set out to do than the ones that I just find myself doing out of habit. The beauty of this is that there’s no right or wrong answer as to how you invest your time, but there is an affirmative or negative answer to the question, “Is doing this providing meaning in my life,” and, “By doing this activity, is it adding to my life, or is it taking away valuable time and resources from something that could be?” If it’s not adding to your life, or it’s taking away time and resources that could be providing meaning, consider whether it’s something you want to be doing.
Surround Yourself With People Who Invest In You and Speak The Truth
I actually laughed out loud after writing this title because I caught myself thinking, “Sure Andrew, let the introvert tell others to surround themselves with people.” I wasn’t thinking quantity, okay? I’m thinking quality.
I’ve got two very close friends. I’ve known each of them for 30 years or more, and at the ripe old age of 37, I think that’s significant. We know each other. We invest in each other. We ask each other the hard questions in life because we care enough to. I need people like this in my life because I spend a great part of my life caring for others. I need the same in return, and I need people who speak the truth to me even if it’s hard.
This is important when choosing a counsellor if you’re thinking about working with a Registered Clinical Counsellor this year. I remember when I was looking for my counsellor, I sat down with him and one of the first things I said was, “I need someone who isn’t afraid to call me out when I need it.” I’d been to other counsellors who were warm and caring, but didn’t challenge me and I am definitely someone who needs challenging at times. To his credit, he’s followed through and it’s been a very helpful relationship for me to have.
What Should We Say Instead of Happy New Year?
In a perfect world, I’d love it if we all had a happy 2019. As much as I tend to avoid pushing for happiness, it really is a wonderful thing. I’m a big fan of focusing on things we can control, though, and so my hope for is that you’d have a meaningful New Year, and in turn, that the meaning you create and discover in your life would bring you moments of great joy.
I’m a fan of Viktor Frankl and I’d like to leave you with a quote, in the hopes that it will help you on your journey toward meaning in 2019:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself
From all of us at Alongside You, I hope you have a wonderful start to the New Year, and that 2019 will bring you a renewed sense of purpose and meaning…and happiness.