Throughout my divorce, I experienced a tsunami of emotions and feelings. Many times this tsunami would wash over me at inopportune times such as smack dab in the middle of the workday. As I described in “Dads’ Guide To Divorce Step 5: Master Your Psychology,” we don’t conjure up our thoughts, they simply appear without our summoning or approval. They’re a major pain in the butt if we aren’t prepared and they rear their ugly head when we least expect it. There’s nothing like choking back the tears and sadness of the memory of the day’s parenting time transition, knowing that I won’t see my kiddos for a week while attempting to conduct the morning business meeting. Usually, I would power through these feelings with the willpower of acting “happy.” Sound familiar? It turns out that this isn’t necessarily the healthiest coping strategy.
I have and continue to regard myself as a “happy person,” but recently something I read gave me pause as to the benefits of this self-assessment. In it the author writes* that “Under certain circumstances valuing happiness may be self-defeating and result in disappointment, depending upon how people evaluate their progress toward that goal.” Wow!
I always thought “being happy” or “a positive outlook” was a good thing and that aligning my mental and emotional state with happiness was a noble effort in creating a better life. It went on to say, “…researchers found that valuing happiness can set people up for disappointment, especially if they compare themselves to an ideal.” Wow, again!
Basically my strategy of aligning my thoughts and feelings in an attempt to be “happy” is sabotaging my ability to realize real and lasting happiness by leading to disappointment which is a form of sadness. But if valuing happiness is paradoxically leading me to sadness then what is a better approach?
Based upon my experience, training, and research as well as suggestions from the author of the article I will layout 4 steps to realizing lasting happiness.
Step 1: Determine your needs.
This can be challenging during or after divorce as much of our lives have been turned upside down and feels chaotic. However, as I describe in “Dads’ Guide To Divorce Step 1: Clarify Your Vision And Direction” now you have the opportunity to realign your life and consciously create the vision and direction that you want for your future! Doing so is part of our masculine makeup and the very thing that drives us each and every day. Find a coach or therapist that will assist you with sorting through your emotions and feelings and determining your needs. If you don’t have the means for a coach or therapist then I recommend finding a support or men’s group. They can be equally beneficial and provide structure.
Step 2: Cease idealizing “what could have been” or “what could be.”
I admit that this step is the hardest for me and is probably for most of the men with whom I work. Our society as well as our individual familial structure inherently wires our brains with an expectation of what our lives are supposed to look like. Whether that is a “traditional family,” “alternative lifestyle,” or some other way of life. Furthermore, watch a movie, listen to pop music, read a magazine or newspaper and we are constantly bombarded with the “ideal” life. (tip: turn off the TV, music, and news)
My greatest disappointment in ending my marriage was that I would no longer have the family life that I so desired. And while I have done the deep internal work necessary to come to terms with the “what could have been” in my marriage, 8 years later it remains a challenge for me to cease idealizing the “what could be” for my future relationships. I am wired to “value happiness.” I am continually working on it and working through these steps too.
Step 3: Accept and be grateful for what you have.
This step works in conjunction with Step 2. Once I worked through the “what could have been” or “what could be” feelings I began journaling about exactly what it is that I am experiencing in my life. Doing this allows me to process all of my amazing life experiences in a way that opens up to a feeling of gratitude. For instance, after working through the fact that I would not have the family life that “could have been” eventually I was able to recognize that by only seeing my daughters 50% of the time my intense focus as a father during my parenting time had deepened the relationship with my daughters. I was able to let go of the “what could have been” idea of a family and accept and be grateful for the amazing relationship that I enjoy with all three of my daughters and the family life that we have created. For this, I am immensely grateful.
Performing this step will attune you to an alternative frame of mind in which you will interpret differently an experience that was otherwise perceived as negative. The key is attaching a sense of gratitude to the acceptance of what is. This will shift your mindset and lead you toward the belief that life is working for you and not against you.
Step 4: Measure Your Progress From Who You Were Yesterday
I feel that this is the step that will ensure the happiness we seek is not paradoxically sabotaged by disappointment. So often and historically we have been taught to set a goal (the goal is what will eventually make you happy) and work, work, work toward that goal in an unwavering and determined fashion until we reach it at all costs and stay focused with passion and no regrets, etc., etc. This is an extreme example but if you listen to any motivational speech you will hear this type of rah, rah, stuff. Except that it makes us susceptible to the trap of needing to reach our goal in order to attain happiness. If we are constantly measuring ourselves to the attainment of our goal we will continually be disappointed because we will either not attain the goal and feel lousy or attain the goal and realize that the end result did not provide happiness.
Instead, measure yourself based upon who you were yesterday and the progress that you have made since then. Did you do something today that has moved you toward your goal and in turn improved you as a person? If so that is progress and something for which you will be happy. Might you be disappointed if you did not do something today to move toward your goal? Sure, but that disappointment is based upon your choice and you have direct control over whether or not you will make the change necessary to move forward.
Now you have control over your happiness!!!
*I have been unable to locate the original source of this article and am quoting from notes I took from the article. Any assistance in locating this source is appreciated so that credit may be given.