In the old days, people had simpler expectations of life. Our parents taught us to be grateful for the food sitting before us on the dinner table. They taught us to be grateful when the whole family was there to break bread together. Saying grace before a meal took only a few moments, but it reminded us that we could find happiness in the simpler aspects of life, and that message was hammered home with daily repetition.
Somewhere along the way, we let the world become more complicated. We decided it wasn’t enough to eat regular meals and have family nearby. We wanted more. Now we’ve built up an entire industry, the self-help industry, to help us achieve something that becomes more elusive the harder we search for it: happiness. Every day the industry churns out books, and magazines, and seminars, and TV shows, all promising to help us find the thing we’re looking for.
The search for happiness has become the obsession of our times. People think they’ve lost it. They blame the loss on their current lot, thinking that they’ve gone off track, and that in order to reconnect with their memories of happiness in youth, they need to find something else to do in life. I meet so many chemical engineers who say they’ve finally found their passion in personal coaching, or sales managers who say they’ve found joy in training others how to meditate. Almost always, these people seem to hold one belief in common: that the initial choices they made in life were wrong for them. They think choosing a career as a chemical engineer, or as a sales manager, was wrong, and that years ago, had they understood their strengths and listened to their interests, they would have chosen this other path instead.
When did we become so hard on ourselves? It’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to have made decisions 30 years ago with the same wisdom we have today. Years ago when we chose to become chemical engineers or sales managers, life coaching and meditation training were not options for many of us. Even if they were, at that time we didn’t have the life experience we would have needed to do them well. When we were making choices as 20-year-olds, we couldn’t magically peer into the future and see the world with the wisdom of a 50-year-old. We didn’t know what the future held in store for us. We could only see the options and resources available to us at that moment. Whatever choices we made in the past, we made those choices because at the time we were doing the best we knew how.
Another common assumption I see burned-out professionals making is that happiness will come when they start living in a rustic village, growing their own fruits and vegetables and living a simple life off the land. Because they don’t live that kind of life now, they fantasize that it must be filled with happiness, free from stress. The truth is, happiness does not come from a lack of stress, but boredom almost always does. Three months after living the simple, rustic village life of their fantasies, most people would be bored out of their skulls. Happiness in life requires having some challenges to overcome, so you can feel the satisfaction of developing new skills and growing personally.
If you have been doing the same thing for 30 years, and you hope that moving on to something else in life will bring you greater happiness, I say go for it. Shake things up, try going down a different road. But don’t discount the choices you made 30 years ago. Don’t waste your time second-guessing decisions you made about your life decades ago. They made you what you are today. Today those choices might be making you unhappy, and maybe it is time to move on to something different. But the old path that seems so stale now put a lifetime’s-worth of experience under your belt, and that experience will make you so much more powerful and wise in whatever you choose to do next.
The rewards that come from your next path in life won’t come because you finally figured out what you really should be doing. They will come because you got back in touch with the idea that happiness comes from challenging yourself, just like you did when you started down your current path many years ago.