When I woke up one morning a few months before my 39th birthday, the realization came to me that I wasn’t happy.
And the embarrassment I felt because of this was deep and intense.
I had everything I could need or want, so to still think something was missing from my life felt greedy. My husband and I had a loving marriage, we had three healthy and happy children and a nice home in a beautiful neighbourhood. I had even recently landed my dream job. Everything on paper was pristine and perfect. And yet, the only way I could describe how I felt was unsatisfied.
So, I started to question what was wrong with me.
I would watch my unhappiness unfold in front of my family and feel like I had no power to stop it. One afternoon, as I was losing it uncontrollably on my husband, my inner voice was yelling back at me, “Why are you so angry over a messy front hall??” I had no answer. I watched and listened to myself yelling at my kids or being short with my husband, but I wouldn’t stop. And I wouldn’t apologize afterwards either.
I felt weak and ashamed.
I had no idea that I was about to embark on what I would call a 'mini midlife crisis.' I also had no idea how unoriginal it all was. My story had already been told. Everyone knew about Elizabeth Gilbert’s eating and praying and loving journey. Many, many books had been written on the search for happiness. Heck, there was even a university course at Yale on the topic.
“So, maybe it’s not just me,” I comforted myself. But the women around me in my daily life, my friends and coworkers, weren’t talking about it. I would admit to having a midlife crisis, laughing nervously while I shared my story, waiting for them to chime in with “Oh, me too!” But they never did.
I eventually went through the motions of the stereotypical midlife crisis—I listened to podcast after podcast on the search for happiness. I thought about my life as a hero’s journey and wondered if I was listening to the universe when it was calling to me. I knew I couldn’t just up and leave my family and responsibilities (and nor did I want to). I didn't know what to do next.
One sunny weekend afternoon, I went out for a walk alone to listen to yet another podcast and discovered that the person on the other end of my earphones was giving me permission.
It was exactly what I needed in the moment.
Permission to go after what I want, to find and create happiness and satisfaction that was meaningful to me. It wasn’t measurable by anybody else’s standards but my own. I was allowed to be happy on my own terms. I was allowed to want more. To be ambitious. But it didn’t have to be as much or as little as anyone else wanted. It was all my own.
That's when I realized it. When something in my brain just switched on. Nobody has the power to tell you how big your dreams can be. Nobody else wants it as much as you do, either. So you have to make it happen for yourself. It's the only way to happiness.
I started waking up earlier in the morning and writing—just for myself—because it made me happy. I was writing words that may never be published or may never turn into a book, but having no expectations, and doing something just to enjoy it, was incredibly freeing.
I stopped watching as much TV at night and rediscovered my love of lying in bed with a book and a glass of wine. I did as best as I could at everything important in my life, but I learned that I had to let some things go. And I really meant it.
It's okay to leave the laundry for a few extra days. It's okay to allow the mental load we carry with us every day to be lighter.
I started to feel and acknowledge gratitude. As much as I always loved Oprah, a gratitude journal was probably the last thing I would ever consider keeping up until this point. And yet, suddenly I was realizing the power of just feeling something like appreciation.
We may find that our physical environment doesn’t change. We might not work less, or our kids won't have their ‘off moments’ any less. They won't go to bed easier or put up fewer arguments when we tell them it's time to brush their teeth. But I found that it didn't matter, because I was able to deal with everything with much more patience. I didn’t feel the need to fly off the handle.
I felt like a better parent. A more caring wife. And I started to like myself a lot more.
“It took me 39 years to figure this out,” I sheepishly admitted to a friend one evening as we were discussing life over a bottle of wine.
“It's not really about how long it takes you,” she said back to me. "It's about the journey."
There might not be anything unique about my 39-year-old crisis. But I’m glad I had it when I did. It allowed me to look at each day, each situation, each stressor in my life differently. It allowed me to understand what guru after guru really meant when they said that today is a gift and that tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Most importantly, it’s allowed me to realize that there is no job or house or person that can truly make you happy. You have to go after it yourself. You have to make it your own.
Now I like who I am and where I'm going. I'm happy. And there is so much power in that.