At work lately I’ve been hearing quite a few people say something similar to, “My life just isn’t how I pictured it would be at this age.” Needless to say, as a counselor, that’s a very “meaty” statement to my ears and can elicit an entire universe of topics for discussion. One topic I’ve been giving a lot of personal thought to these days is how, as individuals, we define happiness at different points in our lifetimes.
Remember the summer when you were six years old? Just close your eyes and think about it for a moment. Remember the smell of freshly cut grass? Remember your dad grilling burgers and brats on Saturday afternoons, a Brewers (or perhaps a Braves) game on the radio in background, in the garage? For me it was full of riding my Big Wheel with neighbor kids, eating an endless amount of Freeze Pops, playing softball in an empty field in our neighborhood where we made “bases” out of cardboard box scraps. And I too remember fondly the smell of the freshly mowed grass and my own dad grilling out, listening to the Brewers. The Big Wheel, the Freeze Pops, the Kool Aid, all of it was happiness for me then. As a young child, those are the physical things and events that shaped my definition of happiness.
Now, remember when you were 14 years old? Ugh! It’s honestly a bit hard to think of things that helped me feel happy then, because early adolescence, heck, all of adolescence, is not usually a very happy time for the adolescent and for his or her parents. But of course there were countless times when I was happy; getting my first phone call from a boy, junior high school dances where all of the boys stood on one side of the gym and all of the girls stood on the opposite side, starting to baby-sit for neighbors and actually making money for the very first time (and this was tax-free income which was even better!) The boys, the dances, the 50 cent an hour baby-sitting money all helped define happiness for me then.
I’m sure by now you can see where I’m going with this: what made us happy earlier in life are likely not the things that contribute to our happiness now, except of course for the memories. As we age, our definition of happiness changes, and most of the time we don’t even know it! It’s not until we take stock and find ourselves saying, “My life just isn’t how I pictured it would be at this age,” that we even consider what experiences play into such a statement. When I was a little girl and “played house” with my younger sister and other girls from our neighborhood, we all declared that we were 25 years old and drove red sports cars. That’s what we pictured 25 to look like as seven and eight year-olds. I specifically remember thinking on my 25th birthday how completely unrealistic it was for me to think that 25 was some magical age, when life would be the way I wanted it to be and that I could afford a red sports car.
I turned 40 earlier this year. As the decades turn, those birthdays generally seem to be good times to “take stock” and assess the situation that is our lives. How did I get here? Do I have any regrets? Is this how I pictured my life at this age? Am I happy?
I can tell you one thing for sure, I don’t regret anything. Have I made mistakes? Of course! But I believe that if I had not done what I did at the time that I did it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I really dig the person I am today. Am I happy? I don’t ride Big Wheels or spend time in crepe paper-filled gyms on Friday nights anymore, but I am happy. My definition of happiness has had to grow up along with its owner: me.