8 Happiness Lessons Learnt in my 20s and 30s

Like most people my age, I’ve been through a fair amount of shit. I’ve spent a lot of my 20s and 30s being unhappy, but at 37 I find myself happy. These are my 8 biggest lessons, which may be useful to you if you are entering into adulthood, feeling a bit out of place.

Don’t idolise the future

I spent a lot of time in my 20s idolising the future. I’d be so driven and excited about what it was going to be like when I was rich, successful, happily married with a family, a boat and a nice car. All it meant was I spent all of that ‘present’ being unhappy, because I was too focused on the future.

Now at 37, I have had all of these things (if a 40hp dingy counts as a boat) and I still just feel like me. Nothing really changed that much, regardless of what happened.

I’ve learned to be more comfortable being me, not because I’ve acquired some things, just because it’s really the only way to be happy.

When you look to the future you will imagine being someone else. Someone that you can see presently that has those things that you desire. But the problem is, when you get to the future you won’t be that someone else. You will still be you. And you will still feel like you.

It’s OK to be optimistic about the future, but I think it’s worth realizing that your future experiences and acquisitions will only make small changes in how you feel overall.

So best to feel good now, and also know that in the future you will feel good too. As long as you can figure out how to feel good being you.

Everyone is just as fucked up as you are

It’s easy to wallow in your own self pity when you feel out of place. You don’t quite feel right. But what if not feeling quite right is just the experience of being human? We are the only animals that can think and know we are thinking. So we overthink. And we assume our idols are living a perfect life and we suck.

Mark Manson, in his book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” refers to this as a form of entitlement. The world owes you something because you are special, different and more fucked up than average.

I often feel like this and reading this in Mark’s book was a great reminder. Perhaps I’m not that unique in how fucked up I am?

Take a look around. Celebrities, sport stars, business moguls, comedians, the list goes on. Listen to interviews and read their stories. Often success comes from an unnatural amount of drive which in a lot of cases would be caused by some sort of fucked up upbringing. So the people you idolise so much in all likelihood are more fucked up than you! And even if they were OK at the start, all of the noise and excess that comes with success, just makes them fucked up in the end.

I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking that I was pretty fucked up and most successful people were 100% OK. That was until I achieved some success and realised I had people around me looking up to me and thinking I was a guru and they were fucked up. All the while I still just feel like plain old me.

So I’ve learned to accept that there isn’t a future where I am all of a sudden 100% OK.

To be human is to be a little bit fucked up.

Whatever you worry about now, you won’t in the future

When I was 20 I was depressed most of the time. I was in love with my best friend Kelly, I had never had a girlfriend or had sex, I drove an embarrassing $2,000 car, I wore the same clothes every day, I thought I would never get a girlfriend and if I did I would have no idea what to do anyway. I had zero confidence, I was so shy and anxious I would rarely go out but when I did I felt like a loser because I couldn’t dance and sing and carry on and have fun like everyone else. I hated myself for it. I thought I would never amount to anything. I smoked a packet a day, drank more, got arrested twice, failed 75% of my subjects at uni and I couldn’t see how there was anything good for me in the future.

I remember worrying so much about this stuff it would absorb my thoughts all day every day. It controlled my existence. My early 20s were me thinking about this shit constantly and wondering how I would get out of it.

At 37 I don’t care about any of these things.

I had sex once or twice, it was alright.

I’ve hung out with Kelly since and I’m glad she didn’t go for me. She’s great, but we would have been a shit couple. I should have just been grateful for the friendship.

I’m still not the most outgoing confident person, but I know in the right environment I can be. Just that environment is a bit different to the one I was in at the time and a bit different to other peoples.

I’m not worried about meeting a girl. 50% of the world is female. What self respecting entrepreneur wouldn’t like those odds!!??

I still wear the same clothes every day. So did Steve Jobs.

I ended up passing Uni and all it got me was a decade long HECS debt.

The car I drove in my 20s, is now worth $20k and is a collectors item, and I want one again.

I still can’t and won’t dance but I don’t care.

I don’t smoke and drink to excess and it’s been a while since I’ve been arrested. I’m in the future and life is pretty good, so all those worrying years were for nothing.

If only I knew that all the things I worried so much about, would turn into nothing and get replaced by other worries that would also ultimately turn into nothing. I know now, so I always try to remember that most of the stuff you worry about is temporary.

Try not to worry about things that you know, will eventually mean nothing.

Don’t anchor your happiness to shallow people

You get in trouble when you care too much about what others think if you, especially shallow people (which turns out, is a large group of people). I’ve been reminded of this many times.

I have often found myself in one situation where people worship me like a guru and 5 minutes later be in a different situation where people completely ignore me or dismiss me. Or visa versa, and even the same people. Paying too much attention to either group can be a recipe for misery.

I was at a conference one time sitting in the audience and the MC asked everyone to take a selfie with the person next to them. I asked the lady next to me for a selfie and she reluctantly agreed not really wanting to do it or engage with me in any way. She smiled awkwardly in the photo then turned away quickly to go back to her phone.

I was one of the main speakers at the conference, and after I spoke on stage, she came up and apologised profusely for not “recognising” me. She was there to see my talk and she didn’t expect me to just be some dude sitting in the audience.

She was a shallow person. She didn’t have to make me feel like I had no value just because she didn’t realise that I had value to her. As soon as she did, she wanted to hang out all afternoon. I left pretty quickly (without being a dickhead about it). But ever since then I’ve always been very conscious about how people respond to me so differently based on what they know about me and what context it is in.

The point is most people are fucking weird. It’s rare for someone to judge you on who you are as a person. Most people judge you based on fame and success and accomplishments and your job etc. But you know all that stuff already about yourself so why would you give a fuck about having it validated (or invalidated) by shallow people?

If you don’t feel like you are loved and respected by the people around you right now, it might not be you.

Create more things

Sometimes with the constant influx of attention-sapping media it’s hard to know what to do, what to spend your time on, what to focus on, what not to do etc.

I always come back to the universal act of creating something. It’s what the most successful people do, and it’s one thing that is certain to bring you some level of joy.

If I’m feeling in a rut, normally writing a blog post or working on designs for a project, or making something around the house will make me good again (actually I was feeling a bit yuck tonight which is why I reviewed and published this, and now I’m feeling better). In my 20s it was working on cars and my house, these days its working on content and on my businesses.

I get a wave of happiness and a feeling of achievement when I make the most simplest things.

So if in doubt, create something. If you can do it with your friends, even better.

Be grateful

The only way you can be unhappy is if you are ungrateful for your current situation. Granted, some situations are utterly fucked and it’s very hard to be grateful in those cases.

But this isn’t really where a lot of unhappiness / depression comes from. Most people’s lives aren’t utterly fucked all the time. Most are pretty good, with moments of utter fuckedness. It’s all the moments in between where you need to stay on top of gratitude.

I’ve seen friends who are grumpy and pissed off because the wrong milk was used in their coffee.

I’ve seen other friends in their happiest moments after being diagnosed with cancer. Knowing it wasn’t terminal and could be treated via a year long process of hospital visits, radio therapy and chemo was enough to bring about immense gratitude. That is certainly better than a painful and traumatic death.

So which one are you?

If one person can be happy when they get cancer, and you are unhappy when your latte is cold, please admit you are doing something wrong. This is the easiest thing for you to work on / fix, you can do it every day, and it’s free.

There aren’t that many things I can honestly say I’ve improved a lot about who I am, but gratitude is certainly one of them. I used to be very negative and whinged about everything. But I’ve learned that there is a grateful response to pretty much any negative situation, and you can train yourself to choose the grateful option.

One person whinges about a chair being uncomfortable at a restaurant, another is grateful they get to go to the restaurant.

One person gets angry when someone drives 40 MPH in front of them, another remembers if they didn’t have a car, they would be doing 0 MPH at the bus stop.

One person hates their office job, another person is grateful they get to work in air conditioning, hang out with likeminded people and earn money to live a good life.

One person is pissed off they have the flu, another person is grateful to have access to free healthcare and sick leave.

The list goes on and on, the more grateful you can be, the more happy you can be, it’s that simple. And it’s something you can change, and practise every day.

Happiness levels can change very quickly

I’m always reluctant to talk too much about depression and oversimplified solutions to it. I cringe when I see people claiming that you can just change your diet or your exercise and all of a sudden every single depressed person on earth is cured.

It’s a complex personal thing and I’m sure depression sufferers find it deeply offensive when they read stuff like that.

One thing I do know however, is your happiness levels can change very quickly. Even small changes in your environment and your circle of friends can have a fast and deep impact on happiness, especially if you haven’t mastered some of the other points in this list.

I’ve been in situations after a break up for example where I was so miserable and I just felt like there was going to be no way out of it. Then a week or two later I’d be hanging out with friends and I’d feel good, knowing that things weren’t perfect but they would be OK. It helps to acknowledge that bad times can pass quickly for when they inevitably return in the future.

Even if they just pass temporarily, they pass. Everything is temporary so that’s a win.

If depression is a lack of hope for the future, it helps to remember that your happiness levels can change quickly.

Knowing that should be enough to remind you that there is plenty of hope.

Perhaps it’s not about hope, it’s about patience.

Time solves almost everything

Sometimes things don’t improve quickly, they take a long time. It took me years in my 20s to get through my personal issues.

I’ve had hard times since then too, like everyone has.

At 35 I broke up with my wife and partner of 13 years and mother of my 2 kids. Obviously at the time it was devastating, I cried every day for weeks and on and off for months and years. Every time I thought about it.

The thing I feared the most and couldn’t even imagine, was seeing my kids out and about when they were not with me and knowing that they were living their life days on end without even thinking about me. That happened a week or two in. I was driving past the school and I saw them crossing the road to go to a school event. I hadn’t seen them in a week. I’m sure they hadn’t thought of me in that time. I was no longer relevant to their day to day life.

It was hard. I cried then and every time I dropped them at their mums for months and months.

But I knew I’d gotten through tough times before so I knew I would get through this eventually.

I wrote in my journal most days about how I was feeling so I could gradually notice when things were improving. I made one entry late at night after drunk-texting my Ex to ask if she was happy. I asked her if she thought we could still make it work, especially for the kids.

This was 2 years after we broke up.

She thought I was crazy for even still thinking about it. She had moved on and was in a relationship with one of our old friends, had bought a new house and had all but forgotten about our relationship.

In the months after that, my journal entries dropped off because I was beginning to forget and move on. I find myself now, a few months later, 100% happy and grateful about the situation, and 100% moved on.

I never thought it would take over 2 years but I did know that at some point in the future I would be healed. That knowledge will get me through situations like this in the future and hopefully will help you too.

I hope this post has been useful, please feel free to share this post if you think it will help someone.

Photo from Unsplash

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