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I still remember that Sunday afternoon in Santo Domingo. I was tanning on the beach. The smooth Caribbean sand slid between my toes, my skin kissed by the sun. My favorite bachata tunes were playing in the background. Beautiful couples were laughing and dancing in all directions.
Despite all of this, I was asking myself, “Is this all there is?” as I hacked up another cough, sick once again. With each cough, I felt a growing sense of resignation.
With all that was going well in my life, I felt a looming sense of emptiness growing from within. I had the distinct feeling that something was missing, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I’ve since come to realize that this experience is far from uncommon. Many of us experience a disconnect at some point in our lives. We identify these external mile markers that we need to meet, whether they are professional (such as a salary level or promotion) or personal (a home or spouse). We believe that when we reach these theoretical markers, we will be happy, content, or perhaps even satisfied.
When we reach that mile marker, we discover that the sense of achievement or feeling of success is fleeting. Soon enough we are back to the races, vying for the next accomplishment to feel better about ourselves. An overarching feeling remains that something’s missing on the inside. I have spoken with hundreds of clients over the years, very much like myself, who find themselves at the same point—checking the boxes, but still dissatisfied and unhappy. It bears asking, does anyone have it all figured out?
My personal journey took me down a path to fill that looming sense of emptiness from within. As many of us experience, I didn’t know what to do with my feelings of discontentedness. I didn’t know how to handle the constant mind-chatter reinforcing the belief that I wasn’t good enough. And I didn’t know how to respond to the never-ending stories in my head of needing to take care of others, needing to please others, feeling like an impostor, and needing to not be a disappointment.
So I looked for Band-Aids. Those feelings led me to unhealthy relationships where my boyfriends met certain mile markers of physical attraction, wealth, and education but lacked certain basic markers of respect, integrity, and the ability to open their hearts to me. They led me back to graduate school and to a practical degree, but I was never passionate about it. And eventually, they led me to move back to the states for a job as an economist with the Federal Government, which sounded prestigious and meaningful but soon became yet one more Band-Aid.
When I talk to clients about what they want more of in life, their answers often devolve into what’s wrong with them, what’s not working, and why they’re unhappy. Thinking about ourselves as wrong or broken creates more discomfort and discontentedness, for what we focus on expands. I have discovered that happiness is much more an experience of well-being than it is the result of a goal achieved or a mile marker reached. This life lesson has been a hard-learned one for me, and research backs it up.
University of Illinois Professor Edward Diener, one of the leading pioneers in scientific research on happiness, dubbed the term “subjective well-being.” His research suggests that happiness is an entirely subjective feeling of well-being experienced by the individual. It is characterized by the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative ones. While happiness isn’t highly correlated with income like so many of us imagine, it is highly correlated with social relationships.
In my search for happiness, I lost every sense of subjective well-being. I lost my sense of dignity to men who capitalized on the marginalization of women. I prioritized my relationships over my friendships. And I made myself sick from bronchitis and repeated episodes of sinusitis for years in my never-ending search for Band-Aids.
Through my own personal journey to belong, I have achieved a state of happiness that feels intrinsic and unshakeable. Well-being and focusing on positive emotions have played a central role in that journey. I have worked with countless clients who focused on achievements and results. I have seen countless times how this “success” has come at the expense of their finding a sense of belonging, joy, and fulfillment from within.
To put it simply—it’s normal to feel discontent or unhappy. I have found that thinking we are unique or different in this way is one of the greatest barriers to change and experiencing belonging.
Over the next weeks and months, I will be sharing excerpts and stories from my book, Belonging: Overcome Your Inner Critic and Reclaim Your Joy in this article series. In this book, I share my own journey, and process, to reclaim my experience of happiness and sense of belonging in the world. Belonging launches April 6th on Amazon! If you enjoyed what you read, stay tuned.