A major reason for my unhappiness during my teens and twenties was the fact I had got a big life lesson back to front. This is not surprising (I'll explain what this lesson was in a moment), when you stop to consider the society we live in and the power of marketing, advertising and the media at large, all shouting at us about how fulfilment, joy and contentment are to be discovered solely in products, labels and status.
I remember thinking that 'old people' (that is, anyone over the age of 35, when I was in my teens) were entirely wrong and dull for investing their time in activities such as gardening, reading, sports, the theatre or crafts. The fact they mostly didn't follow fashion in the same, slavish manner as I and my friends did, was a sign they had lost their lust for life and no longer cared about their appearance.
On the other hand, IMO, people who were happy and switched on engaged in the following: drinking alcohol, clubbing, taking recreational drugs, hanging out, buying nice clothes, listening to the right music and chatting about whatever was cool and current in popular culture. Those who were interesting and worth my time were the people who shared my values, and I was quite brutishly selective about to whom I gave my attention.
But during these years of my life, I was always desperately unhappy.
Now, with wisdom and age, I have come to realise a couple of seriously important truths. The above is all wrong. When we look to external people and things for our validation, we are chasing a mirage; like searching for the end of a rainbow, we will only exhaust ourselves, arriving at disappointment around every corner. And when we are most interested in ourselves, always putting our own needs first, and believing our opinions and beliefs are the only ones that are really valid, we will never experience fully the joys of friendship, deep love, and true engagement with life.
This seems blindingly obvious to me now, at the age of 46. But, previously, I had it so wrong that I was actively heading in the opposite direction for decades - years and years of honestly believing that I would only be happy as a result of possessing the right clothes, getting drunk, escaping my reality through a variety of means, continual drama in my personal life, relationships with people I didn't really share any common values with, distractions, distractions, distractions.
I was completely unaware of the concept of being my own validation system. My entire existence, importance and worth depended upon the opinions of others - what they thought of me was everything, but what I thought of me was irrelevant. Simultaneously, if I felt sad or bored, I looked to drinking or shopping or men to pull myself out of the gloom. It was the responsibility of other people and 'things' to entertain me and keep me from descending into a pit of despair. And when those people let me down (as I perceived it then) and could not stop me from falling into the abyss, I had no safety net to catch me. I would crash, sliding a long way down and frequently into a very bad place of self-destruction. Nowadays, when I look back on it all, it seems remarkable that I survived some of those occasions, when I apparently imploded and lost all sense of self.
So, what is the secret of happiness? There is a model of happiness that I often share with coaching clients, known as PERMA. It's an acronym that stands for Positive Thinking, Engagement, Relationships, Sense of Purpose and Achievements, and research has found that these are commonalities amongst happy people. But there's more to happiness than this.
To be truly happy, we must let go of seeking approval of ourselves in other people. We have to become attuned to our own values and use these as a guiding light for our behaviour and the choices we make in life, as opposed to the opinions and beliefs of others. In addition, we need to experience love, and we can only do this when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to connection. This doesn't have to be romantic love, and it doesn't even have to mean love between people - it could be love of anything or anyone; it's the emotion that matters. It's the vulnerability and letting go of our own ego that's important, not who or what the recipient of our love is.
This quote from E.E. Cummings (the innovative poet known for his lack of stylistic and structural conformity, who happened to share my birthday) is pertinent to this blog: "To be yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle". We can't see these powerful forces of conformity at work in our younger years, nor when we are held tight in the grip of addiction. But with age, clarity and self-awareness comes the realisation that authenticity is crucial for living a life that is enriched, honest, meaningful and filled with love. As soon as we let go of caring what anyone else thinks, we are free to be happy. But simultaneously, we have to turn our love, interest and attention to others if we are to be happy - not for our own validation, but from an egoless state of wanting to be, and recognising the necessity of being, connected to the world at large.
This turning upside-down of what I always believed to be true, has brought me the greatest happiness I have ever experienced in my life to date.