Just the other day, I read an Instagram post from Mel Robbins, who is widely known, a lawyer, news commentator, keynote speaker, NYT bestselling author, famous podcaster, and content creator (basically my dream woman). I usually like her content. She’s tough and has thought-provoking statements.
But this one I disagreed with.
Her post basically said: Think of a time you were happy and describe those days. Describe your days now. Compare the lists. Adjust accordingly.
Her explanation: “Happiness isn’t complicated.”
Your life contains the answers to your happiness. Do the things that make you happy.
3.2 million people follow her on Instagram and I’m sure as many or more millions listen to her podcast. So, clearly, who am I to argue with her? (Actually, if you know me well, you know I’m terribly irreverent and not easily intimidated, so maybe I’m exactly the person to argue with her, me and my 360 Instagram followers.)
Here’s the deal: Happiness is complicated. And it’s far more nuanced than look back, look up for the now, compare that, and by God, find a way to replicate the old days and ways and be happy.
Is that exactly what she’s saying? No. Is she mostly saying: You can engineer your life and decisions now, just like you could then. Stop and smell the roses, etc. Find and do the things that make you happy. Yes. That’s what she’s saying.
But allow me to still throw the yellow card and call BS.
I love content creation and share in it, don’t get me wrong, but this is where I get annoyed with the social media turned author turned blogger turned podcaster world … sometimes they’re just making stuff up.
Convey something. Be bold. Say it dramatically and put a nice picture with it (or one where your hair is frumpled, so you look like an everyday person, people love that) and have it ooze with empowerment. And ableism. And if that’s not enough, throw in some toxic positivity. YOU CAN DO THIS AND EVERYTHING. DO IT NOW AND MAKE YOURSELF HAPPY. SEE. THIS IS THE WAY. AND LOOK AT MY PERFECT MAKEUP IN THIS VIDEO!
Per Mel’s advice, I’d go back to college. (There’s a time and a place for everything, and it’s college.) Life was so easy and so fun. I literally lived a full year on one-thousand dollars of student loans and measly income. I never went to bed before 12am and never got up before 9am. And I drank so much beer. (I’m owning that, it was fun.) I had no real responsibilities past fretting about grades, part-time work, and my law school application (and where the beer would come from for a few of the early years …) I ran 3-4 days a week, could still use my blackbelt, and lifted heavy weights.
In that world, I felt great, was empowered physically and (working at it) mentally, and didn’t see any barriers to my day-to-day.
Ok, maybe that’s too far back. College is fun for everyone and we’re all sprier at 20 than 39, so that’s not a realistic benchmark for backwards looking. How about I go back five or six years. I owned my own law firm. I controlled my destiny. I left the house looking professional every day. I attended meetings. I helped people take their lives back. I was always stressed to the core, but I was happy, because I was living my dream. I enjoyed the way my work shaped my life. Outside of aches and sinus infections, I believed myself to be very healthy.
Then every single part of my life changed at the ripe old age of 34. All that I knew that made me “happy,” disappeared. And I had to start over.
My present daily activities do not include beer, staying up late, or shirking responsibility. I do not leave the house M-F for work or meetings. And for quite a few years, I don’t think you could objectively call me “healthy.” That’s still a tough question and long answer. I’ve given away my professional wardrobe. I’ve questioned how much I should dream. I’ve doubted what I can engineer.
I find myself struggling to take any part of Mel’s advice, even the more subtle nuanced version of that above quote. Because what I’ve learned from my period of hard knocks, also known as autoimmune encephalitis, is that happiness is never backwards looking. It’s not trying to view what I’m doing now through the lens of what I did before, because guess what, I don’t live back then. I live now.
It wasn’t that long ago in counseling I told Dr. Nev: I’ve accepted so much of my life. I don’t get as angry or want to change it, because that’s futile. I’ve truly accepted I’ll never practice law again or lead an 8-5 life. I’ve accepted that I have limitations. I’ve accepted the full-time nature of my health.
And you know what she told me: “Happiness and acceptance are directly related.”
Acceptance takes time and energy. And it’s what can hinder or complicate happiness. It took years, but I learned that by radically accepting the life I have, the happier I am.
Someone more able than me is less exhausted. Others train for distance runs I can’t do. My friend Mac is now the US Attorney in North Dakota, which is a job I secretly desired to have. Trying to pick myself up and recreate what I can’t is madness. Jotting down the endless possibilities I thought life held for me when I was 21, would be painful. Trying to imitate the way I lived just five years ago isn’t realistic.
But seeing my life as it is right now and accepting all the good and bad, does make me happy. I don’t look too far into the future and I try not to ruminate in the past. I don’t compare apples and oranges.
When Unwillable came out, I had a lot of great people whom I love and respect tell me, “Jackie, I think the best is yet to come.” While that would be really wonderful, don’t get me wrong, many days I’m convinced that my best is right here. Right now.
Sorry Mel, but happiness to me is more than you’ve made it out to be. Happiness is acceptance of sometimes harsh realities, but still choosing to find joy. Even through the pain.
Happiness is today. Surely not behind. And not always ahead. (And yes, always take time to stop and smell the roses.)
Happy day friends,
“I got this feelin’ inside my bones
It goes electric, wavy when I turn it on
All through my city, all through my home
We're flyin’ up, no ceilin’, when we in our zone
“I got that sunshine in my pocket
Got that good soul in my feet
“I can’t stop the feelin’ So just dance, dance, dance I can't stop the feelin’ So just dance, dance, dance, come on” ~ Can’t Stop the Feeling by Justin Timberlake
Jackie: by Jesse Knutson Photography
Flower: by Tony Bender
/ / The JM Stebbins blog is an autoimmune encephalitis blog from former lawyer and autoimmune encephalitis survivor, Jackie M. Stebbins.
Jackie M. Stebbins is also the author of Unwillable: A Journey to Reclaim my Brain, a book about autoimmune encephalitis, resilience, hope, and survival. / /