The Secret to Happiness

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When my kids started to grow up, I freaked out.

My husband travelled for his job Monday-Friday every week, I had one son in college out-of-state, one son a junior in high school, and my youngest going to middle school. I was then a high school teacher, coming home from a long day of full-on-interaction to cooking, laundry, housework, chauffeuring, and refereeing whichever argument was happening at the moment, then sitting down in the evening to plan lessons and grade hundreds of papers. At the time, I felt my head would spin off. There were SO MANY phone calls to my husband in the midst of sitting in my car in the garage, full-on ugly-crying (what my dad would call “bellering”), that he stopped taking my calls.

I was failing at everything.

I could make a list of a thousand things that I had wanted for my life and I DIDN’T HAVE ANY OF THEM. I was staring down middle age and NONE OF MY DREAMS HAD COME TRUE. I was overworked, underpaid, sleepless, ashamed, lonesome, sick, and dangerously depressed, and steps away from a complete breakdown.

That’s when I found the secret to happiness.

In my state of deep sorrow, I had been looking at old pictures, and I ran across a shot of me in second grade. I remember thinking that was the happiest I had ever been. It was life before I knew that I might possibly fail at something, when my head was full of every possibility the world had to offer, when a day spent playing Huckleberry Finn in the swamp was my greatest joy, and I ruled the playground racing all the boys. What happened to that girl who fancied herself the next Pinky Tuscadero? (For those of you too young, she was the first female TV badass I knew.)

So I made a list, the secret to happiness.

On this list, I wrote all the things that were uniquely me. I started with things that people teased me about, like my loud laugh and my muscular legs. I wrote how these things ENHANCED MY LIFE. I moved on to things that I complained about, like my husband being gone, my kids growing up and moving on, my job being so challenging. I detailed THE BENEFITS of these heartaches. Then I listed all my mistakes. Oh, this took a long time, and for each one, I focused ON THE GROWTH these mistakes delivered.

Much as a muscle is torn in order to rebuild stronger, SO GROWS THE GRATITUDE MUSCLE.


It really is that simple, but it took time. It took getting over my pity-party. It took looking deeply into my ego (that ain’t pretty).

So if you’re sitting on the edge of despair, if you find yourself “bellering” for long periods of time, if you make lists of all your missing pieces, take a breath.


Focus on your gifts. Then take those gifts and craft a different life. Easy? No. But nothing worth doing ever was.

Julie Stenberg