“Who you are is what you settle for, you know?” ~Janis Joplin
I spent several years in a state of light depression without noticing.
Why was it only “light”? Because I was functional: I went to work every morning, I managed to feed myself (mostly with convenience food, but still). My house was reasonably livable, though far from sparkling clean. And I wasn't particularly sad, nor was I ever even remotely suicidal. It was simply like my life had been wrapped in a thick layer of cotton wool, with nothing much ever getting through to me.
Why didn't I notice? Because I told myself I liked it this way. I was honestly convinced that I was happy going to work every day, coming home in the evening. and then sitting down to read or play a computer game.
I'd kicked my friends out of my life, and any required travel was an inconvenience, even if it was to see my family. I preferred being alone, and if it hadn't been for my online gaming friends, I would have had no social contact at all.
I'd become highly proficient at appearing “normal” to my colleagues at work. I even invented friends I was seeing at evenings or weekends so they wouldn't think I was a loner. To be honest, I can't even remember how I justified this to myself; in hindsight, it seems like I refused to even think about it. Denial can be one of the symptoms of depression, and I was very good at lying to myself.
There was an outward reason for my isolation, and that's a sum of money I was paying back from a near-bankruptcy years earlier. I simply didn't have the cash for a lavish wardrobe or nights out on the town because every cent I earned went into repayments. But that's only half the truth—if I'd wanted to see friends, I could have met them for home-cooked dinners, after all.
The truth is that I used my financial situation as an excuse, yet another reason not to see the depression that had swallowed me whole. Thankfully, the shell began to crack when this reason/excuse disappeared: I had finally paid back all my dues and began thinking about leaving behind my soul-eating, high-pressure job and moving back to the place where my soul feels at home: the West (of Ireland).
I found a work-from-home role and made the big move across the country. I now had much less money every month, but you can't possibly put a price tag on the quality of life in the absence of stress. I began to sleep better, eat better, take an interest in my environment again—it was like my entire being was breathing a slow, deep sigh of relief.
In the following months, I re-connected with my friends, started dancing again (something I'd loved to do all my life, but “forgotten about” during the dark years), and, feeling rested for the first time in years, got curious about trying out new things.
Healing Through Passion
It took a lot of time. I needed to heal physically as well as psychologically; my body was in the worst shape it had ever been in, not just because of the pounds I'd piled on from all the junk food, but also from spending the last years in a sitting position, apart from walking to the car and back.
I slept. I fell in love with whole, gorgeous foods. I took up mindfulness meditation. Then I slowly, very gradually started exercising, and when I say “slowly,” I mean five minutes of stretching on some days and nothing else.
These first few months were mostly about well-being, feeling good and comfortable, which astonished me because I hadn't even realized how long these feelings had been absent.
As the healing progressed, my emotions returned. I'd been numb for years, but now I remembered that I'd always been a highly sensitive and highly emotional person. There were some very dark weeks to get through, in which I mourned all the wasted time and some actions I was ashamed of, such as not being there for my best friend when she needed me. Gradually, I made it through the swamp, and on the other side, I re-discovered my long lost enthusiasm.
I have some rather unusual interests, and now I threw myself into them. I signed up for training in traditional archery and historical sword fighting. I kept exercising and dancing every day. Suddenly, I began to experience levels of happiness the likes of which I wouldn't have thought possible a year before.
What I've Learned
I wish I could tell you that I lived happily ever after, but that's just not how human lives work (and anyone who tells you differently is usually trying to sell you something). The point is not to be eternally joyful, in any case; it's to experience the full spectrum of human emotions and to show up and sit with them as they occur.
Striving for happiness and joy is a worthy pursuit, however. Like most things, it's a habit that can be cultivated. I've learned that one shortcut to happiness is passion, or rather, radically prioritizing your passion (or multiple passions).
I know this isn't something that's encouraged in our society. We're brought up to be responsible and put duty first; work for a living, pay the bills, be a good citizen. While I don't debate that these things are important, I'll humbly submit that we've got the priorities wrong. What good is making a living when you're just going to exist and survive, rather than thrive?
The lure of mediocrity is strong. I see it all around and it's most pronounced in my own story. If settling were an art then I'd be its master; I was prepared to settle for such a reduced version of my own life, I find it barely recognizable even from the distance of a mere three years.
The Pursuit Of Happiness
The way to fight this is to remember what truly matters in life. Our own well-being, our loved ones, and that elusive state, happiness. To leap out of bed every morning, looking forward to doing things that light me up, is something I'll never, ever take for granted again.
In order to achieve this state, we need to radically and consistently fight against the current that threatens to pull us back into settling. Life isn't meant to be “all right” or “not so bad.” It's meant to be ravishing, beautiful, and filled with joy.
Whenever I feel myself slipping, I pull myself back up by putting a passion front and center. It takes some courage to say “no” to anything else until my passions are looked after, scheduled, and happening. Only then will I look at social commitments and distractions. The only thing I consider with a comparable priority to passion is my work—but then, the work I do today is a passion, too.
I certainly don't know everything, but I do know this: If I don't fall in love with life all over again at least once a week, then I'm doing it wrong. It may feel like constantly pedaling a bicycle up the hill, but boy is the view from the top worth the effort.
How You Get There
If you feel like you’re just getting through your days, take some time to discover what needs to be in place in your life for you to prioritize passion. For me, it was the job and where I lived, but what you need to do might look completely different.
Take some time to “audit” every area of your life—work, finances, self, relationships, health—and find out where you need to make changes in order to accommodate your passion(s).
You may not be able to do everything at once, and that's fine. It took a long time for me to be ready for my radical downsizing. You may also need to accept that there are some things you can’t change any time soon—if, for example, you’d like to move but you need to stay where you are for your family. The point isn’t to change everything, but rather to change something.
Make a realistic plan to put all your steps into practice, and set down a time period for them too. Get the support you need, be it from a professional coach or from friends or loved ones.
Just be sure to insert passion today while working toward your plan. If all you do is to plan, you postpone your joy to the future and never achieve it in the present moment.
It's always possible to find pockets of time. Be ruthless with this! Cancel other commitments if necessary, because your well-being comes first, and being joyful also enables you to be a better partner, parent, friend, or co-worker to others.