People often ask me what the key to happiness is and if I had to boil it down to one single thing I would say… how many shoulds or have tos a person has. It is natural for people to feel trapped by different things throughout their lives like finances, familial obligations, self-doubt, physical ailments but the more we are able to see the freedom we DO have to make our own choices the happier we are. Viktor Frankl who lived in a concentration camp during World War II said it best when he said, “the last of human freedoms is to choose ones attitude in a given set of circumstances.”
In other words, despite almost all of Dr. Frankl’s freedom being taken away he was still able to create happiness for himself by having a perspective of his life choices that made him feel good.
As a teenager I spent a large part of my day hating life. Everything seemed pointless and hopeless, and I could not imagine ever feeling different.
I often fantasized about suicide. I was prescribed sleeping pills by a doctor and instead of taking them every night I saved them in case I got to the point where I wanted out. But, the truth was I did not want to die, I wanted the power to be free.
I felt trapped by life's shoulds and have tos. I had to wake up and go to school every day. I had to do my homework. I had to hang out with kids my own age even if I thought I couldn't connect to any of them. I had to spend time with my family. I had to get a job. The things that I felt I should and had to do were not horrible, but I felt the rest of my life was going to be a forced march towards a meaningless, stressful, depressing existence.
My parents sent me to group therapy. One day we did an exercise where everyone wrote down on a piece of paper what they thought the person needed to know to make his/her life better. When it was my turn, everyone wrote down the exact same thing, “you are a victim of your life!” These words hit me hard; I had survived all of these difficult experiences in my life, and considered myself strong, not a victim.
I went home and thought, “they don't understand all that I have been through. I am going to take my pills, and then they will see how they hurt me.” But then as I calmed myself, and thought about things, I realized these people are my friends, and so they are probably trying to tell me something valuable...and then it came to me I DON'T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING I DONT WANT TO DO, and I can do anything I want to do. I flushed my sleeping pills right then. In that moment I gave up suicide as an option.
I realized I did not need a death option to be free, I was already free. From this moment on I took should and have to out of my vocabulary. It was a challenging fight considering how deeply embedded these words were in my way of thinking, but I attribute this philosophy change with the joy I now feel on a daily basis.
The fear is that if we are not pressuring ourselves with shoulds and have tos, then we will not be living productive, meaningful lives. I have found with myself and my clients the opposite is true. The more we allow ourselves the freedom to choose what we want, the more motivated we are to become the best version of our selves. I challenge you to take an inventory of all the things you are doing in your life right now that do not feel like your choice. See if there is anything you would like to do different or relate to differently. If I do not stop to check in with myself on a regular basis it is easy for me to slip back into a passive place. I am committed to living the happiest life I can which means being able to see and make all of my choices by extinguishing “the should.”