As the saying goes, nobody likes a quitter. But if you really want to experience true happiness and fulfillment this year, that’s exactly what Todd Patkin says you should strive to be in a few key areas.
Overall, Americans are just plain exhausted—and it isn’t surprising. Society tells us (not very subtly, either) that we need to perform to a certain standard, look a certain way, weigh a certain number, make a certain amount of money, and much more. Too bad that “perfect” lifestyle is impossible to achieve. Nobody can do it all, all of the time. So when you inevitably take on too much and allow one of the plates you’re juggling to drop, you end up disappointed, tired, and miserable. Case in point: How are your New Year’s resolutions faring? Chances are, they’ve already fallen by the wayside, and you’re feeling like a failure.
According to Todd Patkin, the problem is that you set yourself up for disappointment by having unrealistic and unsustainable expectations. Instead, he says, you’ll be best served by making 2012 the year you stop doing things that aren’t adding to your happiness.
“Let’s face it—our lives are already packed full of responsibilities. Piling on even more just isn’t feasible—and it’s also a recipe for unhappiness,” points out Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $19.95) “Instead, you should focus on prioritizing the things in your life that really matter, and on dropping dead weight that might be holding you back.”
Patkin admits that “quitting” various success-oriented behaviors and habits seems counterintuitive. After all, doing less goes directly against society’s recipe for building our best and most fulfilling lives. But Patkin also knows from experience that more isn’t always better.
“For much of my life I was addicted to the pursuit of perfection,” he shares. “I constantly pushed myself to be the best, first in school and later in my career. Sure, I led my family’s company to unprecedented heights, I had a wonderful wife and son, and I was involved in and respected by my community. But when I was only thirty-six, my do-it-all lifestyle imploded and I suffered a complete nervous breakdown.”
Since then, Patkin has realized that he was pushing himself too hard, prioritizing the wrong things, and working toward success for the wrong reasons.
“In the decade since my breakdown, most of my goals and priorities have shifted,” he confirms. “I’ve learned that you can be much happier if you clear extraneous and unhealthy responsibilities from your life and let yourself off the hook more often.”
According to Patkin, here are twelve things that you should resolve to stop doing now if you want 2012 to be your greatest year yet:
Give up on relationships. …The ones that aren’t working, that is. Face it: Whether it’s a coworker who hands out backhanded compliments like they’re candy or a “frenemy” who always tries to one-up your accomplishments, there are people in your life who drain your energy and make your attitude dip into murky territory. No matter how much you may want to make these relationships work, forcing yourself to spend time with negative people won’t do you any favors. Actually, Patkin says, studies show that in terms of your attitude and happiness levels, you will be the average of the five people you spend the most time with.
“So clearly, you need to be around other people who share your commitment to happiness if you want to be happier and avoid unnecessary stress,” he points out. “It’s okay—and actually healthy—to distance yourself from so-called ‘toxic’ individuals. For instance, politely decline your frenemy’s invitation to grab a drink and call up a more uplifting person instead. And don’t ignore close relationships here, either. Of course I advocate doing everything you can to eliminate strain with family members. Realize, though, that maybe this is the year to finally admit that you and your partner have irreconcilable differences that are making both of you unhappy, or it is the year to finally tell your mother that her controlling behavior needs to stop.”
Stop being so darn nice. …And start being real. Perhaps you’re one of those people who always blurts out what’s on your mind. If so, skip this piece of advice. However, it’s much more likely that you swallow barbed comments or constructive criticism in favor of a more diplomatic response. You might even allow yourself to be taken advantage of from time to time in order to please another person. Guess what: It’s time to stop! Dishonest politeness doesn’t develop authentic relationships.
“No, it’s not appropriate to go on reality show-worthy rants whenever you feel upset, but at the same time, masking your real opinions and feelings isn’t helpful in the long term,” Patkin says. “Remember, having a smaller number of true friends is healthier than denying your own happiness in order to make everyone else like you. And usually, there is a polite way to say no or to let another person know he or she is out of line without permanently burning bridges.”
Stop working so hard. No, Patkin isn’t advocating that you become a total slacker. What he does want you to do is think about the b-word: balance. The fact is, every year we try to reach new heights in our careers. We say we’ll work harder, get a promotion, and earn a raise. However, everyone has physical and mental limits. And more to the point—despite the fact that our society often confuses the two—achievement doesn’t equal happiness. No matter how good your intentions are, overloading on work will cause your relationships, mindset, and even health to suffer.
“Striving for professional success isn’t inherently bad, but in this case you can definitely pile on too much of a good thing,” Patkin asserts. “For me, 70- and 80-hour weeks actually caused a breakdown, not happiness! Please, don’t follow in my footsteps. Even if you don’t drive yourself over the edge, living the life of a workaholic can still bury you in stress, anxiety, and depression. This year, really think about what a healthy balance looks like. And remember, no one looks back on their lives at age eighty and says, ‘Gee, I wish I’d spent less time with my family and friends and more time at the office.’”
Lower the bar. This may come as a shock, but you probably expect too much from yourself. Whether the issue is your appearance, your house, your family, or your job, you want to achieve as much perfection as is humanly possible. And on top of that, you most likely focus on what you do wrong and rarely celebrate what you do right. This year, it’s time to really realize that you’re human, and thus fallible, and so it’s inevitable that you will mess up—or even just put in an “adequate” performance—every now and then.
“Setting the bar impossibly high is a recipe for making yourself feel miserable,” Patkin confirms. “I used to expect nothing less than perfection out of myself, which was delusional! We’re all human, which means that we’re going to make mistakes from time to time. That doesn’t mean that we’re in any way unworthy or undeserving of love. In fact, learning to love myself and accept my flaws was at the core of my own happiness journey. This year, consciously lower your expectations to more realistic standards, celebrate your many successes, and stop beating yourself up so much.”
Ignore the Joneses. Keeping up with the Joneses seems to be the American way of life. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, and even people whose lives we see displayed on reality TV. My sister’s kids are always perfectly behaved, you think. What am I doing wrong? Or even, I know that Bob’s salary is the same as mine. How come he’s driving a new SUV and I can’t even scrape together a down payment? No matter what the situation is, thoughts like these only leave you feeling jealous, less-than, and unhappy.
“The most ironic part is, the friend whose life seems perfect on the outside probably doesn’t feel that way in the privacy of his own home,” Patkin points out. “For years, I was the guy whose career and bank account others would have killed to have, but the truth was, I was stressed out of my mind and unable to relax for even a second! Yes, it will be hard to change your habitual thought processes. But you need to understand the fundamental truth that ‘happy’ for you won’t look the same as it does for anyone else—and that’s okay! Focus primarily on your own feelings and fulfillment—don’t use another person’s life as a measuring stick to determine how good your own is.”
Don’t focus on your spouse. …To the point where you forget to take responsibility for yourself, that is! Yes, conventional relationship wisdom tells you to focus on your spouse and to put his or her needs first. To a point, that advice is accurate: As a partner in life and in love, you should be your spouse’s biggest supporter and coach. Just don’t allow tunnel vision to blind you to your own needs and responsibilities.
“While you should never take advantage of or ignore your partner, putting yourself second all of the time can breed frustration and resentment,” Patkin asserts. “This year, stop focusing so much on your spouse. Look inward instead, and figure out what will make you happy. Remember that when you do things that make you happy, it’s good for your husband or wife too. Also, of course, ask yourself what you can do to improve yourself—and thus your marriage—instead of always expecting your partner to take the lead.”
Stop giving so much. If you don’t, you’ll eventually run dry! The fact is, there are a lot of people in our lives who depend on us and who want our help, our time, our advice, etc. Especially if you care for those individuals, of course you’ll want to be accommodating. (Or perhaps you just have a hard time saying no!) For whatever reason, it can be all too easy to keep giving and giving and giving to others to the point where there’s nothing left for you.
“If you are that person—if spending all of your time and energy on others is the norm and doing something for yourself is extremely rare—watch it,” Patkin warns. “Figure out what is important to you and what fulfills you, and prioritize those things more. Stop putting others and their needs first all the time! In order to be happy, you have to know what your strengths are, and you have to play to them on a regular basis. You can’t live your life primarily to please other people.”
Stop pushing your kids so hard! As parents, we really care about our kids, and we want them to have the best possible futures. But that doesn’t mean you need to turn into a so-called “Tiger Parent.” Too much pressure to perform can cause children of any age to burn out and make self-destructive decisions. In fact, some kids are experiencing symptoms ranging from stomachaches to severe depression due to the day-to-day stress they encounter at school and at home.
“I have a teenage son, and I know how easy it is to get neurotic about pushing your children to succeed,” Patkin admits. “We all want the best for our kids, and even if you don’t want to admit it, it’s easy to get addicted to that swell of pride you feel when your son or daughter wins top honors. As I’ve said before, though, it’s crucial to remember that success and happiness aren’t the same thing. Your kids will be much happier, healthier, more creative, and more motivated throughout their lives if you prioritize balance and love them for who they are, not for how many As they get on their report cards.”
Forget quality time with your kids. …And start focusing on quantity! According to Patkin, it’s easy to use the words “quality time with my kids” as a free pass to focus on other aspects of your life 95 percent of the time. In other words, we want to believe that we can make up for working 70-hour weeks by taking a trip to Disney World, or catch up on all of the week’s events while going out for ice cream. But the fact is, life is found in the everyday moments, not in the big blowout trips. And kids themselves are perceptive—they can tell if they always take second place in your life.
“Doing ‘normal’ things with your kids on a regular basis will mean more to them—and to you—long-term than the occasional extraordinary event,” Patkin promises. “So build regular ‘parent time’ into your schedule, and try to be present for as many day-to-day activities as you can. But don’t throw so-called quality time out the window, either. For example, you might set up a special night one or two times a month with each of your children—just you and them. Most of all, remember that once your kids are grown the things you’ll miss the most are activities like throwing the ball and reading bedtime stories, so make some good memories now.”
Cancel your gym membership. No, Patkin isn’t saying that you should give up on exercising, and of course, if you’re already a gym lover, continue going. But for newbies, he does recommend starting with something that’s sustainable. The truth is, many Americans purchase gym memberships, only to find that their grand plans to take classes, work out daily, and lose weight don’t pan out. Usually, sooner rather than later, real life gets in the way, and not going to the gym becomes just one more thing to beat yourself up about.
“The key to instilling any habit in your life is to make it doable,” Patkin points out. “So if exercise isn’t already a regular part of your life, start small. Take a 20-minute walk every other day around your neighborhood—that’s it! You can work up from there if you want to. Also, try not to make physical activity all about weight—it has many other benefits. Exercise will make you feel more relaxed, stronger, and more capable of handling life’s challenges—also, it will improve your sleep, and it’s a natural anti-depressant that will help your attitude and outlook.”
Stop obsessing over your health. Everywhere we look, there’s a new medical threat to worry about. Sure, you can spend a lot of your time worrying about BPA in your water bottles, drug-resistant bacteria, or the likelihood of whether swine flu will overrun your community. Likewise, you can make appointments with specialist after specialist whenever you feel sick, and try every new vitamin, supplement, and protein shake on the market. But it probably won’t help as much as you hope! At the end of the day, you’ll never have ultimate control over everything you touch, breathe, and eat.
“If you allow yourself to fret over every health threat you hear on the news or see on the Internet, you’ll be afraid to leave your house without a hazmat suit on,” Patkin says. “Just eat right, go to the doctor, and fit in as much exercise and relaxation as you can. If you don’t, all the worry and stress will be what ends up killing you!”
Trash your goals. …Except for this one: Be happier! Much like striving for perfection, being too goal-oriented can harm more than it helps. When you’re always focused on the “next big thing,” you’re perpetually anxious, you often forget to live in the present, and you’re never able to enjoy all of the blessings you already have. Plus, taking a step back from “the plan” can bring some much-needed clarity. You may find that the direction you’ve been headed isn’t what you want after all!
“My breakdown—at the time—was horrible. But it really was the best thing that ever happened to me in the long run,” Patkin states, “for it forced me to literally drop all of the things I’d been working on and to reevaluate how I was living my life. For the first time, I consciously realized that my ‘successful’ life wasn’t making me happy. I promise you, when you prioritize your own happiness and well-being, you’ll be truly amazed by how smoothly everything else falls into place!”
“Believe me, being a ‘quitter’ can be a very smart move, as long as you’re leaving behind activities, habits, people, and responsibilities that aren’t enriching your life,” Patkin concludes. “Above all else, as you move through this year, take it from me that a successful life without happiness really isn’t successful at all!”
About the Author:
Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.
About the Book:
Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $19.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and at www.findinghappinessthebook.com .