We’ve all tried to summon it up before—Maybe you’re stretched out on your yoga mat after a challenging practice lying in savasana pose, or confined in an MRI machine trying to ward off every claustrophobic impulse coursing through your body, or perhaps you’re quieting your racing heart as you talk yourself down from another debilitating panic attack. For whatever reason, we conjure up an image of our happy place, the special place that permits us the space in which to cope, focus, and rejuvenate.
If you browse through the “Self Help” section of any bookstore, you’ll find countless books on how to build, find, or nurture happiness. In fact, we now have “happiness experts” like Gretchen Rubin, who have built a career catering to a growing population of overworked, stressed out, and depleted people in search of the Holy Grail of happiness. What I find interesting is that mindfulness and meditation—once the purview of the wandering souls who went off to “find themselves” in an ashram in India—have now entered the mainstream and are filling a cultural vacuum as witnessed by things like the yoga craze taking hold of North America and Europe, and with the popularity of books like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
I think there is an important distinction to be made about the times in my life in which I “retreat to my happy place” and those times when I “revel in my happy place.” In both situations, whether I’m escaping or simply enjoying, something or someone has initiated the need for me to find solace in this place. When I look closely, I can usually discover that lying at the heart of the journey is my inability to stay focused on the present moment. The essence of this human condition can be found in the words of Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher known as the father of Taoism. “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
So, what is your “happy place”, where will it be, and who has a key? I envision this “space” as not limited to a physical place, but rather as having three elements that help shape it into my refuge—The most conventional component can be what’s around me, majestic snow-capped mountains, a sun-drenched beach, or even a cozy bed while a winter storm rages outside. It can be beside me, and by this I mean the person who brings me comfort or security, and in this way, my happy place is always transportable. Maybe it’s your partner holding your hand as you sit at home waiting for the doctor to call with the test results, or it’s found tiptoeing towards the crib to catch a furtive sniff of the back of your sleeping baby’s neck. And finally, my happy place is found inside me—It’s the memory of my father’s Aqua Velva aftershave, the first time my heart skipped a beat when I was dating the lady who would later become my wife, or more recently, seeing the unconditional love in my wife’s eyes when I sat down to do a television interview in which I publicly disclosed that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
As I mentioned earlier, there are occasions in which I escape to my happy place and times when the journey is entirely dictated by choice. What I’m consciously working on today is building resiliency into my life so that my need to “escape” becomes less of an issue. I’ve adopted what I like to call the "GATE practice". As a recovering addict, GRATITUDE is something that is integral to my sobriety and overall wellbeing. I try to remind myself that it is a gift that I have to give away in order to maintain it. Another aspect of being grateful, and to be honest it’s something that I struggle with, is quieting a lot of the anger inside me. The challenge arises because the antidote to anger is forgiveness. As Robert Brault said: “Life becomes easier when you learn to accept an apology you never got.” The next piece of this resiliency strategy is to identify the ANCHORS in my life. The thing about anchors is that they can keep you grounded as you face tough seas, but they also can hold you back when you should be moving forward. This past year, I’ve had to release myself from relationships that were limiting or toxic in some way, but surprisingly, this has made room for new empowering and supportive people to enter my life. The third element requires taking inventory of all the TRIGGERS that knock me off course and leave me vulnerable to feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Triggers are difficult to unpack because they can operate in the background or unconsciously and sabotage your relationships and overall mental health. The easiest way to combat them is to deny them the opportunity to plant themselves in the first place by lessening the times throughout the day where I feel hungry, angry, lonely, and tired—This HALT acronym can be found hanging on the walls of many meeting rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Finally, the last piece of my resiliency puzzle is opening the door to opportunities that will allow me to EVOLVE by cultivating passions and leaning in to vulnerability. If I want to get “unstuck”, I have to be willing to do the work. I’ll leave you with the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us.”