by Emma, creator of Simple Slow & Lovely
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
— J.K. Rowling
Dreams and a vision for our future are wonderful things to have. They can inspire us, keep us motivated and help us to do scary things. But what happens when we don’t achieve our dreams? What happens when you wake up in the middle of your life and realize you haven’t done the things you thought or hoped you would?
If you had shown me a picture, 15 years ago, of what my life would look like today, you would have had to scrape me off the floor. There would have been disbelief and a whole lot of ugly crying. So I’m glad I didn’t get that memo. But I’m surprisingly okay with the picture of my life today. Actually, I’m not just okay, I’m happy.
Dreams vs. Real Life
Back in my twenties, in the thick of postgraduate studies in Psychology, my dream was to get my Ph.D. and be teaching Psychology in some world-renowned university far away from my own little country. I also dreamed of qualifying for the Boston marathon and completing an Ironman.
Fast forward a couple of years and I’d downgraded to a master’s degree, a half Ironman and was working a corporate job. And while those are still incredible achievements in most people’s eyes, I felt defeated and disillusioned. I had dreams and didn’t achieve them. In my eyes, all I could see was failure and mediocracy.
Thankfully, in my thirties, after discovering concepts like minimizing and slow, intentional living, I began to see what was really important. And I’ve discovered the most surprising thing. Most days I feel a deep, unshakeable joy – despite my failed dreams. In fact, this joy is present not just despite, but because of my failed dreams.
I am joyful because I know that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. But also because of six specific things I do to practice acceptance and to cultivate more joy everyday.
I am grateful
I try and practice gratitude daily. But there’s a trick. I try and keep it simple. It’s not always the stereotypical bedtime list, sometimes it’s a small thought in the middle of a full day. Practicing gratitude doesn’t have to be a full 20-minute routine. A grateful heart is sometimes just a feeling. It’s the feeling I get when I’m out cycling and see an eagle gliding across the paddocks, or the feeling when I hear my 5-year-old’s infectious giggles.
When we haven’t achieved our dreams it’s easy to fall into resentment. Gratitude can reduce feelings of resentment by boosting our self-esteem. The path from gratitude to joy happens when we shift our awareness away from resentment and envy.
I look for happiness in the journey, not the destination
I used to think “I’ll be happy when I get my Ph.D.”, or “I’ll be happy when my daughter starts sleeping through the night”. My happiness often depended on these big life events that I thought needed to happen. I didn’t realize that happiness isn’t always found in these concrete achievements or milestones. Happiness is more often found on the way there.
I don’t remember the night my baby started sleeping through, but I do remember the long nights snuggled up against her tiny body, waiting for deep sleep to come. Happiness wasn’t what I felt crossing the finish line after 6 grueling hours in the water, on the bike and running (possibly because I was too exhausted!). But I have many happy memories of training for that event. In both cases, the journey was more life-giving and joyful than the destination.
I seek simple things
These days I’m far more likely to find real happiness watching my 5-year-old catch ladybugs than in a work achievement. I get immense joy from little things. Simple things. I’ve made a habit of bringing my awareness to things like the way the morning light is falling on our deck, or the carpet autumn of leaves in our backyard. I feel more joy over simple things, things I have no control over than those I’ve worked for years on.
Finding joy in the day-to-day monotony is important. Ph.D. or not, there will always be laundry to fold, and dishes to wash. If we can’t find true joy in our everyday ordinary lives, then it’s unlikely we will find it in the extraordinary. I like to cultivate joy in the simple things.
I celebrate my life so far
As I approached my 40th birthday last year I decided I would do something concrete to combat the disillusionment I could be feeling about my thwarted dreams. So I made an un-bucket list. I didn’t want to make another list of all the things I wanted to do over the next 40 years. Instead, I wanted to focus on all the things I’d done so far.
And the exercise was very enlightening. Firstly, I realized that this mediocre life I thought I was living was far from mediocre. I’d ‘achieved’ far more than I gave myself credit for. But secondly, and more importantly, my list included things that made me love myself. Like getting a mohawk, learning to love gardening, and deciding to love myself. It was full of weird, quirky things that made me, and I believe I love each of these things and the part they’ve played in my 40 years, more than I would love having that Ph.D.
I accept that life is seasonal
Understanding that life is seasonal has been one of the most freeing things I’ve ever experienced. Humans beings are an extension of nature. Which means we are bound by the laws of seasons, just as nature is. We need our lives to be seasonal. Understanding the need for winter, and rest has been a hard lesson, but worth learning.
When I allow myself to fully be in the season I’m in, I am more accepting of myself. I’m currently in the season of small(ish) children, and accepting and embracing this means I feel less resentful about the book manuscript that isn’t finished.
And there’s a wonderful truth about seasonal living. Seasons come, and they go. This week may be tough, but next week will be better. Or, as Marc and Angel say in 1,000 Little Things, “Happiness is letting go of what you assume your life is supposed to be like right now, and sincerely appreciating it for everything that it is.”
I seek connection over achievement
When I started reading about minimalism and essentialism a few years ago, I fairly quickly realized that it wasn’t about the ‘stuff.’ I could declutter all I wanted but if I wasn’t focusing on what was essential at the same time then it would all be for nothing.
At its heart, minimalism, or slow living is all about paring back to the basics in life. Cutting out the extraneous noise to focus on the things that truly matter. Like connecting with others. If I do nothing else with my life, but connect deeply with others, I don’t think I’ll regret a thing. In fact, I think I’ll be extraordinarily happy with my ordinary life, loving others.
Now, it’s your turn…
Our dreams won’t always eventuate. We will often deviate from the path we think we should be on. Sometimes a failed dream is what we need to show us what life is really about. We don’t have to live extraordinary lives to be extraordinarily happy. Don’t hold the destination so close, look out the window and enjoy the ride.
And of course, I would love to hear from YOU in the comments section.
Which point in this post resonated the most today?
Anything else to share?
Please leave me a comment below.
Author Bio: Emma Scheib of Simple Slow & Lovely gained her Masters in Psychology in 2013 and has since worked full time in corporate research positions for government agencies. She recently gave up her ‘dream job’ to pursue being a (happier) mum, living a slower pace of life. She is dipping her toes back into her long-lost love, creative writing on her blog. Connect with her here.