“Congratulations!” shouts my Dad in Germany when I call him from the USA to tell him that a major publisher has just agreed to publish my book.
Congratulations. We seem to say that a lot. For a birthday, for passing an exam, for a wedding or even when something just works out. Sometimes you write it down on a card without thinking about what it means. Congratulations. The desire to be happy about something. Happy with your job, your relationship, your children, your house, your leisure time, or your hobbies. Or simply happy with life. Joy of life, or as the French would say, “joie de vivre.”. It is one of the few desires shared by all people in the world. And yet it often seems to get lost in everyday life.
"I was so stressed at work again today," we say. "My partner and I have been arguing a lot lately." "I've always wanted to go to Peru, but now I'm too sick to travel." "Our new apartment is so aggravating." "We don't have enough money again this month."
What is it with this thing called joy of life? How does someone get happy? Is it really that hard? Why does it not work so often? And is there such a thing as an instruction manual for happiness? A place you can look up how it works and where you can call the happiness hotline if you don't understand it?
A few years ago, a long journey completely obliterated my entire previous life, and I essentially had to start over from scratch. Since that time, my personal happiness has worked out well. And so here is my attempt at writing my own guide to happiness.
In German High School, we have to learn and memorize something called communication models. What I really learned from those models is that I am not a big fan of life models in general. Probably partly because my teacher kept annoying me with them in my exam and I never did understand their real purpose back then.
Anyway, there is something called “The Five Pillars are Life” that I recently came across that makes a lot of sense for me. These pillars include career, family and relationships and love, financial security, health, and personal growth. When one or more of these pillars break, then the roof, where the joy of life lives, starts to tumble.
The pillars concept also helps to explain why we feel like shit when a family member dies, the company you work for is suddenly streamlined—without you, you and your partner break up, you develop a collapsed disc in your back, or you simply no longer understand the world.
At this point, you can begin to panic and quickly check your pulse. Or you can use it as an opportunity to use the columns as if they had adjusting screws. So you can readjust the entire platform of your life, like leveling out the legs on a tripod on uneven ground. Or maybe you can think of it as putting on a new coat of paint. Or perhaps a complete renovation. Or in extreme circumstances, think of it as an opportunity to demolish the entire structure and rebuild from scratch. But the most important thing is that you do not just sit, fret, and do nothing. That you don’t just sit down on the floor and think, “I can’t change anything!” as the disaster plaster drips from the tip of your nose. It is precisely at these moments that we are furthest away from happiness. And it is precisely at these moments that you need a guide to return to joy and to really make a difference in your future happiness. Let's go:
I still remember working as a social media manager in a beautiful, warm office inside a real castle! I had a big computer screen, free coffee and tea, creative freedom, and nice colleagues. It sounds like one of those fabulous jobs they try to lure you in with promises of “a sunlit loft office” and “smoothies always available in the breakfast bar.”
But was it what I really wanted? I was unhappy. For a couple of years, I didn't even know why. Until, after several months of traveling, I finally realized that it was not the work itself, but the way of working that that left me unfulfilled. The fixed working hours, the few vacation days, the requirement to be in the office for things that I could have done from home. I was a born freelancer without even knowing it. And because no one in my family had ever been self-employed, the thought didn't occur to me for a long time. But for the last three years, I have been working from the road as a digital nomad with my own agency frei getextet.
So, if you are unhappy with your job, try to think outside the box. Make a list and let your thoughts fly: What is the real reason for your dissatisfaction? Is it your boss? Is it your colleagues? Is there bullying at your worksite? Do the tasks overwhelm you or bore you? Are you distressed by the commute? Is it the length of the working hours?
Think about it. Be honest with yourself. And then do something. Talk with your boss, ask about a transfer, ask about a reduction in hours, apply for a new job, do an advanced training, work on another degree or just quit. Dare to do something. And yes, even at the age of 45, you can again start over. Start to save money from every paycheck to venture into self-employment, to retrain or simply to work less for the time being. It is your stress, your health, and your zest for life. And remember, it's a hell of a long way to retirement; really long.
The family portrait is one where everyone smiles for the Christmas photo like in a Polydent commercial, while five minutes previously they had been hurling nasty insults at each other up and down the hallway. I have no idea how it is with your household, but I have pictures like this in my family album.
No, everything is not always great with parents, grandparents, children, and siblings. Nor is it always great even with best friends. Occasionally things do not always go great with your partner. Normal. But there is a big difference between a small disagreement about Christmas cookies and relationships that depress, shatter, belittle, hold you back, hurt or even make you sick.
From my point of view, there is little to consider here: break up with all offending relationships. And I mean it. Put an end to dealing with anyone who physically or mentally attacks you. Do not continue to deal with relatives whose behavior strains you psychologically, or who try make you look ridiculous, or friends who continually take advantage of you, or a partner with whom you continuously argue with and have nothing in common anymore.
Just because you're related doesn't mean you have to put up with any shit. Unless you chose your family from a menu before you were born.
Negative people have no place in your life. They just eat up your energy, your time, your health, and your happiness. No, you are not obliged to deal with them or their negativism, and you do not need to feel guilty if you distance yourself from them by breaking away from them altogether. Because it is your life. If they don't love you and respect you for who you are, then they are out. End of discussion.
An old apartment in Hamburg—ideal! At least that is what I thought when I was fifteen. Until I saw that a broom closet in Hamburg already costs a cool five million smackers.
Housing can be expensive. Likewise, the desire—sometimes implanted by parents or society—to own a condominium or house is even more expensive. Living can also be exhausting when you cannot stand the city noise or the neighbors anymore, or the small rural town suddenly seems overwhelmingly lonely and distant. Housing is generally the biggest ongoing expense we have each month.
As a frequent traveler who is not home for six months every year, this is a subject with which I have often dealt. Why do I have to pay several hundreds of dollars a year for something I don’t use? Of course, your situation or questions may not be this extreme, but they are probably similar.
Hand on heart: What percent of your income goes to rent every month? How much space do you have in your apartment and how much of it do you really use? How much space do you have that has to be heated and cleaned? Has everything been too tight for you for a long time? Maybe you've moved to a certain area for a reason: to be close to clubs where you can party, to be close to work, or to be close to good schools. Check: Is the expensive rent in the city center still worth it, even though you don't go out that often anymore? Have you changed jobs long ago? Have your children moved out and you no longer need all that space? Perhaps you would even like to reduce hours at work, or take classes again, but the running costs of rent don't allow you to do so.
If any of that is true—then DO something. Look at advertisements for new places to live, toss out unnecessary items to make more room. Both in your home and in your head. Draw a floor plan of your dream home on paper. Look at old bills, especially utility bills, to see how much you are spending and think about how you might reduce the numbers. Read about alternative living concepts such as tiny houses or shared apartments. I lived in a tiny home for about a year. Where you live is your place of well-being, your home, your money and your happiness in life. You can live shitty when you're in the coffin.
As you may already have already noticed, health and money are closely related to your job, your relationships and where you live.
Stress at work, negative people and money problems can ruin both your health and your zest for life. And being healthy means more than the absence of physical problems, such as earaches, or belly pain. It also means that you are not crying all the time, not constantly worrying, or simply being afraid of not being able to sleep.
Money, in turn, becomes important when it comes to work, family obligations or rent.
Back to the pillar model: If any pillar is damaged, it often takes everything else with it. This does not necessarily lead to a total collapse of happiness, but it does put a strain on all the other pillars that are still intact areas, and you are never able to be really happy. That's why it is so important to constantly question yourself and life. Honestly and strictly. And to take action.
There have been three decisive moments in my life where my own happiness pillars have been severely strained, and I suffered much too long with the I-Cannot-Change-Anything Syndrome.
1. My grandmother died
suddenly and unexpectedly overnight. A moment that made me realize how quickly life can end and that waiting and sitting out is not an option.
2. When I returned from my four-month solo
tour of the United States, I realized how little I need to be happy, but how important it was that my job and relationship matched my dream of traveling.
3. In 2019 I was diagnosed with an incurable autoimmune disease called ulcerative colitis (chronic intestinal inflammation). A disease that reacts to stress like a speeding cheetah and has led me to understand that I must eliminate all negative influences in my life.
Listen to your life and what it tells you. With all of its horrors and opportunities. It does not speak to you for nothing. It wants you to be happy.
As with all guides, my instructions for being happy are not a universal master plan that you can check off in an afternoon. It is only a guidance—something that gives you suggestions. But you have to do it yourself. Of course, there are always various risks and unwanted consequences. Changing things is seldom fun or easy. It means discussions, cuts, changes, insecurity, fears, hurt, and the loss of familiarity.
But when you want to shy away from change, just ask yourself: How much is my happiness worth to me?
Do you know the answer?