Where Happiness is Found: The Stories Too Many People Believe for Too Long

By Marc Chernoff

Made Him Happy

I know a man who loves to knit.  Blankets, quilts, sweaters… he knits them all.  Knitting is his hobby, his love.  He could choose another hobby—something a bit more masculine, like restoring vintage cars or hunting.  But this man continues to stick with what makes him happy—knitting.  Because he discovered knitting when he was only a little boy who didn’t know any better.  And now, it’s a huge part of who he is.

As he grew into his teenage years he was made aware of the fact that knitting wasn’t a common hobby for a boy.  “Knitting is a hobby for girls or for boys who like to wear high heels,” his older brother used to say.  Over time, after being frequently ridiculed by his own family and others, he eventually asked himself a question:  “Are the opinions others have about knitting at all relevant to my experience of knitting as a hobby?”  And he immediately realized the answer was “No!”  So, he kept enjoying the hobby—the love—that made him happy.

Stories, Fears & Expectations

It’s fascinating how we make certain decisions in life.  Sometimes we follow our heart and intuition and we choose the thing that makes the most sense to us—that which makes us happy.  Other times we follow our fears and expectations, especially those spawned by the culture and society we live in, and we choose whatever we believe will most appease those fears and expectations—that which makes everyone else (or no one at all) happy.

The man who loves to knit remained open-minded and stuck to knitting even when he learned about the cultural and societal expectations that suggested he should give it up.  But he didn’t always carry forth with this same open-minded attitude.  For instance, he believed for as long as he could remember that he would someday find the perfect mate.  And he knew exactly what she would be like.

The story about her that he inscribed in his head when he was in his adolescence hasn’t changed much since.  Nor has it drastically changed since he told me a story about her just a few short months ago over a cup of coffee.  The beginning of the story goes something like this:

“I’ve always dreamed that someday I would meet the perfect mate.  She would be smart and classy, yet sexy and athletic.  And she would be a geek like me.  I wouldn’t care what her religious background was, so long as she had an open mind and an honest heart.  But she would have to be neat and tidy, because I’m not and I need someone who can balance me out.

And she would love to snuggle, like me.  Because I would want to hold her at night, and because we would need to be close so we could fool around and giggle and talk softly to each other.  We would talk about people, places, our lives and our future together for hours into the night.

And money wouldn’t matter to either of us because we’d be in love.  She’d know it and I’d know it, and we’d be happy with what we had…”

The stories we tell ourselves and each other sound remarkable, don’t they?  They romanticize us.  They sweep us off our feet.  They persuade us to believe that if we dive head first into a new relationship, a big financial purchase, greasy foods, imported beers, or whatever it is that temporarily pacifies our worried mind from reality, then we will somehow find what we are truly looking for.

Our obvious dilemma is that reality is not temporary.  Reality keeps on coming.  That new relationship will have our heart blissfully skipping beats until it doesn’t any longer.  That big financial purchase will be fun and exciting until it isn’t any longer.  Greasy foods and beer will comfort us… until they don’t any longer.

Free of Them

Although he still has a long way to go, the man who loves to knit is gradually becoming aware of the temporary, restrictive nature of the stories we tell ourselves.  Because the ending to his story about his perfect mate—the part that comes after the introduction I shared with you above—is about a real woman who was absolutely amazing, but who didn’t perfectly fit the mold of the woman from the story he inscribed in his head.  And he was unable to give up the perfect woman from his story for the amazing woman standing in front of him.  When she eventually realized this on a Saturday morning three weeks ago, she firmly moved on without him.

Although still a bit shaken up and heartbroken, the man is also starting to move on.  Day by day, he’s rediscovering his true self—the self he knew when he was younger, before he started telling himself stories, or buying into the stories, fears and expectations of those who lurk around him.  This self was a blank canvas, free to experience and appreciate everything just the way it is, without the burden of a storyline.

And as he slowly rediscovers himself, he struggles with the notion of life without a storyline.  Because he can barely remember what life was like when there was no story, no fears, no expectations.  But he knows deep down that he once lived in a world free of them.  And when he did, he discovered knitting and fell in love with it.  It became one of his greatest sources of happiness.  And he knows that if he wants to fall in love like that again, he must get back to that story-free world within himself where happiness is found.

A Wondrous Place

When I shared the story above with a small group of VIP attendees at our most recent Think Better, Live Better conference, a woman named Annie raised her hand and said (I’m sharing this with permission):

“The ‘story-free world.’  I love that!  I can honestly relate in the most profound way.

My husband suffered a head injury in 2014 that wiped away his long-term, lifetime memories.  He doesn’t remember anything before Summer of that year—including our past.  He did, however, know he loved me.  It was like an innate knowing.  The same as his passions, which have remained as they were before his injury, even though he couldn’t tell you anything about how he pursued them before 2014.

At 50-years-old, my husband has only four years of ‘stories,’ and I have seen this turn him into a very happy man.  He invents himself a day at a time.  He has a child-like quality (as in eagerness and appreciation) that is inspiring to be around.  I think he embodies the ‘story-free world,’ and I can attest to what a wondrous place it is.”

Then, as a group, we discussed Annie’s experience, and openly practiced questioning our own stories, and letting them go.  Here’s the basic gist of what we practiced together

Letting Go of Your Story

(Note: This section is an excerpt from our NYT bestselling book.)

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that many of the biggest misunderstandings in life could be avoided if we simply took the time to ask, “What else could this mean?”  A wonderful and practical way to do this is by using a reframing tool we initially picked up from research professor Brené Brown, which we then tailored through our coaching work with students and conference attendees.  We call the tool The story I’m telling myself.  Although asking the question itself—“What else could this mean?”—can help reframe our thoughts and broaden our perspectives, using the simple phrase “The story I’m telling myself is” as a prefix to troubling thoughts has undoubtedly created many “aha moments” for our students and conference attendees in recent times.

Here’s how it works:  The story I’m telling myself can be applied to any difficult life situation or circumstance in which a troubling thought is getting the best of you.  For example, perhaps someone you love (husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc.) didn’t call you on their lunch break when they said they would, and now an hour has passed and you’re feeling upset because you’re obviously not a high enough priority to them.  When you catch yourself feeling this way, use the phrase:  The story I’m telling myself is that they didn’t call me because I’m not a high enough priority to them.

Then ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I be absolutely certain this story is true?
  • How do I feel and behave when I tell myself this story?
  • What’s one other possibility that might also make the ending to this story true?

Read more at Marcandangel

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