I spent a great deal of my twenties and thirties on a quest to understand what it means to be happy and at peace. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness practices, healthy eating, wellness retreats therapy session, life coaches and pursuing my purpose and passions all led the groundwork for a life of happiness. I was traveling the world, working throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia. Different countries brought different lessons, different life stages such as marriage and motherhood added layers of understanding. Even my divorce brought the opportunity to dive deeper into the quest of understanding what it means to be happy at the core, and at peace with myself and the world around me. When the opportunity to live on Bali arose, I felt that I had arrived at the perfect place to solidify and anchor my habits for happiness, and develop a life anchored in well-being.
Though the island of Bali presents with its own challenges, (it is often said that Bali will chew you up and spit you out until you arrived at your most polished self) Bali is also a place where it is easy to establish a life centered around well-being. On an island deeply rooted in spiritual practices, lush with natural beauty and rife with spas, yoga centers, ancient healing remedies and hidden sanctuaries, escape from chaos seems to be the raison d’etre for this Island of the Gods. Bali also felt like it was the place where I was receiving my PhD in living a happy life, and I thought I had graduated with honors. I was ready, I believed, to leave my life university and re-enter New York City, the land of opportunity, completely zenned out and ready to handle anything.
I was, after all, the “happiness teacher.”
When I first arrived, settling in seemed a bit easier for me than it does for most people new to the city which never sleeps. Not only did I find a beautiful apartment easily (and without brokerage fees) my landlord lowered my rent to make it more attainable. Old friends welcomed me home with open arms. The city seemed to be abuzz with excitement over my arrival.
For about a week.
Then reality set in.
After ten years of living abroad in collectivist cultures set in landscapes alive with natural beauty, I had moved my then six year old son and I to the concrete jungle. To a place that never settles down. To chaos and long commutes and insanely high grocery bills. Nanniless, to piles of laundry and cleaning my own apartment and noise and high crime. My senses felt that they were being bombarded at every level, with no reprieve. My new work environment was challenging in entirely new ways. My friends all had commutes and work and busy lives, too, and loneliness started to creep in. I was no longer thriving, I was surviving, and just barely.
I continued to teach my students the habits for happiness: build into relationships, reflect on happy memories, spread kindness, practice mindfulness, express gratitude, and take care of our bodies. But on some levels, I felt like a fraud.
My reserves of “well-being” were being tapped into and consumed at a rate faster than I could replenish, and I quickly started to worry that I had not, in fact, developed these habits for well-being, rather, I had simply lived well in an environment conducive to happiness. If Bali was the place where I was earning my PhD, New York was my final residency- that big test that, if I passed, I could truly say that I knew how to be happy. If I failed… Well, I was just another grumpy New Yorker.
Though I was doing everything I could to practice my habits, I was struggling.
I was not alone in this experience. According to the UN Report on Happiness, about 10% of the world’s population suffers from clinical depression or crippling anxiety disorders. Globally, children are reporting epidemic numbers of depression and debilitating stress. Suicide rates are at an all time high amongst youth and adolescents. According to the US National Institute of Mental Health, in 2012, an estimated 2.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in that year. This represented 9.1 percent of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17. In the same year, an estimated 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode This represented 6.9 percent of all U.S. adults.
Globally, it is recognized that these trends are not sustainable; we need to make a shift.
In July of 2012, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared March 20 as the “International Day of Happiness,” recognizing the importance of happiness and well-being as universal goals that should be driving public policy decisions. Inspired by the government of Bhutan’s decision to measure Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product, it is recognized that measuring and working towards a nation’s happiness will also lead to greater economic growth and stability. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that the world “needs a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.”
Personally, if I took any measure for happiness-economically or otherwise- I would fail.
What was I to do? My new lifestyle, with its daily 2 hours of commuting, unaffordable child-care, and life chores did not leave time for self-care. But if I didn’t make time, I was at risk of slipping into a version of myself that I didn’t care to be. And so I hunkered down. Perhaps I couldn’t practice all of the habits all of the time, but I could do at least one- maybe two things each day that could serve as my happiness buoys and tether me to a sense of well-being.
As it had been in the past, my camera became a tool that kept me grounded. My rough commutes became easier as I practiced the mindfulness strategy of looking for the wow. I built yoga into my life, and even the walk on the commute became less of a burden and was instead viewed as a strategy for taking care of my body. The more I made the habits a part of routines, the more I drew opportunities for well-being into my life, such as the time I was offered a scholarship to receive training from the David Lynch Foundation for the life changing experience of Transcendental Meditation. Opportunities to speak about and share Happiness 101 grew, with me being invited to India and Mexico and conferences throughout the US. The Happiness routines were becoming so much a part of my day that were no longer add-ons, they were the things I just did in the same way that I took a shower or brushed my teeth every day.
I also started to evaluate every aspect of my life to see what was and wasn't working and with the support of a coach and therapist, started to systematically enact an approach for anything and everything that wasn't working.
To alleviate financial stress, I took on consulting and moved from the classroom into leadership. I approached building relationships (both romantic and friendship) with determination and focus, and constantly brought focus and effort to ensuring that my son and I could thrive.
And still , in spite of all that, life as a single mom in my beloved NY was hard. Really hard. Unsustainably hard. Just read the above description and the key words within it: focus, effort, systematically enact... It was all WORK-constant effort. Eventually, I Mari Kondoed my entire life by asking: What sparks joy? What serves me? What needs to go? Once everything was rooted out and life still seemed too hard, I took the clue that it was time to make a big change; it was time to leave my beloved city. New York no longer sparked joy.
For two years, I looked for the right next fit. I finally found it in a place that is the polar opposite of NYC: Lausanne, Switzerland. And so yet again, we packed up our lives and landed in a new home. This time, things felt so much easier.
Life does still have its ups and downs, and over the last two years I have had my fair share of challenges, only now I do not feel as if I am battling the energy and routines of a city as I deal with life's usual trials and tribulations. My son can be a 13 year old with greater ease and independence. Despite having a demanding job and a tween at home, when the rhythm of life is hectic, I am in a natural environment with a rhythm that reminds me to slow down and breathe. My focus has been on settling in, my job, and my son.
Along the way, Happiness 101 has fallen to the wayside, along with teaching yoga and meditation and many of the things that I love to do. I enjoy what I do at work, and feel at peace with our home, don't get me wrong. And still, something has been missing. Something very important.
I don't know if its this new environment or this stage of being a woman in her 40s... Whatever it is, I am better able to see parts of myself that I carry with me no matter where I am. I have come to see that I am a woman with drive who always needs to be working towards something, and to feel I am contributing in areas aligned with my passions and purpose. I am also clear that a part of my purpose is sharing everything that I have learned about well-being, healing, achieving self awareness and actualization- all of which I encapsulate in what it means to be happy.
Fast forward two years in, and I now write to you from my home office during the great Pandemic of 2020. In the third week of a government imposed lockdown, this writing right now is a healthy process for me: it's cathartic and helpful. A way to deal with the racing mind that comes with days on end of working remotely, alone with my child at home in a time of anxiousness and uncertainty. In this time of harboring safe at home, I am tuning into a nagging voice that is asking me to pay attention to the part of my life that feels unfulfilled, to the parts where I am not living out my purpose. I keep coming back to my neglected Happiness 101 project. In a way that I have never before seen, as we sit in the eye of a well-being storm, the world seems to be collectively looking for strategies for Happiness and well-being. And I feel called to action.
Our wound can be our source of light. Over the coming weeks, I will share my journey towards being a PTSD survivor and thriver. While it is nerve wracking to imagine doing this, it also feels right. I know that I have learned a great deal when others are brave and vulnerable with their stories, and so if even just one person benefits from my telling, I will share my own with the aim of supporting others. I don't know what it will look like. I can predict some messiness and clumsiness along the way, so I ask for some grace with the process.
If you've stuck with this long reading, thank you. I hope you are safe and healthy and surrounded with love in this time of uncertainty.
Yours in growth and discovery,
Erin Michelle Threlfall
Artist, Activist, and Educator, Erin is the mother of a budding genius in his 13th year of study. Erin and her little man, Edem, have a plan to investigate world Theater and influence education one continent at a time. Ghana, South Korea, Togo, Bali, and US have been checked off the list of places to live; these days they call Switzerland home.