I once knew someone who told me he was always miserable. I remember thinking at the time, “Holy crap, how does that happen? All the time?” I didn’t understand why anyone would want to live an unhappy life, but then again, isn’t unhappiness what happens when you don’t do what you want? Unhappiness is what happens when the happiness is taken out of our lives, and it doesn’t always seem like we have a choice in the matter about if and when it gets taken. Unhappiness piles up on itself, quietly at first with small things like too much work, not enough play, not enough time… what we “should” do and not what we want. Misery isn’t always that loud until it’s built an entire cocoon around you and it’s the only thing you hear. We all have times when that voice of obligation speaks louder than our hearts, telling us that it doesn’t matter whether we’re happy or not as long as we’re doing what’s expected of us.

My voice of obligation has been positively cacophonous lately. It’s screamed over the combating whispers of my heart, listing off commands of what has to be done to keep things all together. Stress does that. There was a moment when I looked in the mirror and saw what that man had seen in himself: misery. All misery. I was weighed down by everything I felt was expected of me, and I had begun to lose sight of the person I was. All I saw was someone failing to hold it together and fix the problems around her. I had chosen those unhappinesses again and again until that was the only thing left. That’s not the person I wanted to be, so I changed it. Our lives are extremely malleable and luckily for me, I didn’t spend too much time in that unhappy place before remembering the power I had to change my situation.

Sometimes it seems that we’re supposed to view our happiness as something selfish, indulgent, and “wrong.” I feel so guilty sometimes when I experience a moment of complete happiness because I immediately wonder who’s not happy because of it. It’s maddening. Empathy is an attribute to be proud of, but when it comes at the expense of your ability to find pleasure in your own life, that’s a problem. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying life and allowing that joy to fill you to the brim, which is something I had almost forgotten in my web of “supposed to dos” and “supposed to bes.” I forgot the two biggest ones: I am supposed to be happy and supposed to do the things that bring me joy. Not being happy adds about thirty pounds to your load. We already carry so much, so why add more to our baggage?

So let’s go back to that moment in the mirror. That was the first time when I saw how that extra baggage was affecting me, because I didn’t sparkle with the life that a twenty-year-old college girl should have. In that moment, I was a middle-aged, bitter old woman, weighed down with words unsaid, feelings unexpressed, and experiences undone. Choosing my unhappiness was robbing me of everything so beautiful about living life, and before that look in the mirror I didn’t even remember I had a choice in the matter. No one was forcing me to carry this extra burden, it was only words unspoken and assumed responsibility that I was allowing to control me. More than anything, I was allowing myself to feel guilty when experiencing the joy that fulfills me.

Fulfillment should never be a cause for guilt. In fact, by denying myself the opportunity to really feel the joys in my life, I was denying those around me the fullness of me. An unhappy Katlyn, out of touch with herself and her emotions, can’t be any help to anyone. High levels of empathy or not, I couldn’t exactly help anyone find their joy if I was ignoring the potential for my own. I thought I was avoiding being “selfish” or “overly indulgent,” but there’s a difference between thinking of yourself and being fixated on yourself. I’m still finding that balance, but I’m learning that thinking about yourself… taking care of yourself… is important.

The world moves at lightning speed sometimes, and it can feel impossible to try and keep up. Trying to match the marathon speed of everything around us makes us forget that there’s more to it than just getting to the finish line first. There is a laundry list of things I feel like I “have” to do in the next couple of years: finish college (for two majors and two minors), find an internship, make connections, polish my resume, find a job, pay back student loans, start a family… there’s probably more, but that’s a slice. Obligations pile up, and we’re often taught that making goals of those obligations is the way to get things done and get where you want to be. Don’t slow down, don’t hit pause to just enjoy the ride. Get to the destination.

Well I’m here to say, the person who does that will probably be really successful… but slowing down on my ride forward doesn’t mean that I won’t be, too. I don’t want to forsake the journey just for where I want to be, and I don’t ever want to look into the mirror and see that old woman again until I have the laugh lines and (fabulously) gray hair to match. I’m not sure when it became normal to look at happiness as something unfocused, distracting, and selfish, because what I remember most in my life are the moments where I’m smiling… moments when I’ve laughed so hard that my abs hurt the next day.

Life shouldn’t be about the “should bes”… it should be about the joys around us that fill us up as much as humanly possible. About being full of smiles with warmth radiating out, all the way to your fingertips. So let your breath be stolen every once in a while. Bake a batch of cookies just because you feel like it. Fall out of a tree. Dance to the music, whether you hear it or not. Smile. Allow yourself to remember the things that make life worth the ride, no matter how many road blocks might be in the way. Choose joy. Choose yourself every once in a while. It’s okay.

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