Throughout my life, there have been several moments when I have held my breath and wished for time to stand still. Times when my daughter was asleep on my shoulder as I stared at her little face, or where my husband and I would exchange a look and express everything without speaking. Those moments have often snuck up on me. They weren’t at the times when I expected them: at my wedding, my graduation, or even the birth of my daughter. Instead, they have been such extraordinarily ordinary moments where I have felt my heart soar and realized that I had everything that I ever wanted right there.

More often than this though, have been the times when I have yearned for more: moments when I have experienced some accomplishment and felt joy but then wished I had accomplished more. Moments when I wish that I was richer or younger or prettier.  Times when I have laid awake at night worrying about finances, my career, or how we'll ever afford to have another child. I find myself wondering why nothing is never enough. And how to be content with what I have now instead of worrying about where I am going and whether I'm getting there quickly enough.

I don’t know where these worries and yearnings come from. Are they just part of human nature? And do they drive us forward or put the brakes on our happiness? Do they cause unnecessary sadness and anxiety or help us to achieve? Why do we yearn for the big milestones when these ordinary moments seem to be the ones that matter?

I think that maybe we spend so much time on our expectations of the big moments that we lose the point of the moments. A wedding often becomes more of an elaborately scripted show instead of what it should really be: a moment of connection between two people. The birth of my daughter was so medicalized that I was focusing on our health and the recovery ahead instead of experiencing that moment of utter love that I had waited for for so long. Career goals seem like they will be more exciting than they actually are when you reach them.  And after years of worries about when we will achieve these milestones, the moment of achieving them seems to pale in comparison to what we thought it would be like.

In contrast, the ordinary moments are the spontaneous ones: the ones that we did not plan or dream about for years. They are the moments that naturally occur and where we are simply being ourselves and enjoying that without comparing it to a mental image of what the moment should be like.

Maybe we need to let go of our expectations, stop imagining what will be or could be and instead be grateful for what we have. Perhaps we need to stop comparing ourselves to who we thought we would be or what we thought our lives would look like at this point and find a connection with the people in our lives. To let that hug last just a few moments longer. And to say nothing and feel a connection that requires no words. Maybe we need to give up our dreams of the perfect career, the ideal marriage, or the perfect Thanksgiving and instead enjoy a hot dog with a friend in the park and where we are now.

So how do we become grateful for what and who we have now? How do we stop comparing where we are in our lives now to where we thought we would be? How do we turn off the worries about where we are headed and focus on the joy of where we are now? Many of us struggle to be grateful for our current experience, but here are some things for all of us to try:

1) Take a daily inventory of the meaningful things in your life now: the people, animals, and personal accomplishments.

2) Look for the bright side in your current experience. Most (but not all) experiences can be viewed in both a negative and a positive light. Find the positive ways of looking at your current experience and if you struggle with this, continue to work on this daily.

3) Identify the unexpected turns that your life took and focus on the wonderful things that those deviations from your plans led to. Then focus on your gratitude that your expectations were not met.

4) Do NOT keep up with the Joneses. If you compare your life to someone else’s you will often focus on the ways in which you think that your life and accomplishments fall short of theirs. But you are on the outside looking in. Every person’s life has both positive and negative aspects and often if you were able to see it from the inside, it may not look as fantastic. Instead of comparing yourself to someone else, focus on the things in your life for which you are grateful.

5) Enjoy the journey as well as the final accomplishments and milestones. Sometime we want to reach a goal so much that we forget to enjoy the path to get there. Instead, focus on enjoying the present moment.

6) Identify your true desires: to be loved, to teach children, to help others, etc and identify ways that you can fulfill these desires now—friends who love you, volunteering with children, etc. If your desires can be fulfilled now, you will focus less on the happiness that you hope to achieve when you reach milestones some day in the future.

Report back and let me know how these work for you! 

Sometimes we lose touch with what is really meaningful to us because we are in a race to reach a milestone that we think will bring us happiness. The ordinary moments when our breath catches and we realize that we are truly happy now may reveal what we have wanted all along, not an accomplishment or some milestone that we think will bring happiness, but small moments of tenderness with people we love.

Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families
Amy Przeworski, Ph.D.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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