Fill in the blank.  Lose 50 lbs?

In case you are in a hurry, here is the punch line: Happiness that is dependent on a goal is never coming.

One of the most troubling mental traps that I have observed in some people trying to lose weight  is the feeling that they won’t be truly happy in life until they lose the weight.  The equation is simple:  overweight = unhappy (and of course, thin = happy).  This equation is faulty.   The problem is that making your happiness dependent upon a goal firmly locks you into a pretty miserable life.  I’m not saying this because I don’t think you will achieve your goal, you may or may not, but rather because happiness does not come from achieving a single goal. Sure losing 50 pounds might make you happy for a short time, but true happiness in life is not a function of an event, a goal, a single moment or accomplishment. Believing that it is prevents you from experiencing the joy that is present elsewhere in your life.  It is there, do you see it?   A contented life is an accumulation of moments.  It doesn’t burst out every day, it simmers.

Consider this analogy.  Imagine the stars in the dark night sky.  The sky isn’t bright because of any single star, no matter how big the star.  The sky is bright because it has a million stars scattered about it.  In the analogy, each star is a moment in life that brings you joy, makes you smile, makes you proud, or makes you feel accomplished, productive, or a job well done. I don’t mean the birth of a child or a promotion at work.  I mean having a laugh with friends, finishing a project, getting a workout done-- the day-to-day stuff.  These moments aren’t North Stars, but enough of them make for the brightest sky. The challenge is how to fill your sky with as many stars as you can.

Here’s a neat exercise to try.  Write down the moments of the past week in which you were the happiest.  If you aren’t sure, keep track for a week by making a note of what you are doing every time you are really enjoying yourself or feeling good about something.  Be sure not to count what I call “delayed cost” activities --these are activities that are enjoyable in the moment but have a cost that comes later. Having a huge celebratory meal that sets you back 2,000 calories, playing a video game at work to avoid getting things done, or drinking too much are “delayed cost” activities. Let’s set those aside for now and just focus on the pure joyful moments that come with no cost.  Here’s an example.

Meet Christine, a 52 year old mother who is trying to lose weight and feels depressed because she believes that she’ll never be happy at her current weight.  I ask her to do this activity for 1 week. Here are the activities on her list:

Dinner with her husband and teenage kids--lots of laughing, joking around

Walk with friend, Joanie

Chatting with husband right before bedtime

Gardening

Church

Searching the internet for family vacation ideas

You can see what Christine enjoys most. Whenever she is feeling down, she needs to turn to the list and work some more of these activities into her day.  The list also tells us what Christine enjoys the least. How so?  Well, Christine has a full-time job at a bank, a fact we would have never known by looking at her list.  The absence of a single moment from such a big part of her life is a signal of a problem—so I ask about it. It turns out that Christine is burnt out with her job and has a highly critical and rude boss which makes every day painstaking. The only joyful moment she can come up with is leaving at the end of the day.  Unfortunately, a lot of her “delayed cost” activities come from dealing with the stress that the job causes, including snacking throughout the day and collapsing in front of the TV in exhaustion instead of exercising after work.

Christine isn’t depressed because she is overweight, instead her weight is a consequence of something else that is wrong in her life.  Even if she were to lose 50 pounds, her job would still be ripping a demoralizing hole in her life. Truly feeling better will involve finding a way to bring joy to her work life and adding even more joyful moments to her time outside of work.  She needs to realize that not doing anything about work will limit how bright her sky can be—and her ability to lose weight.

By attaching happiness to your weight you will miss the joy that is right in front of you. Pay attention to where your stars are (and aren't) and be sure to throw a few more up in the sky once in a while.

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