What’s the secret of happiness? Accepting that life is messy and difficult
If you have spent your life wishing for a calmer, happier, more organised future, it might be better, psychologically, to ditch those expectations
Wed 11 March 2020
In an interview marking a decade since her debut album, Ellie Goulding has described her younger self as a mixture of curiosity and confusion: “What’s the word for a total mess?”
You might say: a human being. Goulding, now 33, says the combination of age, experience and her recent marriage (to art dealer Caspar Jopling) have contributed to her sense of confidence and security following the “tough time” she had in her 20s. “I was just finding my way in the world. Not to say a cliche, but I was young and I had a lot of turbulence in my emotions, my personality,” Goulding said: “I just assumed that was life.”
On that point, she might be right. It is easy, especially when we’re young, to dream of a future when life will be easy and uncomplicated, but we find that is rarely the case. The expectation of there being a “before” and “after” can make it harder to respond to the reality.
Kate Moyle, who is registered with the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists, says accepting that life will have its ups and downs that we can’t predict or prepare for is key to being able to adapt to them.
“It’s about expectations. If we are able to just say we’ll take it as it comes – ‘It may not turn out how I think it will but I just need to go easy on myself and focus on one day at a time’ – that is really helpful. When we put ourselves under more pressure, we are more likely to struggle.”
No one can see what the future holds, “especially at the moment”, says Moyle, pointing to global instability in politics, housing and health. It is enough to focus on “just getting through” a difficult time, she adds. At a later date, when the “messy” period is behind us and we are feeling more secure in ourselves and our situation, it may be possible to see it in a new light.“ Life has different stages – just because it’s messy at one point in time doesn’t mean it will be always,” says Moyle. “I encourage people I’m working with to look at the different stages in their lives, what was going on for them then, why things might have been a bit ‘messy’ and try and put it all in context.” And every period of turbulence we emerge from builds resilience, equipping us to better cope in future.
“Every stage of life, every aspect is a learning experience,” says Moyle. “If we are able to look at it that way, it can be really useful.” Another word for a “total mess”, then, might be “life”. It doesn’t end with your 20s – but you can hope to get better at cleaning up and moving on.