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The Simple Secret to a Happier Life

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If your child isn't what you expected... continued...

If you're not where you thought you'd be at 30...35...40...

When I turned 40, I took stock of my life — and consequently freaked out because so much of it wasn't going according to plan. I was sure I'd have written a novel or two by then. Not happening. I'd always pictured myself living in a house straight from the pages of a Pottery Barn catalog; instead, my husband and I had recently bought a 100-year-old fixer-upper. And the financial stability I'd hoped for? Forget it. With remodeling costs, we were deeper in debt than ever.

Of course it's normal to feel disappointed if you don't reach the goals you've set. It's also normal to compare yourself to others in your field or to friends your age. "It's the proverbial grass-is-greener thing," says Robinson. "You think, Where have I gone wrong? But things haven't necessarily gone wrong; they've just gone different." And different doesn't mean bad. The real problem is sticking to preconceived notions of where you "should" be and undervaluing the reality you've created for yourself, since that negativity cuts you off from all kinds of amazing possibilities, from career changes to new relationships.

How to Let Go

When you're sizing up your life, try to focus on gratitude. "That way of thinking is what makes the difference between living a life that's difficult and bitter versus one that's joyous and wonderful," Robinson says.

Cultivating this attitude is easier than you realize, says Robinson; just consciously direct your focus away from your so-called disappointments and toward what's good in your life. That's it. (Really.) One easy step to help you get started: Every day, take a minute to jot down several things you're grateful for, big or small ("I had no traffic on the way to work today." "My Pap results were normal." "My daughter gave me the sweetest hug." "I found my other green sock."), and look for the joy and humor in ordinary situations.

Some months after my birthday, I started noticing what I did have: a funny, hardworking husband. Healthy, well-adjusted kids. Some very good friends. Work that I liked, on most days. A big (if needy) house in a vital, family-friendly neighborhood. All in all, I had a life that was full of activity, promise, and joy. The choice was mine: I could either embrace my imperfect world or I could hold it at arm's length and continually feel dissatisfied and wish I had more.

I decided to choose the former. And as I made that choice, my once-essential goals faded into the background of the full, crazy, and chaotic life that I was living. I still work to change things for the better in my life — I'll never just say to myself Who cares? about money worries or my dreams — but I have learned enough to know that sometimes letting go of what I can't have makes life much sweeter.

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