"Woman worried about life"and How They Can Help You Start Living Your Best Life Now

Todd Patkin suffered a nervous breakdown at age thirty-six—and it turned out to be a breakthrough. He shares fifteen important things about life and happiness that he has learned.

You’re living a “successful” modern life, which means that you spend most of your time at work. If you’re lucky, you’re able to fulfill your responsibilities without hooking up a caffeine IV, and if you’re really fortunate, you genuinely enjoy what you do. You love the feeling of accomplishment you get when you complete a project, sign a new client, or are recognized for a job well done, but you wish you weren’t so tired all the time, and you hate the feeling of anxiety that’s always lurking in the corners of your mind. You also regret not having more time to relax and spend with your family. You haven’t been home in time to tuck your son into bed all week, and you can’t remember the last time you and your spouse had a date night. Still, you tell yourself that everything’s okay. After all, you’re working to build a better future for you and everyone you love, right?

Maybe not. According to Todd Patkin, you may not be working toward successful new heights…you may be driving yourself over the brink.

“When I was thirty-six years old, I was successfully leading my family’s auto parts business, I was well respected by my community, I had a wonderful wife and son…and I also suffered a nervous breakdown,” says Patkin, author of the new book Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In. “Yes, at that point in my life, I enjoyed what I did and was truly proud of my successes, but I was also pushing myself too hard and prioritizing the wrong things…and eventually, it all caught up with me.”

For months leading up to his breakdown, Patkin suffered from a paralyzing depression and anxiety, and found it difficult to complete tasks as simple as deciding whether to order coleslaw or potato salad with his lunch. But he still considers himself to be very fortunate.

“As horrific as it was, my breakdown was actually also my breakthrough,” Patkin shares. “It was an in-your-face wake-up call that forced me to realize that I was driving myself too hard, and for the wrong reasons. I finally had to say, ‘Enough is enough! I am done destroying myself and ruining my life!’ Admitting to myself that my former way of life wasn’t working was the beginning of my road to recovery and true happiness.” For the past decade, Patkin has taken a closer look at what really makes people happy and unhappy, and he has seen most of his goals and priorities shift.

“I have come to realize that how happy and fulfilled you are is largely under your control, and that it has less to do with success and accomplishments than you might think” he asserts. “I believe that most people are experiencing many—if not all—of the stressors that led to my breakdown, so please don’t wait until you, too, reach a breaking point to make changes in your life. I’m totally convinced now that true happiness is a possibility for everyone, so I’m asking you to take the lessons I have learned to heart.”

If you’re ready to change the way you approach life before you drive yourself over the edge, read on for fifteen life lessons that Patkin has learned:

1) You have to choose and prioritize happiness—it doesn’t just happen. If you subscribe to the belief that your happiness is wholly dependent on what happens to you, you’ll always be dissatisfied. The truth is, your fulfillment largely depends on the choices you make: how you see the world, what you allow to influence you, what you focus on, and how you react to circumstances, regardless of whether they’re good or bad. In other words, it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you look at what happens to you.

“If you want to make a dent in your stress levels, you have to make choosing happiness a priority every day,” Patkin instructs. “With all of the responsibilities on our plates, nothing is likely to happen unless we specifically focus on it. So make happiness one of the two or three priorities you absolutely must accomplish each day. To remind yourself, put a note where you can see it—maybe on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror. And if that sounds selfish, it’s not. If you’re extremely stressed or become depressed because of the way you’re living your life, you’re hurting many more people than just yourself. And what’s more important than teaching your kids to be happy? Always remember that children learn by example. If they see you living a harried, stressed life, that’s the pattern their lives will follow as well…and their children’s after them, and so on.”

2) Striving for work/life balance is worth its weight in gold. Times are tough, and some of us are finding it necessary to work long hours to keep our jobs and livelihoods. Others have fallen into the trap of the work-ego addiction: over time, you become hooked on the “high” you feel when you accomplish something, get a promotion, etc., and you begin to spend more and more time at the office. Whatever the reason, if extremely long hours are becoming a habit for you, break it. No matter how good your intentions are, overloading on work will cause your relationships, mindset, and even health to suffer.

“Prior to my breakdown, it was normal for me to work seventy- or eighty-hour weeks,” Patkin recalls. “In my personal dictionary, ‘rest’ and ‘relaxation’ were synonymous with ‘irresponsibility’ and ‘slacking.’ Boy, was I wrong. Working as much as I did is more than the human body is designed to take continuously. If you drive yourself that hard, you’ll eventually begin to run on fumes before you shut down entirely. Being firm about creating and maintaining a healthy work/life balance is no more selfish than prioritizing happiness—in this case, it’s about simple self-preservation! And if you’re still skeptical, remember this: no one looks back on their lives at age eighty and says, ‘Gee, I wish I’d spent less time with my family and friends and more time at the office.’”

3) We are our own worst critics. If you’re like most people, you probably tend to focus a lot of your mental energy on the things you mess up rather than on the things you do well—even though most of us do a hundred things right for every one thing we do wrong. And although you may not realize it, focusing on that one wrong thing is very dangerous, because our thoughts are incredibly powerful. Until you give yourself permission to break free of the cycle of self-blame and negativity that causes you to be stuck demanding perfection from yourself in every situation, you’ll never have a chance to be a truly relaxed, content, and happy person.

“It’s not easy to rewire your habitual thought processes, but you need to build yourself up more and beat yourself up less,” Patkin instructs. “I used to expect nothing less than perfection out of myself, which was delusional! We’re all human, which means that we’re going to make mistakes from time to time. That doesn’t mean that we’re in any way unworthy or undeserving of love. In fact, learning to love myself was at the core of my own happiness journey. If you aren’t satisfied with who you are, you’ll always be looking outside yourself for validation…and you’ll never be truly content. And like me, you might also push yourself beyond healthy limits in order to get accolades from other people.”

4) It’s never too late to start living in the present. How often do your thoughts “live” in the present? More to the point, how often are they instead fixated on your “disappointing” or “disturbing” past or spent worrying about your future? If you are like most people, your percentage of time not spent in the present is way, way too high, and thus you’re missing out on life itself. If you’re letting what’s already happened eat away at you or fretting about what might come to pass, you’re not enjoying the blessings all around you. You’re exacerbating your anxiety and unhappiness by choosing to dwell on things you can’t change or control.

“I used to spend a majority of my time rehashing my past mistakes and worrying about what might happen in the future, neither of which did anything for my peace of mind or self-esteem,” Patkin remembers. “In fact, these unhealthy and self-critical thoughts were a major contributor to my breakdown. Now that I’m making a conscious effort to live in the present, I’m actually enjoying all of the great things in my life instead of letting them pass me by unnoticed. Plus, I’m actually a lot more productive now that all of that mental space that used to be occupied with worries has been freed up!”

5) Focusing on what you’re good at is best for everyone. If you aren’t good at something—especially if it’s work-related—chances are you’ll feel compelled to spend a lot of time and effort getting your skills up to par. It’s natural to want to shore up your weaknesses, but the fact is, this strategy tends to cause you a lot of stress for (most likely) mediocre results. Instead of trying to be good at everything, stay in your strengths as much as possible. When you’re doing what you’re good at, you’ll be happier and higher performing.

“As I’ve said, I used to be a total perfectionist,” says Patkin. “I felt like I was a failure if I didn’t excel in absolutely everything I tried. It probably won’t be a surprise to hear that all I accomplished was making myself miserable when I failed to live up to my impossibly high standards. If that sounds familiar, I’d suggest focusing more time on a hobby or personal interest to start, even if you do it for only twenty minutes every other day. And if you determine that your career doesn’t utilize your strengths, start looking at online job postings or for local classes in your field of interest. It’s never too early—or too late—to start doing the things that make you happy.”

6) Exercise is worth its weight in therapy. Yes, you’ve heard it (a million times) before, but exercise is one small change that yields really big, life-changing benefits. For starters, it will begin to make you feel more relaxed, stronger, and more capable of handling life’s challenges—also, it will improve your sleep, and it’s a natural anti-depressant that will help your attitude and outlook. In fact, exercise actually opens you up to future change by invigorating your mind and body.

“I’m convinced that exercise is the single most important thing you can do to improve your life right now,” Patkin asserts. “Looking back, I believe that my breakdown occurred when it did because I had broken my feet and couldn’t work out. Before that point, exercise was essentially acting as a medication that helped to counteract the effects of the stressful lifestyle I was living, and after I recovered, it has continued to boost my energy and outlook. If working out is already a part of your life, great! If it isn’t, commit to walking just twenty minutes every other day to start out. You don’t have to join a gym, sign up for exhausting classes, and completely reorder your life to reap the benefits of this investment!”

7) You need to feed your mind healthy “food.” When was the last time you watched the nightly news and turned off the TV feeling positive and uplifted? If anything, hearing the headlines is more likely to be depressing and discouraging. Although many of us don’t want to admit it, the things we hear, read, and experience influence our own attitudes and outlooks, so it’s important to consciously “feed” your mind positive materials.

“It may sound hokey, but over the years I’ve become a big proponent of motivational books, audio recordings, and DVDs,” shares Patkin. “Whether we’re at work, talking with friends, or at home watching TV or surfing the web, most of us encounter a lot more bad news and predictions than we do good. No wonder we become negative and cynical! It’s important to seek out positive things that will counteract these influences and dispel unnecessary stress. Learn new, constructive things and expose yourself to fresh ways of thinking so that you don’t get stuck in a self-destructive rut.”

8) Surround yourself with positive people. If you stop for a drink at the water cooler and find your colleagues griping about how much work they have to do and how unreasonable your boss is, you probably don’t think much of it. In fact, depending on how your own day is going, you might even join in. And although you may not realize it, your attitude will start to deteriorate. The fact is, if you spend a significant amount of time around other people who are negative, your own outlook will begin to mirror theirs.

“It’s much easier for others to drag you down than it is for you to build them up,” Patkin points out. “In terms of your attitude and happiness levels, you will be the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so you need to be around other people who share your commitment to happiness if you want to avoid unnecessary stress. I’m not suggesting that you completely sever relationships that aren’t entirely uplifting, but gradually, you need to gravitate more toward positive people and distance yourself from those who tend to bring you down. This might mean calling a positive friend and asking to meet up for coffee or a beer, or walking away from the water cooler when your coworkers begin to gripe and complain.”

 

About the Author: Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.

Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In  is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and at www.findinghappinessthebook.com .

Read Part Two of Living Your Best Life