It’s been two and half years since I left my corporate job and moved to New York to be a writer. It’s an idealized trajectory in America, maybe everywhere, and one I wrote about a lot as I went through it. I even encouraged others to follow suit. It made sense to me at the time; why shouldn’t we all follow our dreams?
Before I took the leap myself, I’d spent years pondering why I wanted to. Was it a calling? Was it proverbial greener grass? Maybe I was just 26. But when I finally mustered up the courage to do it and felt the wind in my hair and the swoop in my stomach, it was hard to imagine a reality where I shouldn’t have. As I skipped through the streets of New York, fear and thrill radiating off my skin, I felt like the leaping proof of concept. I wanted others to feel it too! I can see now that, beyond feeling fulfilled by my new life, I felt validated for my years of wanting one. It wasn’t until recently that I started pondering the difference. How would I have felt had it all gone wrong?
Every so often, the details of my former life pass through me like a ghost. The beam of sunlight that settled on my desk every afternoon at my old job. The sprawling stretch of 3rd Street I’d stare at during particularly long work calls. The way my cat meowed through the window of my Nopa garden apartment every time I returned home. The clang of the front gate as I let my two best friends in before running back inside in my socks. The meditative drive down the California coast to visit my parents, and the warm, familiar smell of my childhood home, now home to strangers.
As the days since I lived in San Francisco stretch into the thousands, my perception of it all is still evolving. Why did I leave, really? What exactly did I leave behind? Was leaving brave? Fearful? Honorable? Arbitrary? I may have followed my dreams, but I left another kind of dream, too. Maybe dreams can be vast and fickle like that. Maybe I can be, too.
Earlier this summer, it occurred to me that, despite uprooting my life in pursuit of more and finding it, I’m not sure the emotional tenor of my life has changed all that much. Hard days and incredible days still punctuate the ones that transpire as expected; eagerness and trepidation still inform my perception of the future; moments of insecurity still mix with feelings of self-assuredness. How could it be that, although everything’s changed, my mood is still the same?
I recently learned about a psychological theory called the hedonic treadmill. Coined by two psychologists in the 70s, the hedonic treadmill refers to “the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.” In other words, we adapt. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology, named this our “happiness set point” — a natural disposition we return to, regardless of circumstance. Some theorize that our neurochemical processes actually prevent us from experiencing sustained positive or negative emotions at all.
It begs the question: If not sustained happiness, what are all of us actually pursuing? If the details of our lives can drastically change without drastically changing us, how do we identify what we truly want? All of it lends new depth to an expression I’ve always loved: Wherever you go, there you are. You can stay, hide, run, leap, but you’ll still just be you — corny jokes, impatience, morning grouchiness and all.
We live in a society that idolizes the hustle — for money, recognition, fame, dreams, wellness — but we also have evidence in spades that none of these things in excess solve the happiness equation. Exorbitantly rich celebrities still fuck up, oversleep, get divorced, relapse, want more, are insecure, feel lost, choose wrong, act cranky. These things are just part of human existence. I think that truth is often lost in the capitalist ideas we’re sold about the value of risking everything, going after what we want and amassing wealth and recognition.
No part of me regrets following my dreams. I have so much gratitude for the version of me that dared to take a leap. I also feel privileged I had the resources to seek out a sense of fulfillment and purpose — and the luck to find it. But I’m also increasingly aware that there was plenty about my former life that made me feel grateful, too. And that I probably could have found a sense of fulfillment and purpose there also, if just another kind.
People often ask me for advice about leaving cities, careers or relationships that don’t feel right, and while I’m still a believer in listening to gut feelings, I’m becoming more open to the idea that perception can shift without seismic uprooting, that big life changes don’t always change us, and that, more than anything else, we will always be ourselves. In that vein, I think it’s worth asking yourself: What makes you happiest as you are now? Because no matter where you go, that will likely never change.
Photo by DeAgostini via Getty Images.