Is ditching your dreams the next happy?
It sounds smart - focus on what you want and work hard to get it. But is this a recipe for failure? A new book suggests you shouldn't get hung up on goals
Published 25/06/2015 | 02:30
Caitriona Gaffney always wanted to be a journalist. "Even when I was very young I loved reading newspapers and dreamed of one day seeing my name in print," she says. "I wanted to chase big stories, interview exciting people and experience the buzz of working in a newsroom, hitting deadlines and breaking exclusives."
And she did it, breaking into an industry saturated with hopeful, would-be hacks and working her way up to become showbiz editor on a national newspaper.
"I was on a high salary, going to glamorous events and rubbing shoulders with household names," she says. "But instead of feeling elated that I'd got what I always wanted, I felt increasingly disillusioned with my 'dream' life.
"You're never really 'off' when you work in news and so much of the time I was tense worrying about what I might be missing or what a rival paper was doing.
"Because I was working around the clock it was hard to have a personal life and my work wasn't as fulfilling as I'd hoped it would be.
"You're supposed to be so grateful if you've a secure job and a good wage, particularly in an industry like journalism that so many people are dying to work in, but I knew I wasn't happy."
We live in a world where we're told to follow our dreams and reach for the stars, that, as long as we want something bad enough, we can have it… and if we're lucky enough to get it then we'll live happily ever after.
As anyone who has caught even a fragment of The X-Factor will know, the 'don't give up on your dreams' mantra lies at the heart of the programme, which is what made it so shocking earlier this year when Zayn Malik did just that.
After several years 'living the dream' as a member of globally successful boyband One Direction, Zayn quit the group saying it wasn't making him happy.
"I did try to do something that I wasn't happy doing for a while, for the sake of other people's happiness," he explained in an interview. "It's just that I can't do that anymore, it's not real to me."
Since stepping away from the band he says he's "never felt more in control of my life. I feel like I'm doing what's right."
Giving up and walking away isn't advice that's often found in the self-help aisles, but according to a new book by best-selling author Tracey Cleantis, sometimes it's exactly what we need to do.
"I am not trying to be a pessimist. I am trying to be a realist," she writes in The Next Happy: Let Go of the Life You Planned and Find a New Way Forward.
"I don't want to kill your dreams. I just don't want your dreams to kill you."
Her approach flies in the face of the accepted belief that happiness lies in the pursuit (or even realisation) of goals and calls "BS" on the notion of happily ever after.
"We have unrealistic expectations of happiness," she says. "There's this idea that if we get all our ducks in a row we'll be in a state of perpetual bliss. That if we lose the weight, marry the guy, get the job, buy the house then we'll be in a Garden of Eden state and it's just not the case."
In fact the whole 'you can do it' mantra can actually be destructive, she says, as it encourages an unhealthy fixation on only one route to happiness.
She's speaking from bitter personal experience. The California-based therapist spent 10 years pursuing her dream of having a baby. After several rounds of IVF and desperately trying every alternative remedy she could find, she decided to give up. Her dream cost her $100,000 and her marriage.
She was buoyed on by the 'yes you can' mantra and other people's relentless positivity.
"I'm 50 now and people are still giving me suggestions on how to have a child," she says. "People advised fostering, adoption, different fertility treatments. I was told I wanted it too much and that's why it wasn't happening or I didn't want it enough. No-one ever told me just to stop.
"All the advice, all the self-help books, they're all geared towards 'what more can you do to make it happen', but there's nothing giving you permission to stop."
She now gets letters and emails every day from readers thanking her for telling them it's ok to give up on a dream.
One reason so many of us struggle with walking away from a dream is down to what's known in economic theory as 'sunk costs', that feeling that you've already invested so much time/energy/money, you can't cut your losses without feeling you've wasted everything.
Another roadblock is that we're programmed to root for dogged determination.
"We live in a 'never give up' culture," says Tracey. "Going against that can make us feel a lot of guilt and shame."
Dubliner Anna Aparicio knows many people would have seen her life as 'perfect'. She was married to a wonderful man, who she still loves and respects, and had a successful fitness business they co-owned.
It was the life she'd always dreamed of, but she wasn't happy. "It's not that it wasn't working," she says. "It just wasn't working for me. There was nothing wrong, but I just found myself thinking 'is this it?'"
After more than 10 years together, she decided to walk away earlier this year. "Everyone was heartbroken and it's still a challenging time," she says. "I had a cosy life that a lot of people would envy and walking away from that is extremely scary.
"There's a lot of healing going on for me at the moment. There's been guilt, anger, tears, a lot of emotions."
In the book there's an inventory of questions to ask yourself before deciding if it's time to give up on a dream, but a crucial red flag is believing there's only one way you can be happy.
It was only once she stopped her blinkered quest to be a mother that Tracey realised she'd lost sight of other potential sources of happiness. She now has a new partner and a dog, Lily, that she loves.
"I don't have big dreams now," she reveals. "I have little dreams - I want to write another book, I'd like to spend a month in France - they're small goals and if they don't happen, well that's ok."
Anna, who works as a lifecoach helping other women make big life decisions, is excited by the prospect of not knowing her future.
"Even though it's scary, it's also exhilarating. I do feel happier, as if a weight has been lifted in a way."
Four years ago. Caitriona Gaffney not only left her job behind but also her home country and a flagging relationship to start a new life in Dubai.
She now works in PR for a prestigious, five-star hotel chain and spends her evenings enjoying yoga on a long stretch of sun-drenched private beach - rather than fretting about headlines and deadlines.
"I never could have imagined where my life would end up," she laughs. "But really, it was only when I gave up on my dream job that I got a brilliant new career and life I love."
Just walk away: Tracey's tips to ditching the dream
1 "Never give up" is really and truly bad advice. Sticking with something that's depleting us can be terribly toxic to mind, body and soul.
2 Grief is to be expected. Loss of a dream is a death and one that deserves to be grieved. Not to do so can lead us down a path of repression, guilt and shame.
3 Platitudes are really stupid and should be avoided (no matter what Kelly Clarkson says). "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and so on are things family and friends say to cheer you up, but they're not helpful. You don't need to feel ashamed of feeling sad, it's ok to say 'this sucks'.
4 Don't immediately replace one dream with another. Like an addict, you need to 'dream detox'.
5 Try to understand what you wanted from the dream - was it more to do with seeking love, approval, acceptance, undoing past wrongs than getting to the top of the charts?
6 Stop living in the future. Focusing on a goal and on what will make you happy in the future takes you out of the present and the possibility of being happy now.