Sitting in the front row at the Ubud Writers Festival listening to a dose of raw and real honesty from Jill Stark, author of Happy Never After, had me twitching in my chair. I heard and felt every word.
Jill’s story is of one who supposedly had it all…successful career as a journalist, house, car, dating a sports star, an instant best-selling author and with an Instagram feed to match. (And we all know IG stats are the ultimate measure of personal success).
Then came the crash. Unable to work, barely able to function, anxiety crippled Jill’s life. And we’re not talking about an episode easily fixed by reciting positive mantras on a daily basis or a detoxifying stay at a wellness retreat. Jill made it very clear that it’s taken loads of therapy and daily work to be able to get back out in the world. And it’s not over, a few years down the track describing herself as a ‘work in progress’.
I’m aware of the rising stats around anxiety, and as more people like Jill bravely spill their stories, there’s no hiding from the truth. Our constant quest for ‘success’ and ‘happiness’ is creating a staggering number of lonely, anxious people struggling through each day.
I don’t suffer from anxiety and I honestly can’t imagine what it would be like to live with it every day. I have my fair share of stress like anyone else on the planet, but as my good friend Jo pointed out to me…. ‘Karen, you have problems, that’s all they are, problems’. Whilst my problems are painful, they are understandable and mostly able to be solved.
But I don’t have to listen to a voice in my head spitting insults at me all day long.
Once Jill started talking about the ‘quick fix’ promises fed to us by the ‘happiness industry’ I was twitching in my seat.
Wellness retreats are very much part of that ‘happiness industry’, promising anything from fierce fitness to Zen like spiritual enlightenment and everything in between in dreamy, typically tropical, surrounds. Bali has become a mecca for retreats. The Eat Pray Love phenomenon had a lasting effect.
I’ve created and hosted hundreds of retreats over the last 10+ years. Its become my way of life.
So why am I twitching? I know what’s coming.
The latest buzz words in the retreat industry, ‘transformative travel’ or ‘transformational retreats’, cause me to gasp for breath. Upping the ante from wellness to transformation in 7 days is a BIG promise.
Talk about feeding the ‘quick fix’ notion.
A retreat may help set you up for change, but the chances of having a transformation in 7 days is slim. Transformation only really takes place once you go home and start living whatever you want that newly transformed person to look like. And that’s harder once you leave the perfect retreat environment. You need some good tools, realistic expectations and a lot of determination.
So it’s all very well to have views on others.
Hearing Jill’s story and her views on the ‘happiness industry’ gave me reason to check in with myself.
I dialled back to an ‘aha moment’ I had a few years ago.
In the midst of a retreat it dawned on me I was putting myself under enormous pressure as a Retreat Leader to make sure everyone was ‘happy’. I was not only driving myself (and the staff) nuts, it was exhausting. The moment of clarity came crashing in during a chat with myself…
‘Karen, you’re not responsible for each person’s individual happiness. Who are you kidding?
We get to choose to be happy in a particular moment…. or not.
No one can make you happy. It starts from within.’
From that ‘aha moment’ I learnt that we have a lot of ‘best moments’ in a day on our retreats, but they’re not the same for everyone. This realization led me to start daily conversations around the dinner table about ‘the best moments of the day’. These moments vary from being tiny to epic, delicious, funny, confronting, insightful, everyday ordinary or once in a lifetime special. Not necessarily ‘happy’.
Pausing to reflect on our best moments brings appreciation to the day we’ve had, leading to some lovely and very genuine conversations. There’s no temptation to let in the Instagram habits of editing, applying filters to thoughts or looking for the best angle to a story. It’s not a competition to see who had the best moment.
Its a habit we can so easily take home,
By the end of the session Jill’s talking about how learning to live a more compassionate life has made a difference. Acts of kindness to oneself and others count.
We laugh with her as she reveals some messy moments and a list of survival tips.
I leave filled with respect for Jill’s honesty and genuine desire to help others in the same situation. And I’m on alert for ‘happiness industry’ behaviour.
Read an extract of Jill’s Book here: How our happiness pursuit is making us more anxious than ever.
Jill reveals how she too was sucked in by the Eat Pray Love thing: Lets fact check the ‘go to a tropical paradise to find yourself’ hype
Need a hotel on your travels? I use Agoda.com.