How to Be Happy Now By Dealing With the Past

dealing with the past

The pivotal event of my life happened in my early 20s.

I was living away from home for the first time, training to be a staff member for a voluntary organisation known for its cookie-cutter approach (and I’m a cookie that doesn’t cut well).

Quite a big chunk of the support money that I was supposed to be living on wasn’t coming through, and to put the tin lid on it I was in unrequited love with one of my fellow trainees.

I’d had a few brushes with depression before, but all these assorted stresses swallowed me, chewed on me and spat me out seriously depressed, ill, vague and nervous. At one point, someone I knew came up behind me and tucked the label of my shirt into my collar, and I leaped like a salmon and nearly attacked him. It was years before I become comfortable with being touched suddenly.

It was a very unhappy time – and there’s some evidence that a very unhappy time can permanently reduce your happiness.

Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener studied 24,000 people in Germany for 15 years, for example, and discovered that people who had been unemployed (which reduces your level of happiness) tended not to recover all the way back to their previous level of wellbeing, even after they’d become employed again.

The stairs go both ways

What goes down can come up, though. The science of “positive psychology” has been working for years now on discovering what we can do to increase our long-term happiness. (Short-term happiness, we pretty much had a handle on already.)

Left to myself, the evidence from the German study suggests, I wouldn’t have fully recovered from the blow to my self-image that I sustained in my early 20s. (I was unemployed for a while after that, too.)

But I did. I’ve been happier this year than at almost any time in my life, and it’s because I’ve deliberately intervened to improve my inner world, to change my life.

And one of the key things I did was to deal with some residue from that early bad experience.

Time traveler in a strange land

Part of the reason that the situation I’ve described hit me so hard was that I had heavy emotional investment in a particular future. I was going to be doing a certain kind of work, I was going to have a particular relationship, I was going to succeed at this as I’d succeeded at many other things before.

None of it happened. The rug of that future was not so much pulled from under me as torn up around me.

And the outcome was that there were these broken threads lashing around loose in my mind of the way things should have been.

It was almost like being a time traveler into an alternate history, where things weren’t as you remembered them being – everything had gone wrong, and there was a clearly identifiable, pivotal event where the change had occurred.

How I held on to the past

The upshot was that some part of my mind spent the next 20 years thinking that something was wrong, working the puzzle over and over again to try to get it to turn out differently. There was a part of me trapped in 1990, trying to get back to the future I remembered. (Great Scott!)

On the more surface levels of my mind, I’d long since accepted that how things had worked out was ultimately for the best. The career wasn’t my calling, the young woman wasn’t The One, and the lessons I’d learned about vulnerability and loss had made me a better, stronger and much more compassionate person.

I’d also learned to stand up for myself, to take care of my own emotional health and to recognize much more quickly when a situation wasn’t going to work out. All valuable lessons, and if I hadn’t learned them then I would have had them to learn later.

And yet there was still an outraged part of myself whining – so quietly I wasn’t even aware of it – “But it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. It shouldn’t have gone that way.”

How I got over my disappointment

What finally got me free was recognizing that there was a part of me trapped in that loop, still resenting the leaders of the organization (whose poor decisions and unassailable belief in their own correctness had contributed to the whole disaster). I figured out that I was still waiting for them to admit that they were wrong.

Now, this wasn’t and isn’t going to happen. Unless they’ve become very different people from the ones I remember, admitting that they were wrong isn’t something that they have much practice at. And in continuing to wait for them, I was leaving a part of myself in the immature, dependent, compliant attitude that had brought the whole situation about in the first place. (No matter how many bad decisions they made, without the bad decisions I’d made there would have been no issue. This was something I’d figured out very early in the process.)

So I let go of the idea that they would ever agree with me about what had happened, or that it mattered whether they did. I talked to the little models of them that I kept in my head and set them free from my unrealistic expectations. I wished those little models, and by extension the real people, well.

I never knew how heavy a weight I was carrying about from that time until I dropped it. And what do you know – into the space that was left behind from tossing out those old thoughts came happiness.

Have you had this kind of a blow, this kind of a disappointment, that’s left you feeling that you were wronged and aggrieved? If you have, let me suggest that you do what I wish I’d done long since.

Let it go. Holding on to the wrong doesn’t help you, or harm the person who did it to you. Let it go, and let them go, and when you’ve done so you’ll find that its let you go as well, and now you’re free.

And to find out more about what I’ve done (and what you can do) to find happiness, check out my post on How to be Happy: 7 Tips to Increase Your Joy in Life. Yes, there are six more.

Photo by Charles Roffey

23 thoughts on “How to Be Happy Now By Dealing With the Past”

  1. Great insight, Mike!

    While I’m of the mind that generally the past is the past and the present is more concerned with how I deal with life right now, there are certainly parts of most people’s lives that are stuck in that loop, as you say, that needs a leep backwards to pick up the situation and shake it around a bit to get the pieces to jiggle into place before moving forward once again.

    Thanks for that reminder! Sometimes we can get so focused on living in the moment that we forget the past can be a powerful influence and needs a visit once in a while for some repair work before the tomorrows can line up as we want them to.

  2. This story reminds me about what kept me stuck during years when I broke up with a girl I loved and secretly expected that she would come back to me. Of course she didn’t and it was only after 2 years I understood that it was up to ME to let go. Once I did, my love life changed very fast.

    Your story reminds me that we ALWAYS have the power with our self to solve our problems related to the past, just by dropping them.

    Thanks for bringing this inspiring idea to me!

  3. Hi Mike,
    I have experienced this situation many times in the past. Each time the painful effects leave my body quicker allowing for a speedy recovery.

    When something that i really want doesn’t happen or I experience something unexpected I just tell myself that something better is on it’s way.

  4. i loved the concept of the article
    i strongly believe that happiness in the current moment is dependent on finishing unfinished business
    thank you mike :)

  5. Its like the saying, “Keep moving Forward”, I have been so stuck in the past that when I did finally move on I could not believe how much I wasted being angry or replaying that moment of my life over and over. I have been some rough times< i mean traumatic things and I never seemed to dwell on those things but viewed them as things I could not change, move on…….but the simple petty things that I held on to…those were the moments that really defined how petty I actually am. Nice article!

  6. Hi, Mike..

    Great article. I could relate to it. Although for me, not everything in my past can be dealt with like what I had hoped for.

    I was laid off earlier this year and I think I never did recover from it. It was tough and it’s getting worse. The moment I lost my job of 3 years, everything else just took a turn for the worse. I did blame those BODs and what not for my unfortunate fate. It got ugly too when I was accused of being idle and yet I’m actually swamped with work.

    And then it seemed for a moment there.. there’s a silver lining on the cloud when I received an offer to join quite a reputable organization. I thought my unfortunate fate had actually been a blessing in disguise. The remuneration package was more than I was expecting to get too. But little did I know that I got more than I bargained for. I knew there was a catch but I didn’t expect things to be as bad as it is. After a couple of months, I realize that I’m working in an unhealthy environment. Lack of rest, extremely crazy deadlines, a team that rarely communicates with each other and blaming each other constantly-these were red flags signaling me that the organization is in trouble.

    On top of that, the stress from working with that company was taking a toll on my career, health, and love life. With the immense amount of workload, I had no choice but to quit my part-time grad study, I got a terrible backache that just doesn’t go away, I had to work on my rest days, and I’m being mean to the person I love just because I can’t cope with the stress. In other words, I became a monster/zombie.

    As expected, I had to quit the job and currently unemployed, going for job interviews is like a constant reminder of that bitter past that seems to have turned my life upside down. I admit that these job interviews are emotionally draining, not to mention damaging to my self-esteem and career especially when I’m forced to tell the tale of why I quit. I’m not really sure how to untie this ever twisting knot of despair when it’s creating a domino effect in my life. I tried to be optimistic about it but with so many setbacks and unfortunate events came crashing down on me, I have no time to heal. Life still goes on with or without me in it. I’m stuck with rushed and bad decisions.

    1. Sorry to hear that, Ash. It sounds like that’s very much a present thing to you rather than something in the past, as yet.

      Sounds, too, like you may be going around in a bit of a cycle. I have a free resource that might help you with that – if you click my name above this comment (specifically this one) I have linked to it. It’s for people who are stressed and keep hitting the same emotional issues with their stress. Hope it’s of use to you.

      1. Hi Mike,

        You’re right. It’s more of a present thing rather than something in the past. Although, the paranoia is still there, especially when it comes to the issue of trusting employers again.

        Yeah, exactly. I do feel like I’m trapped in a cycle, going round in circles. It’s very disappointing. It feels like I’ve let myself down. However, I’m not about to give up just yet. I’m picking up the pieces and taking small steps everyday to rebuild my self worth for my sake and the sake of my loved ones. I want to take control of my life again.

        Thanks for the free resource. It might just be what I need to start the healing process.

        1. Glad to hear I could help. Broken trust is a difficult thing to rebuild, but starting by calming the emotions so that you can think clearly about the bigger issues is a helpful approach, I think.

          You’re taking exactly the right approach with small steps consistently applied. That’s a reliable way to achieve great things.

  7. It’s synchronicity that I read this post this morning because I was thinking about my past; about a particular time, particular people. I realized it’s time to let them go. They were a part of my life for a moment, and I know it’s time to bless and release them. I heard Dr. Wayne Dyer once say, “Some people come into your life in Act III, Scene five, and leave in Act V, Scene 2. Some people will be in your life until the end. Loving allow people to leave when it’s time — let go.” Good advice.

    1. My favourite line from the British comedy Red Dwarf goes something like this: “We’ve been through a lot over the years, and I’d just like you to know that I’ve come to regard you as… people I’ve met.”

      With some people, it’s important to reach that point.

  8. Mike,

    No surprise to me that I read your post today. Thank you for it!

    A friend and I were talking when she reminded me that one of the most valuable lessons I taught her was how forgiving someone else was the greatest gift you could give to yourself, because you’re liberating yourself and your emotions from that person and that situation.

    By disconnecting, you’re not allowing them to control you or hold any power over you. I wrote a post for my blog which you can find here:

    It’s interesting to me that you’ve turned this concept on it’s edge with your post. It’s about releasing expectations in order to lighten our load. Letting go, to open up. Releasing so you can grasp the new, fresh, healtier things coming your way.

    Thanks for sharing your timely advice with me!


  9. “It was a very unhappy time – and there’s some evidence that a very unhappy time can permanently reduce your happiness.”
    “And the outcome was that there were these broken threads lashing around loose in my mind of the way things should have been.”

    In my case it is as if the broken threads that are lashing around are the pieces of my mind. I am in a situation that i don’t know how to properly address. I have been through crisis situations that have lasted an extended time but still i had what i considered most prized: intelligence, intellectual curiosity, creativity , passion that gave me energy and drive to want to accomplish certain things. A But I have had some many setbacks, circumstances in which i have worked so hard to achieve the things i wanted, where i did everything that depended on me and because of other people/bureaucracy those things i wished for never happened. Since childhood i had a very unstable/unloving environment, bullying in school, multiple sexual abuse, but all that never defined who i was, I was resilient, I overcame those experiences by my early twenties,

    In the past year a change for the worse happened I have become indifferent, i feel no passion or interest for these things that moved me or for anything, I feel as if i am the shadow of my former self, I now have a very low threshold to stress, i hear noise in my environment and i feel fear and my heart races, i can’t concentrate, I don’t read or write anymore, I speak to people and feel so so stupid, forget words or what I was going to say before. I am 29 and feel as if i losing my brain. I think all the things i have been through caught up to me and now i simply can not go anymore. I used to be a champion of motivation and positivity but i guess this is the end of my rope , i was so HEARTBROKEN by the last setback .

    Of course one should not give up in the face of adversity, or if a door closes one should try to see the opportunities, but what if it happens time and time again? i hate to think of myself as a quitter or that i am not courageous but the truth is i feel as if i don’t have any juice left.

    1. Rachelle,

      Mike certainly has a lot of great information to share with you. I encourage you to delve into it.

      I, too, have been exactly where you find yourself now; feeling beat up by life with little hope on the horizon.

      Please remember,you’re only experiencing one place in time, it’s Not who you are. I’d like to invite you to also visit my blog @

      I believe you’ll find posts you can relate to as well as some encouragement for your future. Your best days are ahead of you, Rachelle. I believe that’s true.


  10. Mike Reeves-McMillan

    Rachelle, those are the classic symptoms of severe long-term stress. I can say that with confidence, because that’s exactly what happened to me in the situation I described in the article.

    I’ve linked my free stress course (that I mentioned to Ash above) again from this comment, but I seriously urge you to get some one-on-one, in-person help from someone who understands stress and recovery.

    The good news is that I did recover, and if I’d known then what I know now, it would have been a lot faster and easier. You absolutely are courageous – it’s people who hold on in stressful situations who end up so strongly affected. And although it might not seem that way now, your life will come back and you’ll be the stronger for the experience.

  11. While reading the article I asked myself the question what was it like whnen I was in my 20’s and I thought….WOW. I moved out of my parents house when I turned 19, and I had no clue what I was doing then either. I had to buy my own food which consisted of mostly mac and cheese out of a box. I moved to Oregon from my home in Michigan. I had been terrified, I had not realized how unprepared I was leaving home. That is probably one of the greatest experiences of my life, I met good friends even though I was shy until I get to know you. Turning 20 is one of those mile stones just like turning Sweet 16 or the happy hour age of 21. Depression, relationships, and fear are all apart of living. the depression won’t let you for get and you play that scene over and over in you mind and then replace it with the “What if” pictures in you mind. Your article was informative and really made me thing “Have I moved on or am I still replaying that time when……”. Thank you.

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