10/01/2014 03:50 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

The Elusive Pursuit of Happiness

It's somewhat ironic that we, as a culture, have placed such a high value on our individual happiness that we wrote it into the Declaration of Independence as one of our inalienable rights, and yet, we've done a horrendous job of teaching our people successful ways to pursue it. Our first experiences in the school system, for example, teach us that happiness and success lay in externals. If we get the right answer, we succeed, and if not, we fail. It's all based on our ability to perform, and spit out the solution in the way that our teacher wants to hear it. In this scenario, we learn that approval from others is the recipe for our well-being. We become result-oriented.

No one wants to be the person who isn't "getting it." And so many of us learned to conform, to fake it, to please other people, and to squelch our own individual interests and ideas. The thing is, life is a process. There's no single equation that's going to work for everyone, and the numbers are always changing, anyway. By the time you've solved for X, it isn't X anymore. And your creative solutions are your best bet for shifting with an ever-changing set of circumstances. But for so many people, placing value on thinking outside the box, or getting rid of the box altogether, has long ago been lost.

Examining your needs is a great way to get clear about where you might be stuck. Do you need approval from others to feel okay about yourself? How do you handle rejection when it comes up? How about failure? We're taught that failing is a shameful act. Most kids are not going to proudly hold up an "F," and most teachers are not going to talk about the value in failure. But if you aren't willing to fail, you probably aren't going to be willing to try, either. If you've never had the chance to overcome when you've failed, you won't have the tools and the frame of reference to be able to handle it well when it happens in your adult life, which it inevitably will. You don't want to fall into a depression every time life does not conform to the picture in your head of how you thought things would be.

What else might you need? Do you need a few glasses of wine at the end of your day? There's a difference between wanting one, and needing one, or two, or four. Do you need to be in a relationship in order to feel valid or worthwhile, even if it isn't a growing, healthy, inspiring one? Do you need to keep yourself so scheduled you don't have time to feel anything? Most of the time, when we base our happiness on external factors, we feel empty inside. It's not a meaningful, fulfilling way to move through the world. But it's what we're taught, and most people will pursue this path for some amount of time before they find it isn't working. I certainly tried all of that. I went to Columbia University after pulling straight As and skipping my senior year of high school. I starved myself until I was bony. I tried to make everything on the outside look and seem perfect. But none of that amounts to anything if the inside is a mess. And when we feel lost or confused or frustrated, we aren't taught to sit with those feelings, either. This is why so many people numb out, or run or deny.

These are two really huge pitfalls, and they'll block your path to peace, and true success -- believing you'll be happy when you acquire enough "stuff" (and stuff can mean approval, money, a huge house, the "right" relationship, the perfect job), and being unable to sit with your uncomfortable feelings. And yet, this is how we train ourselves as a culture. Women are not supposed to be angry (we have names for angry women, and they aren't nice). Men are not supposed to be afraid (we have names for men who express fear or vulnerability, and they aren't nice, either). We're all supposed to march along grabbing our brass rings, and pushing down our difficult feelings.

Your own intuition and creativity are your biggest assets as far as figuring out what it is you need to be truly happy. You may have covered over your gut feelings with lots of noise that involves the word "should," but if you can quiet that racket (yoga is an excellent way to go about that), you'll get in touch with those places within you once again. Learning to sit with, and lean into your uncomfortable feelings is another essential tool that will help you unearth what you need to be at peace. If you grab a glass of wine every time you feel lonely, enraged, jealous, insecure, ashamed, guilty, sad, anxious, or fearful, you will never know yourself, and that's the loneliest thing there is.

It's not the what, it's the why. If you expect to feel motivated and fulfilled by numbers in your bank account, I believe you'll be sorely disappointed. If you find something to do with your time that lights you up, and also enables you to keep a roof over your head, I think you'll be on the right track. If you're angry, you don't have to identify with that. It's not the feeling that's problematic, it's the source of it that you want to be uncovering. The path to peace, happiness and success is inside. It's based on you, feeling good about the way you're living your life. The Declaration gave us the what without the how. The how involves falling down and getting back up, again and again without shame. You don't have to want what everyone else wants. Enjoy your process. Start where you are, and avail yourself of the tools that exist. Life can be short and happy, or long and miserable. Short and happy is better.