05/29/2012 07:59 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

Knowing What You Want Is a Guiding Force

Years ago I had a friend who insisted upon giving me gifts on my birthday. Problem was, it was evident that she really didn't want to. She had lots of other obligations, responsibilities and expenses in her life, and she really oughtn't to have gone to the trouble.

I suggested at one time that we celebrate our birthdays with a simple gesture, a glass of wine, but the idea never went over well. I hated the fact that she felt obligated to do something she didn't want to do, particularly when it was really unnecessary. I've never worn the gifts she gave. Instead of reminding me of any kindness, the gifts remind me of the resentment that came with each gesture.

Another friend of mine shared with me that he had made a profound decision in his life. He had chosen to stop doing things that he didn't want to do. Such a fabulous idea.

He got up from meetings that he didn't want to be a part of. He disengaged from friendships he no longer enjoyed. He fired people he didn't want working for him. He felt total freedom in his life.

This guiding force was successful for him because he balanced his choices with a strong sense of responsibility. He liked having healthy teeth, so he chose to go to the dentist for regular checkups, even though he didn't particularly enjoy his time at the appointments.

He enjoyed his good health so he took care of his preventative medical appointments when they came up. Even though he didn't really enjoy going to the doctor.

He never saw his life as a burden, but rather as one opportunity after another. He knew his choices were continually adding up to positive rewards.

The difference between feeling obligated and burdened and free and happy in life, is the realization that life is about choices. In fact, you could say that the life you largely experience is the sum total of the choices you've made to date. If you're not happy with where you are, then you need to start making some new decisions.

First and foremost, you have to know what you want. I'm not referring to the new car, or the bigger house -- though essentially, there's nothing wrong with those things. But in all things, before you begin, take a few moments to develop a sincere sense of clarity for what you want, what you need, and what makes you happy. Keeping that focus will serve you like a beacon to guide you along your path.

Several years ago I was working on a proposal in my home office when the neighbor's dog began barking. Our neighbors live on a small lake that backs up to our house and the dog could not believe his good fortune when a flock of mallards landed in the water, just out of his reach. His barking was loud and incessant and my concentration was slipping.

I did what I could to tune him out, I tried white noise, music and earphones, but nothing would cover his barking. Finally this voice popped into my head, "What -- do you want?" it said with a tone of irritation. Without hesitation I answered out loud, "I want that dog to shut up!"

And the dog did.

At first I chided myself that I didn't ask for something far more significant, like, say, a billion dollars, but I got the point. When the barking first started, I did what most people do in the face of difficulty, I tried to endure it. Then I tried to avoid it. What I had forgotten to do was to decide what I wanted. Once I got clear on what I wanted, my energy was focused and the situation was immediately resolved.

Crystal clear clarity won't always immediately resolve your problems. But then again, maybe it will. What is for certain, is that sitting around worrying won't help. Neither will a perennial habit of enduring "shoulds" or accommodating situations or people that make you unhappy. Deciding what you want in all situations of life is a good start, and it will go a long way to bringing your desires about. It's a good question to ask yourself, particularly when caught in a difficult circumstance: What do I want? And it's an important question as well, so take your time in answering.

For more by Melissa Van Rossum, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.