As a cancer survivor, I’ve learned a thing or two about life (and death). And my journey has taught me much. Today, I want to share with you 10 powerful life lessons about how to be happy (courtesy of my cancer journey).
Cancer made me stronger. It taught me how to be happy and feel fulfilled no matter what’s going on in your life (or the world around you). And it taught me what happiness and fulfillment even are (most people have them wrong).
These life lessons are important, and you shouldn’t have to battle and aggressive cancer (and fear that you’ll lose) to learn them. That’s why I’m sharing them with you today.
Before moving on, let me set the stage for you. . .
Table of Contents
How This All Came About
When I was battling breast cancer, I looked forward to the time when I could celebrate being a survivor. I even envisioned partying at my 5-year anniversary (a big deal for us triple negative breast cancer survivors).
But since then I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with my anniversary date. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad to still be alive and am incredibly thankful every time it rolls around.
Yet it feels wrong to celebrate it.
I Sometimes Feel As If I’m Not Worthy of Being Here
When I was first diagnosed, my doctors acted as if I was a dead-woman walking. My cancer was fast-growing and looked incredibly abnormal under the microscope. They were worried it had spread (which would have been a death sentence).
And I was convinced that I was dying. All I could think about were my boys – that they didn’t deserve to be motherless.
So, when I found out that we had caught it early and my cancer hadn’t spread I decided that I wasn’t meant to die. And everything that happened after that seemed to back it up.
This is something that I needed to believe to help me through my journey. But it’s also been a source of guilt and shame. [I’ve written about my struggle with survivor’s guilt before.]
I tell you this not so that you’ll feel sorry for me, but so that you’ll understand how the life lessons I give you below were formed.
My Cancer Anniversary Brings With It New Feelings and Deepens Prior Life Lessons
Cancer brings forth all sorts of emotions. And the journey that each person has is unique. But in talking with other survivors, it’s clear that there are some big life lessons that we all learn through our journey.
I believe that these lessons are learned because of the unique thoughts and emotions that run through your head when you’re suddenly faced with your own mortality (and realize that you have big regrets).
What’s important to note is that I’m still learning some huge lessons in life because of my cancer. The fear of recurrence is part of that. But the life lessons that have been there since the beginning have deepened over time (and I expect that to continue).
Despite how hard my cancer battle (and dealing with recurrence fears) have been, I’m thankful for the journey I’ve been on. Because I’ve learned some pretty powerful life lessons that have shaped me in new ways. They’ve given me new hope, more fulfillment, and a deeper sense of contentment.
These (seemingly simple) life lessons have helped me to embrace life in a new way.
And so I’m writing this because I want you to learn from my experiences.
10 Life Lessons On How to Be Happy (Courtesy of Cancer)
Before getting started, I want to be clear about a few things:
- My list isn’t all-encompassing. It’s just the ones I feel most deserving of being written about at this moment. I’m sure I’ll add to this list over time.
- There’s no particular order of importance. All of these life lessons are incredibly important (so be sure to read each one).
- You don’t have to agree with me. However, I urge you to give each life lesson serious thought and ask yourself how your life could change for the better should you embrace it. I promise that each could be a game-changer.
Life Lesson #1: How to Be Happy By Choosing to Be Happy
This one might be controversial, but I stand by it. No one (and nothing) can make you happy except you. And you CHOOSE whether or not you’re happy.
What you need to know is that happiness isn’t about being positive or always finding something to smile about. Instead, happiness is about:
- Being content with who you are, your decisions, and your life no matter your circumstances.
- Choosing to do what’s best for you and letting go of second-guessing.
- Allowing yourself to feel everything (and being okay with that – even when those feelings are difficult).
- Doing whatever you need to keep putting one foot in front of the other, content that you’re doing your best.
This is 100% a mindset thing. And it’s not within anyone’s control but yours.
Let me be clear: this is NOT about finding false silver linings and pretending that life isn’t hard (or that you’re not sad – even anxious or depressed – when you are).
It’s about reaching out to friends and family for support while allowing yourself to enjoy simple things when life gets tough. Sometimes it’s about getting professional help (and then being content that you’re doing what’s necessary for your well being).
Life Lesson #2: Vulnerability Is A Strength, Not A Weakness (And A Key To Being Happy)
Humans spend a lot of time trying to ignore and run away from our vulnerability. We don’t like to feel that way. It’s messy, and feels too raw.
But here’s the thing: you gain strength through your vulnerability. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you’re being courageous. And that builds mental resilience.
Instead of running away from your vulnerability, claim it! Because the simple fact is: you’re human, and human beings are vulnerable. That will never change.
Besides, vulnerability is part of what helps you to connect more deeply with other people. Love isn’t just about treating others well. It’s also about allowing others to help you (which is impossible if you don’t embrace your vulnerability).
Life Lesson #3: Negative Emotions Aren’t Really Negatives
Your so-called negative emotions don’t need to be considered negatives. First, feeling them allows you to feel the good emotions more fully. That means that you can’t be truly happy without them.
Second, all of your emotions are there for a reason. You learn from your emotions. They teach you something. That’s true of all of them, including all the so-called negative ones like sadness, nervousness, uncertainty and anger.
It’s also important to allow yourself to fully feel these emotions so that you can get past them (otherwise they just bottle up inside of you, waiting to pop out at the worst time possible). If you want to learn how to be happy, then you MUST fully feel all of your emotions.
So don’t push those feelings to the back of your mind, ignore them, or pretend they don’t exist. You can’t move on until you feel every single emotion that you’re meant to feel and explore what that means.
This self-exploration will help you to decide what to do next and how to move on.
[Related: Learn more about how to overcome fear with 5 Effective Tools to Stop Living in Fear and Worry].
Life Lesson #4: Inner Strength Can Be Cultivated and Deepened
I used to believe that some people were born mentally strong and resilient (and others weren’t). But I now know that mental strength has little to do with your genetic make-up or the people within your life.
Instead, it has EVERYTHING to do with how you choose to show up in the world and deal with what happens to you in life. Anyone can be mentally strong and resilient. But (like happiness) it’s a choice.
Inner strength is developed by going through tough times, and then choosing to consider them as character-building (instead of feeling sorry for yourself). It’s the act of choosing to see the good in life and the lessons learned that makes you strong and resilient.
Some of you won’t like hearing this, but I see this as empowering (perhaps you should too).
One other note: people who have mental strength still feel all the emotions everyone else does. The big difference is that they know they have a choice in how to deal with them (allowing them to develop resilience and move on more quickly).
Life Lesson #5: Gratitude Isn’t About Putting a Positive Spin on Everything
I was never a big believer in practicing gratitude. . . until my cancer hit. This seriously saved my sanity. It allowed me to feel wretched yet still see the good around me.
And it helped me to enjoy simple things.
The reason I didn’t believe in gratitude pre-cancer is because I didn’t understand it. I thought that it was about thinking positive about everything or trying to find a silver-lining (even when one doesn’t exist).
But that’s not what gratitude is. Gratitude is about identifying the simple things in your life to be grateful for, such as:
- the feeling of warm water on your skin during your morning shower,
- seeing the sun peek out of the clouds, and
- being able to take a 5-minute walk (after you’ve been unable to get out for days because of how sick you’ve felt).
And that brings me to my next life lesson. . .
Life Lesson #6: There’s Always Something To Be Grateful For
I feel strongly about this one. So much so that I consider this to be a truth.
I don’t care how bad things are, you can always find something to be grateful for. Even if it’s just something small and simple. And even if it’s about a lesson learned because of a difficult situation.
No matter how hard things are, I challenge you to find something to be grateful for. I promise that something exists. Look for it and start training your brain to find these things.
You’ll be amazed at how much this impacts your outlook on life.
Lesson #7: Self-Care Isn’t Selfish (EVER)
There’s a common misconception that self-care is (or can be) selfish. But that’s hogwash.
Part of the problem is a basic misunderstanding about what self-care is. Because it’s not about going to the spa every week. Or getting your nails done. Nor is it about having a nightly glass of wine (or beer) to wind down.
Self-care isn’t about doing something that feels good in the moment, but about your well being. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually.
And there’s nothing selfish about putting that first!
Besides, no one will ever prioritize you if you don’t (because you’re the only one who truly can).Self-care is about self-respect. If you don’t respect yourself, how can you expect others to?
And taking care of yourself means taking better care of those you love. Putting others before yourself isn’t sustainable. It eventually leads to burnout.
For more about how to prioritize self-care, read 5 Reasons You Feel Guilty About Taking Care of Yourself (and What to Do About It).
Lesson #8: Forgiveness Isn’t About Who You’re Forgiving (It’s About You)
Sadly, there were people who let me down when I had cancer. People who I trusted and loved who had a hard time being there for me. And I was angry with them.
Initially, I had a hard time forgiving them. I felt like I couldn’t let them off the hook so easily. But eventually I realized that I was hurting myself (not them) by harboring that anger. And so I forgave them.
Forgiveness is about letting go of the negative emotions that are tearing you apart on the inside. That doesn’t mean that you’re okay with how they treated you. Instead, you set standards, create boundaries and decide whether you want a relationship with them moving forward.
But you forgive so that you can heal and move on.
Life Lesson #9: Doing Nothing Is Often Riskier Than Making a Change
Most people have risk backwards. Think about all the dreams that people give up on. And all the changes that people think about making yet don’t. And the reason they don’t do anything?
FEAR. Fear of change, of failure, of what others might think, and even of success.
People tend to focus only on the risk of making a change and it not working out. They rarely consider what could happen if it did work. And they never consider the risk of doing nothing.
I believe there’s often a bigger risk in NOT going after your dreams or making a change you want (yet are fearful of). I know first-hand that the things you’ll regret later in life are all the things you didn’t do because you were afraid.
Fear can be overcome, but regret can’t.
And for those of you waiting for the right (or perfect) time to make a big change or go after your dream, there’s no such thing. If you’re unwilling to take the leap now, it’s unlikely that you ever will. Either let go of that dream (because it’s not important enough) or go for it.
You’re better off replacing it with something you’re willing to do than pining over it, knowing you don’t have the courage to take the leap.
Life Lesson #10: Scars Aren’t Anything to Be Ashamed Of
We all have scars (both internal and external). They’re created through our life experiences.
And they’re nothing to be ashamed of.
Yet most people try to hide them (and don’t like to admit to themselves they exist).
Your scars are evidence that you’re alive and battle-tested. They’re not WHO you are, but are evidence that you’re still alive (and have lived). Embrace them.
[Recommended Reading: 5 Traits of Genuinely Happy People].
So there you have it. I hope that you find these life lessons valuable. And I hope you give each one serious thought (and hopefully find a way to incorporate them into your life).
Life is meant to be LIVED. These lessons will help you live more fully (and be happier).
P.S. To take this even further, be sure to download 5-Minute Stress Solutions. This powerful resource is about more than managing stress. It will help you build resilience. Get your copy here: