Last month, Greatist asked our readers to respond to the prompt: “How do you find happiness?” Entries for the writing contest poured in, and we were overwhelmed by people’s willingness to share their personal, heartfelt, and hard-earned thoughts on what it means to be happy. It was difficult, but we narrowed it down to two Finalists and one Winner whose work will appear on Greatist. You can read Finalist Emily McLaughlin’s piece here.

Contest Finalist Amanda Oaks is a creative writing/literature major at the University of Evansville. When she’s not curled up with a book or studying, she can usually be found whipping up something tasty in her ridiculously tiny kitchen or stretched out on her yoga mat. Follow Amanda on Twitter @I_Write_Things.

Learning to Be Present

Like many other twenty-somethings, I’ve experienced feelings of being cut adrift, or being at some in-between station that isn’t quite real life yet. During my third year of college, I really started to get the sense that I didn’t know where my life — where I — was headed. It left me feeling like I was spiraling out of control. I lost the feeling of being grounded, of being content with the understanding that one day I would inevitably just succeed at getting everything I wanted out of life and be happy. In fact, I no longer felt sure of what it would take for me to be happy at all.

I had always assumed that being a published writer would make me happy. Then I assumed that being a college professor would make me happy, that falling in love and getting married would make me happy. Not only did I realize as I grew up that these things seemed further away rather than closer, I also realized they weren’t necessarily concrete parts of the only future wherein I could and would be happy.

Why was happiness attached to a goal? Once I reached it, what would sustain that magical future state of happiness that I associated with these objectives? Why did I assume that “happy” was something I would only really feel once everything in life was settled?

These questions seemed impossible to answer, but what I didn’t realize was that I was on the right path already simply by having asked them. All I needed was a little bit of guidance as to how to find my answers, and oddly enough I found it exactly where I’d found my uncertainty — in a college classroom.

While taking a Living World Religions course, something I’d assumed would merely be academically stimulating, I stumbled upon Buddhism. Or rather, Buddhism stumbled upon me — the words sitting in my textbook described a “religion” I’d heard of but never understood. I realized as I delved deeper that the thing I’d found wasn’t necessarily faith; it was a way of thinking. A “mind science,” as my first Dharma teacher called it, which contained the tools I needed to start finding this thing we call “happiness” in things I already experienced.

There were three main aspects of the Buddha’s teachings that really helped me: mindfulness, the idea of paying close attention to minute details of life and human experience; Dukkha, the notion of a “suffering” that results from the friction between impermanent reality and the things to which we cling and expect to remain constant; and the cultivation of gratitude. As I began to embrace these ideas and bring them into my life, I realized something very important: Happiness could not exist merely in one particular state of existence. It was not a job, or a byline. It was a human experience, a part of my day-to-day existence to be recognized mindfully and acknowledged purposefully.

That’s when I realized happiness was already everywhere around me. It does not always manifest in the same way, but it is a feeling of peace and contentment, a feeling of losing myself in an activity or experience that takes me outside my frantic mind. In slowing down and remembering to acknowledge the things for which I was grateful, I found happiness in simple things.

As I began to embrace the new calm that my efforts at meditation and mindfulness provided, I simultaneously found a new interest in my body — not in hating it and railing against it, as I had too frequently done in the past, but in wanting to make it stronger. I didn’t want to just “be” anymore, just drift through existence. I wanted to know that what I was eating and what I was doing were good for me, that every day I got a little bit stronger, a little bit more flexible. As I began incorporating running, strength training, and yoga into my life, I realized new paths to happiness that I hadn’t even realized existed.

I learned that I was happy when doing yoga or running, not because getting fit or relaxed was a goal to be obtained, but because of the way my body felt as I pushed it to a new level of flexibility and strength. I remembered the happiness in the act of reading not because a book was to be finished and checked off a list, but because the words expressed ideas and images that had a pleasure entirely their own. I felt joy in each step of the cooking process, not just in tasting its end results. With every smile at a joke, or moment of mindless laughter with a friend, I paused to acknowledge that this moment was joy, was happiness, and tried to embrace it while accepting its changing nature.

Happiness, I realized, was a state of being that I already experienced multiple times in a given day — it only had to be acknowledged, not achieved. It was already there, not attached to some ambiguous future in which I would finally start being the happy person I was meant to be, the only sort of happy person I could ever be. Like the Buddha taught, I could not cling to Happiness in the abstract, because it’s always changing, shifting from one moment to the next, just like I am.

How do you find happiness? Tweet us using the hashtag #myhappyis!