5 Happiness Secrets I Wish I’d Known In My 20s

Photographed by Winnie Au.
I spent most of my 20s living in New York City, a metropolis that fed me (too much), broke me, revived me, and shaped me. NYC is one of the great loves of my life, and as I prepare to leave it for a new phase of my life, I can’t help but reflect on how the city changed me. My post-collegiate friends and I arrived in our early 20s, armed with dreams and some used furniture. We knew we would face hardship, but it would be glamorous hardship. We’d have to bust our asses for a couple of years, each emerging from the pile of striving humanity as one of the “lucky ones.” That’s not what happened. Sure, some of my more determined contemporaries did ascend to genuine achievements. But I wasn’t one of them. I wish I could say that I failed stunningly. Instead, it looked more like this: Freelance gigs that led nowhere. Job applications that always, always ended with the following dialogue: Them: “We can offer you an unpaid internship at this time.” Me: “But I am no longer a student!” What I didn’t know then was that progress doesn’t just take dedication. It also takes time. Today, I’m 30, and I consider the ambitions I had for this last decade. I wanted to have an illustrious writing career by now. I imagined published manuscripts and royalty checks. I thought it would be a smooth ascent. Instead there were smaller wins; my first paid gigs, self-publishing with Amazon, and getting a master’s degree in creative writing. I’m now content with my jagged ascent and ready to face the writing career of my 30s, which will involve less internal pressure and more confidence. So, I raise my glass to my 20s, my body a little pudgier, my forehead a little more lined. I feel I’ve successfully earned something during all these years of living in NYC. And wisdom of course, is nothing if not shared. Here are five things I might tell my younger self about making it in the “real world.” 1. 25 is not old. It’s okay to be in your 20s and working as both a waitress and a nanny. There is no shame in wiping up ketchup stains or shit stains while your friends are accruing paid time off. You paid your rent on time, didn’t you? You’re doling out draft beers to Syracuse fans and cursing this 50 cents game-day wing special, or you’re hauling your ass across town pushing a toddler in a stroller so he’s not late to music class. At the very least, these jobs will humble you and provide great future writing material. At most, well, rent. And, while we’re on the topic of age, don’t be in such a rush to “get your shit together.” I often felt I was nowhere near where I should be at my age. Rather than worrying about how many candles were on my cake, I should have been concerned with my own well-being. Focus on what you want rather than what you think you need. It’s okay if you aren’t in your dream career yet, but don’t wait for it to come to you. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that nobody was going to call me and casually mention that they’d like to make my dreams come true. I was going to have to do the work. 2. Don’t worry so much about money. You’re living in a closet and it costs a billion dollars a month. It’s okay. Go out and enjoy your city. Whether it’s Yankees opening day or concerts in Brooklyn, I wish I had spent more time — and, yes, money — taking advantage of all the city has to offer. It’s easy to be lazy and stay in. But there are museums and parks and thousands of events — many of them free — that you’re not even aware of. Seamless will always be there. Now is the time to get off the couch. Go out while you’re young. Once you’re 30, bottomless brunch starts to illicit an exhausting list of excuses: But I need to go to the gym. I can’t be hungover tomorrow. I don’t even drink mimosas. You will age out of the afternoon blackout, believe me. Do not waste this precious window.
Photographed by Victoria Adamson.
3. Relationships are going to get complicated. Some of your friends will be on the fast-track to marriage (don’t get me started on how much waitressing money you’ll spend on weddings) while some will be perpetually single — and spend every happy hour ignoring you and swiping right. Regardless of whether you’ve found the love of your life or you’re lamenting on how it’s impossible to meet anyone in this city, make time for your friends. You’re going to see less and less of them as the years speed by, so make them a priority now. This will train you to keep cultivating your friendships in the years ahead. 4. Go to the park. Some of my finest memories involve lazy days in Central Park. That first warm, spring day when you’re getting high off the smell of grass? That’s a perfect day to drag a blanket to your local city park. They’re generally great for people watching and listening to music. When in doubt, bring wine and Solo cups. And when you have the chance, spend a weekend in the country. Fresh air and wide open spaces are guaranteed to cure a broad range of urban ills, so when the city is closing in on you, get out of it. 5. Public transportation is your frenemy. The subway is crowded and you’ll drip sweat through your down coat in February — but more often than not, it is the fastest way to your destination. Avoid cabs and Uber. That pitiful stipend you make at your internship will dwindle quickly when wasted on car fare. But here’s one piece of transit advice you should never ignore: If there’s one empty car on an otherwise crowded train, trust that there’s a reason. It is not, in fact, your lucky day. The bottom line is: Don’t worry so much. You can stress your way through your 20s or you can enjoy the mayhem. Either way, life isn’t always going to go as planned, you’re going to get older, and everything is going to change. Oh, and one last thing I’d tell myself. Don’t be impulsive and get a tattoo in some hip up-and-coming neighborhood just because the guy can fit you in right away. Seriously, sleep on it.

More from Living

R29 Original Series