It abruptly hit me the other day that I was becoming a chronically miserable individual who I didn’t even like, for no apparent reason: I have a full-time job through family, with flexible work hours and a nonexistent commute, which allows me to pursue my secondary income stream as a working actor. I am almost done with my book, can spend time with friends and family, and am able to afford more than just necessities. A couple years ago, at a far more stressful job–for which I was poorly suited and had to drive almost 3 hrs a day–I was a cheery ball of sunshine around the office. So…what the heck happened?

The fluffy answer? The currency-for-services exchange (a.k.a. a job) is losing its luster. But I am fairly reward oriented and I’ve got my job down, which matters a lot to me, so I know it’s more than a desire for newness. You could say working for family is stressful (no denying that!) but it’s only stressful when I focus on it. I think the real answer is the same concept behind why Mr. Average Joe is happy, while the superstar with everything trudges through another day at the edge of despair. The answer is fascinating in its simplicity; almost embarrassing, considering the hours of reflection it took for me to arrive at the conclusion. But I was that student, who believes that if you have a question, someone else probably does, so I’m going to share.

I boiled it down to one fact: My expectations had changed. Plain and simple.

When I looked at recent days, I realized that as soon as I woke up, my subtle but pervasive goal was to be happy and maintain my freedom. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well, it shouldn’t–because that’s what marketing, media and every moving picture tells us is most important. Find happiness and freedom at all costs, and let us help you do it. Now, I didn’t go hog wild and dig myself into major debt or start jumping out of airplanes (though I am doing a Nascar experience next month…), but I did find myself summarily displeased with days that weren’t above average or interesting. I had started to become a happiness-snob, if that was possible (it is, by the way). I needed things to be exciting, newer, more innovative and, above all, unfettered from pointless rules. I could pass this off to an active mind or an independent disposition, but I really hate the feeling that I’m lying to myself–possibly the most pointless exercise ever invented–and finally admitted that happiness and freedom had become idols of daily worship. Literally.

“I didn’t file those papers or set up that appointment. I’m not going to hold back on what I’m saying to this person. I refuse to turn down the music. I won’t hide my displeasure. Why? Well, because that makes me unhappy and it stifles my freedom.”

Put in such simple terms, you might be wondering if the person writing this is 3 years old. That’s because, in its raw form, chasing the happiness-freedom combo and shaping one’s life around it is basically Advanced Toddler Syndrome. And, though it wasn’t really messing with my functionality, it’s not hard to see how it could very soon.

But fear not! I have a loving, opinionated and vocal mother.

She said that I was soon to become a teenage weed at the ripe age of 23 if I didn’t get some things straight. Our spicy conversation was swiftly followed by I’m-just-being-real anger, you-don’t-get-it indignation, I-fail-at-life frustration and, finally, take-me-now-God despair. My belligerence cycle was stopped by one important conclusion that de-tangled my attitudes about self, work, family and friends.

Here it is: We are not promised happiness, and freedom for its own sake is empty. Both are the cherry on top, the whipped cream on the sundae–in other words, there’s no point in making either a daily goal. That’s not to say they are bad, but seeking them is like running towards a mirage again and again. As adults, we don’t throw ourselves onto slip-n-slides with aplomb or wail over denied candy, but we have more delicate expressions of this chase: We jump from relationship to relationship, job to job, hobby to hobby, concert to concert and city to city–all in pursuit of that je ne sais quoi, the buzz that makes you feel alive. It’s very romantic, very ‘now’ and very justified until you look back at the last year and have less than a little to show for all your mad gyrations.

Now, I hope you see that I’m not recommending you dampen your ambition. Goodness, have ambition! Chase success, do great things, write good books, add to the beauty of this incredible world, but don’t do it expecting a constant high of happiness or endless freedom. Happiness the way I know I can feel it is an unhealthy resting state and freedom the way we’re taught to picture it has a selfish side that’s plain ugly.

Perhaps you’re not at this point yet but, for those who are, the vacuum left by the happiness-freedom-pursuit must be filled. I did the following:

1) I focus on doing what is right, rather than on doing what makes me feel super happy or super free. This probably sounds ridiculous but I’m not afraid to be that crazy voice, because the popular idea of unfettered happiness-freedom is smoke and mirrors; a thinly veneered life of waste and misery. Rather than focusing on how irritating and (gasp) boring one part of life is, shut down the inner wild-child for a minute and get it done. It will feel good in a deep way, because you just proved to yourself that you are mastered by nothing–and (what do you know?) are truly free.

2) I no longer obsess over what burns my biscuit, period. Don’t ignore important problems or bury what irritates you, but only give yourself a few minutes to gripe or write a rant post. Don’t let irritants become fallback bones-to-pick. Basically…move on.

3) In moments of unhappiness or dissatisfaction, I list things I am truly thankful for and paste a smile on my face. Someone out there will scream, FAKER! But here’s the fun part: Your body cannot chemically tell the difference between a real and fake smile, so it sends happy-chemicals to your brain anyways. It’s like someone buying you a venti-frappe because they mistake you for someone they know, but are no less pleased when they discover they were wrong! This act of self-deception I advocate because it works and has no collateral damage, as far as I can tell.

I continue to be surprised by the clarity that comes with incorporating these fresh patterns. After everything is said and done, the happiness-freedom ideal cannot be found in the seeking of it but in drawing it from what is right in front of you. Embracing that truth keeps me from grasping at whatever sparkles and gives me the vision to tell fools gold from the real stuff. And nothing really compares to that.