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Finding True Happiness at the Swap Shop

By September 21, 2012July 20th, 2015Guest Blogs


Today’s Guestpost is from my friend Kellie Davis. Kellie maintains a blog at

When we moved to Houston a few months ago one of my first purchases was a zoo membership. Most of our summer travel budget was gobbled up by the drive out to Texas, so I tried to keep up with as many weekly activities as I could with my kids.

At the zoo we discovered a place called the Swap Shop. It has to be one of the coolest stores I’ve ever seen. The store encourages children to find things in nature and save them up. Each time they come in, they trade in their things for points, making it possible to trade up for bigger and better items.

Last weekend we arrived armed with bug carcasses, pecans from the trees that line our street, minerals brought across state lines from Tombstone, and heaven only knows what else. As the store clerk added up their points, my kids scampered around the room peering in baskets and smudging up glass cases in search of a new treasure.

I stood with my eyes fixated on a bizarre scorpion when my son grabbed my arm, tugging me toward a shelf in the middle of the room. “Mom, I found what I want. It’s only 75 points.” He dragged me by the wrist to his prize.

I looked on each shelf in front of me, seeing nothing I really wanted in or near my house. He then turned around—and like Rafiki revealing newborn Simba to the lions of Pride Land—he raised to my eyeballs what I felt to be the most impractical item in the store. “A cattle femur. Really?” I shuddered. “That’s what you want?”

I imagined that on some agriculturally zoned plot of land this poor creature fell ill, dying alone under a tree. His body picked apart and decayed down to bone; his femur carried off by a vulture, dropped, and left to bleach in the sun for what must have been years.

I pan the room, squinting at baskets filled with polished minerals, pristine seashells, petrified wood pieces, and dozens of other nice things that wouldn’t raise the eyebrows of houseguests. I then found my hands unconsciously wrestling the cow leg away from my heart-broken son.

After much coaxing, he settled for slivers of turquoise and abalone, which were likely stuffed into his pocket, forgotten hours later, and now lay to rest inside the crevices of my washing machine.

Within minutes he was completely over the cow bone and enthralled with his trade.

Contriving Self-Misery Through Perceived Happiness

This experience reminded me of when I first got back into fitness. I would pile all my fitness magazines together, creating a Mrs. Potato Head-like self-image.

This model’s legs, this model’s shoulders, and the abs from this model over here. Then I would joke with my fellow figure competitors, “If we could take your torso, her shoulders, and my legs; we’d be unstoppable.”

We’d win the prize.

Prize for what, I don’t know? Perhaps the most unusual limb-transplant case in history?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to have desires, goals, and visions of how you want to look. But, like a cattle femur on a bookshelf in my house, sometimes our visions, or desires are a little impractical.

This scenario happens quite often:

An enthusiastic gym-goer brings in a magazine to one of the trainers at the gym. She sets the magazine on the counter, turning to the page with a fluorescent sticky note peeking out from the top. She then reveals a photo of (insert favorite actress/singer/model) and says to this trainer, “Make me look like her.”

What should happen next is he books her for pre-op and then proceeds to put on his scrubs in preparation for surgery. Since not all trainers are cosmetic surgeons (and not all cosmetic surgeons are trainers, which will be on the SAT) he ends up making a hyperbolic promise he can’t keep just so she will show up to her next session.

Or, if he is not the best bull-shitter in the world he says something like, “I can get you close to that, but you have to buckle-down, do everything I say, and give it your all.”

As the months go by, she turns her walk-in closet into a shrine of this image. Every magazine cover is ripped off and plastered to the wall. It’s an obsession that grows worse by the day because she isn’t even close to her goal.

Soon she blurts out an inexpugnable “F*** IT!!!”— dumps Trainer Tad via text message for Ben and Jerry (and weekend rendezvous with Auntie Anne), burns all items resembling butt-lifting yoga pants, forever slipping into sweatpants with CUTE painted across the seat.

The Trickery of Happy

Why is it we work so hard to reach impossible goals? Isn’t it more practical to strive for something easily attainable? For instance, looking like a sexier version of us? Or you? I wasn’t sure how to phrase that last line.

Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist and the author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” says our belief about what makes up happier is often wrong. During his Ted Talk on the science of happiness, he said that we have what can be referred to as a “psychological immune system,” or a “system of largely non-conscious processes that help [us] change [our] views of the world, so that [we] can feel better about the worlds in which [we] find ourselves.”

It’s like vitamin C for our feelings. To prove his point, he compiled data on two groups of people: those who won an excess of 300 million dollars in the lottery and those who recently became paraplegic.

Our immediate thoughts lead us to believe that the lottery winners are instantly happier people. But statistics showed that within a year from either incident, both groups were equally happy with their lives.

Field and lab studies on the subject are revealing rather shocking things about happiness. In fact, Gilbert reports a recent study showing that a majority of life traumas (with few exceptions) have little impact on happiness 3 months down the road.

So what does this have to do with wanting a body like Lindsay Messina?!?!

I’m getting there. Be patient.

Think about the last time you had to interview for a job. Perhaps it was recently or it was way back when you had to physically hand-deliver your résumé to a potential employer.

You think the interview went great. You arrive home to report to your spouse, your mom, your best friend, the mailman that this job was carved out of stone to fit you. It’s in the bag. No better candidate exists. You plan your new life around this job and go imaginary new car shopping with your imaginary new paycheck.

Then you don’t get the job.

You feel down about it, but decide that it’s for the best. “It wasn’t the right fit,” you explain to your spouse, your mom, your best friend, and the mailman.

You get a different job and think that it is truly the right fit. You’re happy with it, completely forgetting about the perceived happiness that the other job would have provided. This is what Gilbert refers to as synthetic happiness. A happiness born inside the mind because we feel more secure in the actual world we live in than in a world of false expectations.

Circling back to Lindsay Messina’s abs now.

Honestly, you wouldn’t be any happier having Lindsay’s body, or any other magazine body than you would with the body you work so hard to achieve. Like the job you didn’t get or the cow leg that isn’t on your bookshelf, that magazine body offered a skewed perception of happiness.

Happiness isn’t something you earn; it’s something you create. It’s synthesized inside that incredible pre-frontal cortex part of your brain. You have the ability to create your own happiness and satisfaction with what is truly yours.

The only thing standing between what you think will make you happy and what actually makes you happy is your own misconceptions.

Fixing Happy

Rather than working really hard at being disappointed with yourself, try creating happiness from what you have been given and what you are capable of doing.

Train not with the goal to look like someone else, but to enhance what you already have. Train, not to be the strongest deadlifter or bench presser, but to be stronger than you are now.

Eat because feeling well nourished brings greater happiness than starving yourself thin. Know that each day when you wake, your body may not always look like it did the day before. Your body is filled with very complex systems made up of organs and tissue and fluid and synapses (amongst other things). Stop trying to control and manipulate them all because it’s making you miserable.

Instead, focus on that synthetic happiness. That thought in your mind that tells you, “I’m good with what I have and what I have potential to do.”

Don’t shroud yourself in disappointment because you can’t look like that girl.

Unveil the happiness of being better at being you.

What I learned from my son’s experience at the Swap Shop was that the end result didn’t bring him the most happiness. The joy he felt wasn’t relative to whether he brought home the cattle femur or a couple of shiny stones. The experience of finding the initial items, trading them up, and searching for something different became his true happiness.


  • Amy says:

    Great article. But I don’t get why the kid couldn’t have had his calf femur if that’s what he really wanted? I get thr metaphor and all.. But the kid wanted something interesting and low key. What’s wrong with that?!

    • Kellie says:

      Thanks for the compliments. Your question made me chuckle. Ah, the mind of a 6-year old boy. It is something interesting and low key… that he would likely turn into a weapon to torment his sister and the dog with. Plus, I saw myself being the one carrying this bone the size of my torso around the zoo for another hour. 🙂

  • Marianne Kane says:

    Loved this piece Kellie!

    It’s so true; we can so easily get stuck in this cycle of constructing a future (which of course doesn’t exist and never will) where we are happier … happy when we have x,y,z!

    I am learning so much about this right now, so it was perfect timing to read this today.

    The future doesn’t exist, therefore our future happier self cannot exist. In which case all we ever have is the present – so why not just be the happiest you’ll ever be – right now! The moment you take yourself to a past place, or a future place of perceived greater happiness, you lose the only thing that is real … you guessed, now. And with that loss, you lose your present state of happiness (and the cycle continues) 🙂

    I like that your son accepted the alternative and just got on with things. That is a great lesson!

    Marianne x

    • Kellie says:

      In college I was enamored with Literary Theory, and so much of what you say was argued in my coursework. It’s funny how we KNOW these things, but we get so caught up in wanting what we don’t (or can’t have). We forget to truly appreciate those gifts bestowed upon us.

      I feel that you and I are cut from the same cloth, attached to a sail, and are on this incredible journey of self-discovery together, my friend. 🙂

  • Lisl says:

    Spot on Kellie! A much needed reality check here, thank you!
    Choosing happiness, every day, is a choice.
    How wonderful children are, being in the present moment and how much we can learn from them

  • Raylene says:

    Excellent write up! I have been working very hard on this the last couple of months. It is equally great to hear this from you because you were one of the ladies I wanted to look like. I have been doing very well appreciating the new stronger sexier Raylene and reading articles like this continue to help. Thank you!!

  • John says:

    First, let me say that I think you are beautiful and I really admire the dedication it takes to look the way you do. I’m a little confused by your article though, it seems contradictory. Are you yourself not striving for an ideal of beauty created in large part by society, and presumably you strive for this ideal because you think it will bring happiness?

    • Kellie says:

      Hi John. Thanks for your compliments. It’s funny that Bret chose to use the photo he did. It was likely just in his archives… because when the photo was taken two years ago I certainly was stuck in that mentality. I was indeed striving for that ideal. As I mentioned, I wanted so badly to have everything that wasn’t me.

      Since then, I’ve learned to let go of these ideals and just live. I’m more relaxed and less caught up my perception of perfection. It’s been a battle, but I can safely say that I understand what truly brings me happiness, and no amount of perceived perfection will provide that.

  • Naomi says:

    So well written and timely for me! I’ve enjoyed a bunch of TED talks on happiness and have read some excellent books on the topic. It seems ridiculous that you’d need to study up to become happy but it’s so true that achieving the ideal body doesn’t really change anything. I have a guest blog post coming in a week where I talk about this important issue as well.

    Clearly, when we transform, part of what we’re addressing is a need to become happier. And yet!

  • Melanie says:

    I just completed treatment for breast cancer. I can honestly say, staying in a personally content and happy place is a great way to live life. I just started working out (with Marianne as an online trainer) and I am really enjoying feeling the muscles in MY body, working to do what I ask of them. I look forward to seeing/experiencing my results and will enjoy my body as I progress. It is easy to fall into the perfect-abs-as-body-commodity and to forget that the work of doing is where the fun resides.

  • Cass says:


    This post was so freaking great! Nice job 🙂

    My favorite quote? (the one that’s getting printed out and posted beside my laptop?):

    The only thing standing between what you think will make you happy and what actually makes you happy is your own misconceptions.

    Simply awesome.


  • Lauren says:

    Thanks so much for this post. It’s just what I needed to read at this point in time. I “used” to have a strong, slim, dancers body. I remember at the time being told I wasn’t thin enough, despite being 5’5″ tall and weighing only 90 lbs. by any normal standard I was too thin, but I was pure muscle and no fat. I look back and think, “I wish I was as thin now as I was when I thought I was fat.” Looking back is no good (truthfully, if I did have that body again, I’d probably only ruin it with Twinkies and Ring Dings), and projecting ahead to a body I wish was mine again is just ridiculous and pointless. What I’m trying to say is, when I stop and realize how blessed I am to be where I am with what I have, all this wishing seems silly. Being grateful for what you have, and using what you already have to work with, really is he key to being happy.

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