You go to bed at night after pouring your heart out all day and realize you’re still behind where you wanted to be. No matter how much you give, it never seems like enough.

I am no different. A few years ago, I began to question everything: who I was, where I was going, what I wanted in my life. People all around me seemed locked in a frenzy of activity.  They moved at a fast pace, always busy with something, always achieving something. In living near them, running in the same circles, I figured it was a good life for them, so it would be a good life for me, too.

But I was wrong. What was good for all of these people didn’t work for me. I didn’t want more or less out of life–I just wanted DIFFERENT. I felt like I was trying to follow the cool kids instead of just being myself. Pretty big admission for a full-grown adult, but there you are. In fact, it shames me to admit all of this. For several years, I would be with friends and feel like I was in the company of strangers. What was life for? To work hard, to be busy busy busy, just for the sake of being busy, just for the sake of paying too much for owning too much. Life was a blur. A too-busy, rushed blur. And it was passing us by at such a rapid pace that we hadn’t even gotten the chance to figure out what we really wanted. The whole idea began to seem very counter-intuitive.

Along with many others who are on the path to awareness, I believe it’s possible to wake up to yourself in a culture that sometimes seems loco. Life doesn’t have to be a struggle. Life can be on your terms. Here are five things to remember when you’re trying to figure out who you are in this great big wacky world:

1. Surround yourself with authenticity

I sometimes find it hard to make the choice toward simple and grounded when all around me is complex and agitated. It’s like an alcoholic trying to abstain at a party flowing with booze.

It’s all around us. The culture holds us in its curiously comforting arms, like Mommy Dearest, whispering things about competing and earning more and looking good and owning things. But the other voice–the one inside your own head–is powerful, too. If you can tune out the noise of the world, you can start listening to your own soul and find ways to surround yourself with experiences and people who will help you be authentic to yourself.

When you’re feeling as though the whole world is bragging on Facebook about their latest 10k or wild financial success, it’s not time to start feeling bad for yourself, thinking you’re somehow not good enough if you’re not athletic, beautiful, or rich. Instead, cling to the community of people who say it’s ok to just be who you are, and, indeed, that it’s just ok to BE. Now’s the time to do something you love. Head to a yoga class. Write your thoughts in a journal. Talk to a like-minded friend or to a spiritual director who might remind you that we are better when we only live “in this world” but not be “of this world.” Take a long walk. In whatever way you can, remove yourself from any possible unhealthy competition and striving and embrace the experiences and people who remind you what YOUR life is really about.

2. Don’t join the race

A meme floats through the air–or maybe it’s in the drinking water along with the anti-depressants and birth control–that just “being” is lazy, that I should be doing as much as possible on all fronts or else I’m a total failure as a person. I should be making loads of money, fixing up my house to perfection, following every news story, entertaining beautifully, seeing all the sights, volunteering for worthwhile causes, and making sure my kids are active and successful and well-liked. “Doing” is better when I’m “doing the best” because what soul is truly healthy without a little competition? If I’m the richest, skinniest, craftiest mama out there with the biggest house, shiniest car, and yuppiest kids, I’ve won, right?

Life is not a race. It is not any kind of competition at all. You should live your life in the way that best suits you. What’s right for someone else may not be right for you. If you try to climb someone else’s mountain, you’ll be struggling the whole way. But if you do things in your own way, based on your own dreams and talents, you’ll virtually fly up that mountain. I’ve seen this kind of miracle happen. When someone is able to cut the ties that hold them down (peer/family expectation, societal convention, competition with others), they are able to spring upward into a life of joy and fulfillment.

3. Holding on too tightly can cause you to lose your grip

Even our beloved American hero, Thomas Jefferson, while signing the historical documents that brought the U.S. into being, was  at the very same time building a personal empire he couldn’t afford (and which was built on the backs of slaves). And, as is often the case, his estate turned out to be a house of cards, anyway. When Jefferson died, he was deeply in debt from living a good life that some might say was fairly egotistical, and his beloved Monticello–house, land, slaves, and all–was sold off to pay his creditors. What can we learn from this American “hero”? What would Jefferson have been if he didn’t try so hard to be the best? Maybe not as successful, not as influential, and not as famous. But maybe he would have been happier deep down (and wouldn’t have been torn apart by the cognitive dissonance of speaking of freedom while at the same time promoting racism).

Striving for more is not a spiritually solid, or really financially feasible, idea. It is only when you stop trying so hard and learn to be content with less that things will really take off. Do what you love and what you’re good at. Don’t do things because you think you “should” or because it’s what someone else expects you to do. Leave behind what you feel in your heart doesn’t really matter. Don’t live a lie that makes you feel sick in your belly every day of your life. Do things because you can’t imagine NOT doing them. Do things that come easy. Do things that make time pass quickly. A good life comes from passion and individual choosing–not from living like a robot just so you can look like everyone else and do what the cool kids are doing. In my experience, the cool kids never seemed that happy, anyway.

4. “Nothing gold will stay”

I dream of a day when I can let go of the stuff I own in such a way that it does not rule my life or my mind. It’s all so fleeting. The new rug from Target gets worn in one year. The furniture gets scratched. The tiles get chipped. The thing that truly lasts is my story. My soul. My children. These are my only lasting legacies.

Robert Frost tells us in his timeless poem that “nothing gold can stay.” Things fall apart. The sun goes down. People die. The only lasting thing is this moment right here. Your story, told to others, as inspiration, as warning. Your soul, floating into the afterlife.

Yes, we need material things to live, but they don’t truly matter. They’re not real. They all fall apart in the end. If your focus remains on the material, your view of life will be constantly depressed and shamed. You’ll be running in a hamster wheel of keeping up appearances, keeping everything new and fixed, keeping everything working properly. Better to let it all go and enjoy what is real.

5. Soul, not ego

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of ego, to let Mama Culture soothe us with her promises of peace and contentment, the questionable results of living the American dream. It’s so easy to forget why we’re really here: to love, to learn, to enjoy experiences and people, and to share with the world all the myriad talents with which we’ve been gifted.

Living life from ego is healthy only to a certain point. It keeps us fed and alive. After that point, it becomes disastrous. My doctor told me that 1 in 4 patients sitting in his waiting room are there for emotional issues. Might that number be less if people were better able to connect to their own souls?

The ego in me wants to look good, win the competition, and feel important. The soul teaches: love, don’t seek love; be, don’t try to be the best; and build up the import of others, not yourself. Like so many others, I’ve pondered this question of how to achieve happiness and I keep coming back to the same conclusion: happiness comes from soul, not ego. From being, not doing. From giving more than taking. From staying true to yourself and not succumbing to comparison. We must remember that we are put here for a reason, and it’s probably not to preen at how good we are at everything. The reason we’re here is to be of service to others.

I’m still questioning things, myself. I don’t claim to have all the answers. Every day, I find myself asking why we’re here and what our focus should be. I read, write, and talk constantly about what path will be the best for me, my husband, and my kids who are growing up in this frantic world. I need all the help I can get!

Your turn. Can you relate to anything in this post? Do you sometimes feel that modern-day living can be difficult or feel the crush of keeping up? What kinds of things do you do to stay calm and happy when you find yourself questioning what life is all about?