Everybody wants to know what they can do to be happier. We crave some combination of lessons, tricks, inspiration, goals, strategies, life-hacks, pills, or even apps that will add more happiness and wellbeing to our lives.
But what if finding happiness is less about what we should add and more about what we should subtract?
What if the smarter way to find your happiness is to focus on removing the things that make you unhappy?
In my work as a psychologist and therapist, I have the privilege of getting to know people on a uniquely intimate level so that I can help them figure out what will really make them happy in the long run. And the more I do this work, the more I realize the key to finding happiness is often less, not more.
It’s about discovering the things that are making you miserable and doing your best to eliminate them.
And more often than not, those things that make us miserable are habits: subtle but powerful patterns we’ve fallen into—maybe since childhood—that gnaw away at our happiness, day after day, month after month, year after year.
Here are six of the most common habits I’ve seen that sabotage our happiness and some brief thoughts on how to eliminate them.
1. Worrying about the future and other people’s opinions of you
Worrying is the mental habit of trying to solve a problem that either can’t be solved or isn’t really a problem.
It’s easy to fall into because it feels productive, like we’re at least doing something. It staves off the feeling we hate most of all: helplessness.
Worry gives us the illusion of control.
But here’s the thing: sometimes we are helpless.
Sometimes things are bad, or painful, or terrifying and there’s nothing we can do about it.
- Yes, something terrible could happen to you or people you care about in the future.
- Yes, some people really, truly, deep-down don’t like you very much.
Worrying about it is denial of reality. It’s a demand that everything be the way you want it. It’s an attempt to control what is fundamentally outside your control. It’s expectations gone wild.
Shit happens. People are jerks.
Worrying about it won’t change things. But it will lead to a lot of anxiety.
Work to become more aware of your habit of worry. Then question it:
- Am I productively solving a genuine problem, or doing mental hand wringing?
- What function does my worry really serve?
- What benefit does it really give me?
Learn to accept the pain of what is or what might be and let go of your habit of worry and all the anxiety it generates.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” — Reinhold Niebuhr
2. Isolating yourself when you’re feeling down
I always think it’s strange that my therapy clients say “sorry” when they tear up or cry during therapy sessions.
Why would you apologize for feeling and expressing sadness?
(I mean, I know the answer. Because it’s socially unacceptable to be sad in public, unless it’s a funeral, then you can cry a little… but God help you if you start blubbering or “lose control!” And we’ve all been trained since we were kids to control ourselves and mask our emotions because they’re unseemly in public).
But still, even though I know why, it doesn’t stop feeling strange to me—that we’re ashamed of our emotions and how we feel and try to hide them from others, even the people we’re closest to.
As a therapist, my clients’ tears are actually really helpful to me. They’re a sign that something we’re talking about is important and valuable. That helps me do my job better because I understand the person across from me a little better.
But that’s not just true in the therapy office. That’s true for all of us!
Visibly painful emotions like sadness and fear and frustration help signal to people around us that we’re struggling and could use some help or support.
You don’t need coping strategies when you’re sad, or discouraged, or feeling lonely, paralyzed, or helpless. You need people. You need support. You need someone to give you a hug, listen carefully to your story, share a pint of Haagen Dazs with.
When we hide our pain and isolate ourselves, we throw away the most powerful antidepressant known to man—loving support from people who care about us.
So, while it’s totally natural to hide yourself away and isolate when you’re in pain or suffering, just do the opposite. Reach out. Ask for support. Connect.
“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” ― William James
3. Keeping quiet and “going with the flow”
It’s a truism that most people dislike conflict. But that’s just because most people don’t know that there’s a good way to do conflict.
Most of us hesitate to push back and stand up for ourselves because we’re afraid of being perceived as aggressive, pushy, conniving, or rude. And so we default to being passive, accepting, quiet, and generally just “going with the flow” (which is usually just a euphemism for being a doormat).
But there’s a middle road between being a passive doormat and an aggressive (or passive-aggressive) bully: You can be assertive.
Assertiveness means standing up for your own wants, needs, and values. It means asking for what you want and saying no to what you don’t want in a way that’s clear, respectful, and honest.
And assertiveness is a skill anyone can learn.
The road to genuine self-esteem, confidence, and self-respect is assertiveness—through the willingness to align your actions with your values no matter the circumstance.
“Staying silent is like a slow growing cancer to the soul… There is nothing intelligent about not standing up for yourself. You may not win every battle. However, everyone will at least know what you stood for—YOU.” ― Shannon L. Alder
4. Talking trash to yourself in your head
Everybody has self-talk—that running commentary in your own head about everything from what shoes to wear and why to what your boss’ secretary thinks about your new haircut. It’s our inner narrator who constantly describes the story of our life as it unfolds.
Unfortunately, many of us: A) are not very aware of our self-talk, and B) have a brutally negative, judgmental style of self-talk.
Think about it: If you talked to other people the way you talked to yourself, you’d probably have zero friends, no job, and multiple warrants out for your arrest.
The reason we all have such harsh, negative self-talk is because we were taught as children that being “tough” on yourself was motivating and the best way to force yourself to be disciplined and get stuff done.
But the truth is, drill sergeant John Wayne pull yourself up by your bootstraps self-talk narrator guy is not actually a very good source of genuine motivation. Even if you are the kind of person who’s been reasonably disciplined and successful in your pursuits, it’s probably despite your negative self-talk, not because of it.
So, if negative self-talk isn’t motivating, what function does it serve?
Nothing good. But it will function to make you depressed, anxious, chronically guilty, and eventually hopeless.
You’ve had the same self-talk program running in the background of your operating system since you were five. Might be time for an update.
“He who would be useful, strong, and happy must cease to be a passive receptacle for the negative, beggarly, and impure streams of thought.” —James Allen
5. Trying to manage your stress
The biggest lie we’ve all been told about chronic stress is that you need to get better at managing it.
Why is this a lie?
Stress management is actually a pretty terrible solution to the problem of chronics stress because—to point out what should be obvious—you’re already stressed!
Stress management is a Band-Aid. It’s treating the symptoms.
Which is fine as a last resort, but it’s a terrible overall strategy because it distracts us from thinking carefully about the true causes of our stress, the stressors.
The stressor is the thing that causes a stress response.
If you’re constantly stressed, the long-term solution is to fix the original cause of the stress (the stressor) not the feeling (the stress response).
If you’re constantly stressed at work, you could try and work in more deep breathing exercises or spend more time journaling about the things you’re grateful for and maybe your stress level will decrease a little for a time.
But that’s not going to change the fact that you’re terrible at saying “no” and that you take on way more projects than you can reasonably handle.
In other words, feeling stressed at work is the messenger trying to tell you that something about how you work is deeply wrong. Stress management techniques like deep breathing exercise are effectively shooting the messenger.
Stress isn’t the problem. It’s the constant flood of stressors in your life that’s making you miserable.
Here’s another way to think about it:
The way we think about chronic stress is like an emergency room where the only treatment option is Tylenol:
Gun shot? Here’s a Tylenol.
Fractured arm? Here’s a Tylenol.
Heart attack? Here’s a Tylenol.
Sure, a Tylenol might make you feel a little better in the moment. But it doesn’t address the cause of the pain.
There’s nothing objectively wrong with traditional stress management techniques like deep breathing or mindfulness. The problem is the habit of thinking about chronic stress only in terms of how we feel—our stress response.
In reality, the far more important part of the equation is the stressor(s) that are causing the stress in the first place.
“Stop trying to manage your stress and start managing your stressors.” — Me
6. Believing your own thoughts unconditionally
What’s so special about your thoughts?
Seriously, why do you give over so much respect and authority and meaning to everything that pops into your mind?
The idea jumped into your head that your co-worker thinks you’re lazy… So what? Does that mean anything? Is the fact that you had a thought about that idea genuine evidence that it’s true? Does it mean you have social anxiety? Is it just another sign that you have low self-esteem and need to get in to see a shrink immediately?
Maybe they do think you’re lazy. But the fact that you had a thought about it doesn’t make it any more or less likely.
But guess what? If every time thoughts like that pop into your mind you give them tons of attention, exert lots of mental energy over them, and read into them all sorts of deep, weighty meaning, you’re teaching you own mind to throw more of those thoughts at you.
Cue the vicious cycle of chronic intrusive thoughts and all the anxiety and distress that goes along with them
Remember: Your thoughts aren’t special. And a lot of them are actively detrimental if you maintain a habit of always giving them tons of respect and attention.
Cultivate a healthy skepticism of your own thoughts. Learn to let them be. You’ll be happier for it.
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking.” ― Eckhart Tolle
All You Need to Know
Let go of the habit of worry.
Let go of the habit of isolation.
Let go of the habit of going with the flow.
Let go of the habit of trash-talking yourself.
Let go of the habit of stress management.
Let go of the habit of engaging all your thoughts.
Let go of the habits keeping you unhappy and you won’t have to find happiness. It will have found you. @ndwignall (Click to Tweet!)
*This article was originally posted at nickwignall.com.
Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.
Image courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez.