I think about that question more and more it seems. Or perhaps what I am really asking are the meta-questions – “What is the meaning of happiness?” and, “Does happiness, in and of itself, have meaning? By meaning I mean value.
It has become increasingly more incomprehensible to me that the most affluent, technologically advanced nation in human history is apparently so collectively miserable that it manages to consume the vast majority of the world’s pharmaceutical anti-depressant supply. We don’t only take more per capita than most nations, we take WAY more which begs the question – why?
When I began my efforts in earnest to understand this phenomenon, I decided to look first at my own experience and the experiences of the people I knew and had known throughout my life. Next, I started looking at the available scientific data and studies. I undertook to collect what seemed to be the most common reasons reported for unhappiness. There weren’t many surprises. Here is a list of some of the most common culprits I identified…
- Worry – One of my psychology professors once said this to me and it has stuck with me ever since, “Worrying is just feeling bad in advance, why would you do that?” I wholeheartedly agree. Additionally, the vast majority of things we worry about never actually materialize at all. So we end up damaging the moment that we are in by worrying about all manner of things that haven’t even happened yet and most likely never will. This is a near perfect recipe for unhappiness and an exercise in textbook neurosis.
- The idea of control – For some inexplicable reason we all tend to think we can control a great many aspects of our existence. The truth is, the percentage of things we can actually control is an order of magnitude less than we convince ourselves of. This is where the invaluable skills of acceptance and non-judgement come to bear. Life is what happens in between our plans. Be at peace with it.
- Holding grudges – this is about as intelligent as drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. The preponderance of harm that is being done is being done to you.
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” – Mark Twain
Releasing anger is, for the most part, for your own benefit. The person you perceived as grievously wronging you is likely off doing their own thing without giving you a second thought. Meanwhile, you are burning your own hand holding a hot coal that you are planning on throwing at them. Put it down, be on your way, and happily don’t look back.
- People aren’t playing by your rules – Public Service Announcement: the world doesn’t follow ‘Ed’s Marvelous Manifesto for Life and Fairness’ (my version or yours). The sooner you recognize and accept this, the happier you will be. If you sent a memo to the world outlining your rules, it got lost in the mail. Sorry. Once again, acceptance and non-judgement are the order of the day.
- comparing yourself to others – Everyone has this tendency but it comes with a glaring flaw. I may, for example, compare myself to Ernest Hemmingway (yes, I write novels too). And I would undoubtedly determine that Hemingway can write circles around me. The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises – um, yeah. But I would be comparing myself to only one aspect of Hemmingway’s life.
While a brilliant writer to be sure, he was by most accounts, a degenerate boozer, a vicious misogynist, violent of temper, and harbored a propensity for heartbreaking cruelty. I am, by most accounts, none of those things. So you see the problem here? We compare ourselves to only a small fraction of the whole person and come away from the exercise believing we are somehow deficient. This is rarely if ever the whole story. Always there will be greater and lesser than ourselves – always.
- Refusing to be happy until all your dreams come true – One of the most pervasive symptoms of the madness that lives in our collective consciousness is our willingness to assign happiness to the future when all of our ‘conditions’ for happiness are met. In so doing we trivialize, if not entirely miss, the present moment. This constant preoccupation with the future robs us of the only time we actually have… the present. If we are habitually lost in our internal dialog regarding some imagined future, we fail to be present in the only moment we ever have – the one we are in. The truth is, the future only ever comes in the form of the present. Don’t rent out space in your moments – they are the only ones you have. Live in them. Choose to be happy in them now.
- Loneliness – In a world that is more connected than ever, study after study reveals that we are more lonely, more disconnected than ever. Not too surprising really. We have convinced ourselves by the millions that these days we don’t have to get off the couch, go out, risk meeting people, risk them not liking us – we can socialize on our 4 inch screens to our hearts content. But guess what? NOT THE SAME THING! It’s these very things we are trying to avoid, in the name of comfort and convenience, that are the conduits to human connection, to true friendship, and the keys to the prison cell of our own making. That cell is loneliness. Get out there already!
- Materialism above all else – We have slowly, insidiously, and quietly allowed ourselves to be convinced that the greatest source of happiness that exists is, well, more stuff. But is it really? Not according to a nearly unlimited number of studies on sustained happiness. We crave, we get, we grow bored with what we get, we start over – the cycle never ends. The wheel of hedonic adaptation always brings us back not only to where we started, it leaves us in a worse place than where we stared. On and on it goes – endlessly. All while experiences that are the true bearers of lasting happiness languish in the ever lengthening shadows of our discontent. Sadly, most will wake up to this reality when, tragically, they have little time left to traverse a more enlightened path. Go. See. Do.
- Hanging out with unhappy people – The vast majority of people in western cultures are utterly convinced that happiness is something that just happens to you, or doesn’t. That it’s something you find and not something you do. And they would be wrong. There are perhaps very few decisions you will make that will be more important to your overall well-being, peace of mind, and happiness than who you choose to spend your free time with. Everyone you associate with will have an effect on you. Choose carefully. Choose wisely. Then rejoice like circus clowns with those who made the cut.
- Lack of purpose – Happiness loves purpose. Those who have created true happiness in their lives are, most often, those who have an abiding sense of purpose. They have something that gets them out of bed. They look forward to whatever it is they are doing that consistently creates meaning and value in their lives. They can’t even remotely fathom NOT doing it. Often, I hear people say, “I don’t know what my purpose is.” I understand the sentiment. My response usually goes something like this, “What is your unique gift or superpower? What have people been telling you for most of your life that you’re really good at? The answers to those questions will most likely point you in the right direction.” From there it’s up to you.
- Living someone else’s life – This one could be an entire book on its own. From the very moment we come into this world we are being molded, programmed to conform to the expectations of others, usually starting with our parents. In our largely helpless and ignorant state, we are obliged to accept their food and their protection so it follows we would also accept their framework for our lives. They have all the answers, right!? We simply don’t know any better at this stage. But the problem arises when we don’t outgrow their conditions for acceptance and approval and become our own people. Once the programming settles in, we are then susceptible to the same conditional terms from school, church, friends, et al. We are set on a path of living someone else’s life for what, too often, becomes our entire life. If there is a greater tragedy, I am unaware of it. You do YOU! If anyone has a problem with it, it is their problem – not yours.
- Being stuck in the past – It’s damn hard to start the next chapter in the story of you if you keep re-reading the last chapter. Your life is like a great novel. Don’t read only Chapter 17 over and over and miss the rest of the incredible tale! There isn’t one damn thing you can do to change a single word that’s already been written. Forgive whoever you need to. Forgive yourself. Then turn the page!
- Being Unhealthy – Short of disease, your health is your choice. If you are subsisting on fast food, junk food, think exercise is a trip to the fridge, and consume enough booze to make W.C. Fields proud, then guess what? Most days you’re going to generally feel like crap. You will have low energy, experience systematic mood swings, be somewhat lethargic, nasty to be around and, you guessed it, pretty much unhappy. I’m not suggesting you have to be a triathlete. I am, however, saying that your sense of happiness is greatly influenced by how and what you eat, and how and what you move. (For those unfamiliar, W. C. Fields one famously quipped, “Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore always carry a small snake.) So, there’s that.
- Fear of failure – There is no such thing as failure, there are only results – provided you learn the lesson. The question you might consider asking yourself is this – what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? Regret doesn’t live among the things we did; it lives among the things we didn’t do. Just ask someone who’s dying.
- Procrastination – This is a mile-wide road to frustration and unhappiness. Have you ever attempted to ride a bicycle while picking up bricks along the way? Of course not. Why would you? You know that eventually you would get slower and slower until you lost your balance and crashed. The mental and emotional price we pay for procrastination is rarely if ever worth the short term pay-off. Generally speaking, the things we want least to do are precisely the things we should be doing. Get it done and put it in the rear-view mirror. Your bike ride will be a whole lot better.
- Not learning new things – This is perhaps one of the most common mistakes I see people make. Many operate under the premise that they have finished school and good riddance – no more studying. Maybe they are required to learn something new for a job but that’s about where it stops. I lay partial blame for this at the feet of our woefully malformed educational system but the lion’s share of the blame lies squarely on a gross misunderstanding of the extraordinary benefits of life-long learning. Neural plasticity is one of the greatest attributes of the human brain. While that plasticity may be at its most pronounced when we are kids, it never disappears completely. Learning comes to us bearing all manner of amazing gifts. It imbues our lives with senses of wonder and accomplishment. It can radically slow our cognitive decline as we age. And it can make us pretty damned interesting at cocktail parties. Get smart! Then go get smarter.
- Boredom – this lies at the heart of so many of our ills that it’s hard to overstate how insidious it is. It is also incredibly easy to remedy. Phone addiction, TV addiction, substance abuse and the like, all byproducts of boredom in most cases. And while these things may act to alleviate boredom in the moment, they do it at the cost of our overall happiness and sense of well-being. Just outside your door lies the whole wide world of wonderful shit you’ve never experienced. You know you hate being bored. But if the above mentioned super-easy ways to cure that boredom are the remedies you are choosing, then you probably hate effort even more. How about that? Yep, I agree it’s easier to binge watch Netflix than it is to take a walk somewhere you’ve never been. Or read a book about a subject you’ve always found fascinating. Or to plant a garden. It’s a LOT easier in fact. But it’s a cheap-ass knock-off of the kinds of activities that will not only cure your boredom, but will contribute greatly to your long-term happiness. Don’t settle.
- Caring too much about what others think – This is a corollary to living your own life. But there is a difference worth discussing. Frequently I am asked, “How do I stop caring about what other people think? The short answer is, “Become a sociopath or a psychopath. Problem solved.” Caring what others think is what makes us human. It is what makes us wonderful in so many ways – too many to mention in fact. So, there is a better question to ask, “How do I better manage what others think?” We’ll dive into this in detail in the chapter on brain hacking. It’s a seriously powerful set of tools – stay tuned.
- Playing the victim – how in the actual #*%* are you supposed to be happy if you believe your happiness is completely out of your own control and in the hands of someone else or some external factor? You are living in a perpetual state of powerlessness – held hostage by your own willingness to cede your power to some perceived victimizer. Bullshit. The truly happy take responsibility for their state of mind. Even in situations where clearly there are people or circumstances that are factually beyond their control. Why? Because they know full well that by taking back that power from whoever or whatever, they have wrestled back control of their own mental states. The ball is back in their court now and they can do with it whatever they please – like being happy.
Check out the podcast episode…
Check out the Happiness 2.0 Podcast – https://podcast.edwardgdunn.com/