“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we’d have a pretty good time.” ~Edith Wharton
I have a question for you.
What would you be willing to sacrifice to be happy?
Would you be happy to let go of Netflix? Alcohol? Pizza?
Would you be willing to take up a monastic life?
Every single day of the year we’re being sold happiness. It doesn’t matter whether it's in the form of a pill or a book or a holiday, the underlying idea is the same: What we have to sell you will make you happy.
The problem with happiness is that no one really knows exactly what it is. It’s intangible, even a little mysterious, yet still we all want to be happy. But trying to be happy is like trying to get to sleep; the harder you try, the less likely it is to happen.
So four years ago, on New Years Eve, I made the pledge to myself to stop trying to be happy.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t miserable. I was just spending too much time thinking about whether or not I was happy—even though neither I, nor anyone I knew really, could give a clear answer about what this meant.
So instead of saying to myself, This year I’m going to be happy, I said, This year I’m going to try new things. I’m going to meet new people. I’m going to go to new places. I’m going to push myself out of my comfort zone.
And if I’m not happy, well, I’m not happy, but at least I’ve had some interesting experiences.
The result of this was the best (and probably happiest) year of my life, at least up to that point. And I realized something obvious in hindsight, but still profound: Happiness is something that comes a lot more easily when we stop thinking about it.
It’s more like a place you occupy than an object you obtain. Some days you’ll be there and some days you wont, but the more time you spend thinking about being happy, the less likely you are to spend time being so.
A large part of what less than happy people have is a problem with their patterns of attention.
In the same way the attention of an extrovert is naturally directed at social communication, the attention of an entrepreneur seeks out business opportunities, and an artist looks for creative expression, an unhappy person tends to look directly at happiness.
This post will explore some practices that can help you to stop focusing so hard on the idea of happiness and instead embrace the experiences and thoughts that will actually make you happy.
1. Take the word “happy” out of your vocabulary.
We all know words are used to communicate ideas. Unfortunately, sometimes a word can get overused and it becomes confusing, stifling, or even dangerous.
Here are some other words you should start to use in conversations with yourself and others about how you feel. Don’t be fooled into believing you need to experience all of them; you don’t.
If you find yourself asking, Am I happy? Replace the question with: Do I have [insert word] in my life?
- Peace of mind
2. Practice living in the present.
Letting go of past regrets and future anxieties is not easy, but it’s the fastest way to live a full and enjoyable life. Think about enjoying each moment for its own unique role in the ongoing narrative of your life.
If you want a short mantra to keep in mind: be here now.
3. Decide what you really want to do.
A lot of people that are searching for happiness will end up with “shiny object syndrome.” This is what happens when they bounce from goal to goal because they’re looking for something (or someone) to take away all their suffering.
Knowing yourself and what you truly want can help you develop purpose and focus—so much so that you don’t even have time to waste pondering happiness. You may even realize that happiness is not what you really want, that you’re willing to put up with being unhappy some of the time if it means you will have a sense of achievement.
4. Let go of unrealistic expectations about how happy you’re supposed to be.
For most of human history people lived relatively rough lives. The idea that you’re supposed to be happy all of the time is pretty new.
Though you should strive to live the fullest life you can, it’s actually more normal and perfectly okay to live an average life interspersed with brief periods of joy.
5. Take small daily steps.
If you think you know what you want and you’re determined that it will make you happy, at least decide on small daily steps that you can take to get there.
Setting unrealistical goals that you never get to finish is far less fulfilling than setting small goals that you can finish and appreciate—and ones that let you know you’re on the right track.
6. Make serving others a regular habit.
One key habit of unhappy people that we often don’t talk about is that they are inherently self-centered.
This doesn’t mean that they are bad people by any means. It just means their minds spend a disproportionate amount of time focused on the self.
Serving others is one way to break this pattern of attention from “How am I feeling?” to “How are you feeling?” There are a lot of studies that show that giving to others is more rewarding than receiving.
7. Separate your happiness from your achievements.
We all need to learn to separate our happiness from our achievements. It’s okay to feel content with our lives simply because we have an inherent sense of self-worth.
Reaching our goals can obviously bolster this feeling and give us a deep sense of accomplishment, but the absence of achievement should not mean the absence of happiness.
8. Don’t force yourself to be positive all the time.
There’s a lot of advice in the self-help community and spiritual circles about being positive. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the best advice. It’s better to be positive when you are actually feeling positive than it is to be positive when you’re feeling negative.
9. Remove things that prevent happiness.
This is actually a lot more important than finding things to make you happy.
Are you in a toxic relationship?
Do you dislike your job?
Are you eating a lot of unhealthy food?
These things all need to go before you start to seek happiness; otherwise, they can hold you back and you may never be satisfied.
10. Be okay with okay.
When people ask you, “How’s work? How’s the new city? How’s your relationship going?” Don’t you feel compelled to say “really good!” even when it’s not?
We’re so conditioned to feel like we need to have the best of everything that “okay” just isn’t good enough for most of us.
Learning to be okay with okay is a much better strategy toward allowing things to become great than is anxiously wishing that they already were.
11. Get out of your comfort zone.
Getting out of your comfort zone is good not only for your sense of self-worth, but it also gives your brain a huge adrenaline dump and a flush of endorphins.
You’ll know when you’re getting out of your comfort zone when you feel anxious before doing something, but you do it anyway, because you know it is beneficial to you in the long run. Afterward, you’ll often feel a huge relief and sense of self-worth at having done something you were scared to do.
Depending on your own situation you might find this in traveling to new places, meeting new people, trying new activities (public speaking, scuba diving, bungee jumping etc.) or even just meditating through negative emotions.
12. Look after your body.
From muscular tension that can trap emotions to serotonin production and bacterial imbalances in your gut, your body is the number one vehicle that will allow you to experience joy and satisfaction, so treat it with care!
13. Meditate daily.
This is a no brainer. I’m sure anyone reading this article is familiar with the physical and psychological health benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
But there is one I’d like to add:
Meditation is long, slow, and you often you don’t see the deep benefits for a long time; in fact, when you are starting out, it can often seem like a complete leap of faith. But this is why it’s so important.
When you sit and stare at a wall or focus on your breath or do anything that (compared to our normal lives) is so bland, it conditions you to not grab on to the colorful, shiny objects that usually point you toward a shallow sense of fulfillment.
With a longstanding meditation practice that tendency to grasp will usually just fall away naturally. You’ll unknowingly get out of your own way.
14. Meet new people.
Meeting new and positive people can give you new vital energy that kickstarts your life and helps you focus on enjoying the present.
Because we are such social creatures, having likeminded people in our lives can have such a powerful impact on the way our habits and beliefs develop. As the old saying goes, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
To find people with similar interests and ambitions in your city, there are plenty of sites that can help you connect. You can try MeetUp.com for starters, or just do a simple search in Facebook for groups in your area.
Likewise, if you are interested in meditation and spirituality, retreats are a great way to know people and connect on a deep level in a short amount of time.
15. Go out in nature.
A lot of the time our worries and concerns are largely linked to our environment—both immediately, such as the construction noise outside our bedroom, and peripherally, such as when an advert on T.V. reminds you of a past failure.
Nature allows you to completely unplug, allowing yourself the space to experience relaxation and acceptance.
16. Be honest with yourself.
Discontentment often comes from what psychologists call cognitive dissonance—incongruence between two conflicting ideas or emotions in your mind.
You can greatly reduce this by just accepting, admitting, and experiencing the emotions that are passing through you.
If you are angry, be angry; if you are sad, be sad; if you are joyful, be joyful. When we try to actively change or deny present emotions, they become meta-emotions: guilt about sadness, anger about fear, fear about unhappiness. Then they become toxic.
17. Energize yourself in the morning.
As much as we like to think we have control and autonomy when it comes to our feelings, the truth is that momentum is a huge factor.
Morning routines have been a keystone habit of content and successful people throughout history, and for good reason; starting your day with a spiritual practice, a physical practice, and a healthy breakfast may not seem like much, but compounded over years, it can make all the difference in the world to your well-being.
We can all learn to let go of the neurotic need to chase happiness.
Doing so will do us a world of good—and who knows, we might even have a pretty good time.
How have you learned to stop chasing happiness? Let us know in the comments!