Do you know someone who is genuinely happy? I know people who appear pretty happy, and I think they probably are. People with well-rounded lives, stable relationships, interesting interests, and generally healthy habits tend to have a shiny aura about them that we might call happiness. I know others who act happy, but who are miserable in some important ways. Abusive relationships, financial problems, and health issues — among other things — can really put a damper on happiness, even for the most cheerful souls. Then there are the truly miserable, for whom every moment of sitting in traffic is pure agony, and nothing is ever good enough. Most people I know are — like myself — happy(ish).
Despite the promises of consumer culture and tech idealism, we do not live in a world optimized for happiness. Yet there is an alarming trend in the self-help industry and corporate culture to try to sell people personal happiness projects, and the idea that you can be happy, if only you try harder. Meditate. Become a volunteer. Stop sitting in front of a computer and move around more. Be more productive! These are all good things to do, and you should go forth and do them, by golly! They might increase your contentment, or they might stress you out because you already don’t have time think.
All the workplace happiness gurus ever say is, “we need to teach more happiness habits to people.” They’re not saying, “We need to reform workplaces.” — William Davies, author of The Happiness Industry
There’s an insidious myth that is being codified by corporate HR narratives — the myth that the current capitalistic system within which we operate offers opportunities for unlimited personal growth and happiness. It does not. Especially for those at the bottom of the food chain, but even the C-suites contain some deep wells of misery. There are people who love their jobs, but they are the minority. A very small minority. If it were economically possible for every working person to do fulfilling work that they love to do, WE WOULD BE DOING THAT. Nobody wants a terrible, stressful job, but, alas, many still have them. The solution isn’t to get happier about a terrible, stressful situation. The solution is to change the situation.
Happiness is largely situational, and there are some situations individuals may have little power to change. To use an extreme example: No one was happy while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Some were able to remain optimistic, and those who developed techniques that helped them tolerate distress and anxiety were probably less unhappy than those who didn’t. Could people have been happy in that situation? No. Should they have been happy in that situation? No.
There are situations that we do have the power to change in pursuit of happiness. If a toxic relationship is beyond repair, you can end it. If your job is intolerable, you can quit, but depending on your skill set it may be difficult to truly change the situation — even with a new employer. If your lifestyle is unhealthy, or you struggle with addiction, there are paths to a happier existence. Maybe. Many of these types of intentional changes require agency and resources that those living in desperate circumstances simply don’t have. People who have made drastic improvements in their health — like major weight loss or quitting smoking — may feel a lot better in terms of mood and energy level, but does that mean they’re happier? If not much else in their life has changed, probably not.
This is where it becomes important to distinguish between a happy mood, and overall happiness, or life satisfaction. Mood is not situational, it is biochemical. There are often situational triggers for periods of depression or elation, but the mood itself is a physiological process, not necessarily related to circumstances. Emotions are biochemical events as well, but they are typically very direct responses to events. Grief and sadness are normal emotional responses to the death of a loved one, they are not moods, and they are not unhappiness.
I am happy(ish). I’d say I’m about 75% happy in my current situation, which is better than “the norm” in our culture, I think. I see a lot of people limping along at 50%-60% happy. That’s considered a normal thing to do in our culture. Long commutes, over-booked schedules, long work hours, fraught relationships, empty entertainment, loneliness, and OCD phone checking are all attributes of a “successful” life. The increasing income gap is pushing those at both ends of the spectrum further from happiness.
I have a few friends and acquaintances in the lucky, happy elite, who operate at upwards of 80% happy. No one is 100% happy — that would be some weird form of psychosis. They have good health, strong relationships, jobs they don’t hate, some level of financial security, and often cute kids and/or pets. I would guess they naturally do a lot of the things on the list below, whereas most of us have to learn these things.
There are a lot of “reasons” to be unhappy for most people. Money problems, work stress, relationship issues, loneliness, dissatisfaction, personal tragedy, illness, abuse, the generally terrible state of the world we live in. And those circumstances should never be ignored. But if you can’t immediately change circumstances (and you probably can’t), should you resign yourself to misery? I don’t think so.
My secrets to being happy(ish):
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice. I am completely unqualified to offer psychiatric guidance of any kind. These are things I’ve learned over time, through trial and error and lots of therapy. Some of these are really hard to put into practice, and I certainly haven’t reached some kind of transcendent state where I do all of these things perfectly or even consistently. I’m constantly reminding myself. Trying to do all of this at the same time would be crazy. So don’t. Also, results may vary.
Identify what makes you unhappy and change it. Occam’s razor. If you are being tormented by a pack of Chihuahuas, perhaps you need to befriend them, kill them, or move to a different state where the weather is not amenable to Chihuahuas traveling in packs.
If it is truly beyond repair, get rid of it or accept it. There are some relationships that can’t be salvaged, some jobs that are not going to get better (coal mining springs to mind), some diseases that can’t be cured, and many traffic problems that can’t be avoided. If you’ve tried all the things, it’s okay to let go of either the situation OR the distress. Whichever works.
Acceptance does not equal complacency. Accepting that reality is reality is what I mean by acceptance. Don’t ever pretend something is OK when it isn’t. There are some things you simply should not ever accept as a necessary aspect of your reality, like abuse, oppression, disrespect and contempt. Unequivocally refuse to be treated that way by anyone. And don’t accept Nazi concentration camps (or their equivalents) as the status quo.
Embrace (and expect) change. When things are going badly, it’s the feeling of being trapped in the situation that can make it 10x more upsetting. We humans have a hard time believing in a future that is different from the present, but the truth is that no matter what the current situation will change. Even if there’s nothing you can do to immediately change the situation, think about your long term escape plan. And realize that things will change, even if you do nothing.
Look for the humor in the situation. This doesn’t work for every situation, because some are just horrible, terrible, and not nice. But most things that bring us down are really kinda nonsensical when you take a step or two back. Being able to laugh at yourself helps, too.
Recognize depression. Depression, like any chronic condition, needs to be recognized, accepted, and managed. Most people who deal with it (myself included) are perfectly capable of being happy. It’s just harder to feel that way, and it takes vigilance to not let it drag you into a sea of muck infested with Piranhas.
Tolerate distress. There are so many things I would never have done if I let the anticipated distress of anxiety stop me. And there are a lot of things I haven’t done because of that anticipated distress. There are some great CBT tools for learning distress tolerance, but I went about it the old fashioned way: I forced myself to deal until I knew I could deal with it, which is contradictory to…
Be kind to yourself. Don’t make yourself do things that make you feel bad or uncomfortable. Let yourself off the hook for not getting one million things done, because the important things in life are not produced or nurtured by doing one million meaningless tasks each day.
Rant, but don’t whine. Chronic complaining just makes you feel worse. A nice, honest, cobweb-clearing rant can be just what the doctor ordered… especially as a path to letting go of (or shifting) those situations that make you feel rant-y.
Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself. You may or may not always enjoy family time, but even if you do, friends are important! Friends are people who nurture each other in ways that spouses, children, and co-workers cannot. You don’t need a lot of friends, but the happiest people have 3-5 intimate friendships. Conversely, spend zero minutes of your life with people who bring you down.
Spend time alone (without screens). Being able to sit with yourself and your thoughts is not only healthy, but it is a prerequisite for creativity… which makes you happy. If you can stop checking the Internet, that is.
Indulge in nature. This is a great source of happiness for me. Even if I don’t get out for many long hikes, enjoying the flowers, birds, trees, moss, snails, clouds, and mountains in my everyday life makes me happy. Stop and Instagram something beautiful for a quick dose of joy. It’s a great reminder of the pure wonder of having this consciousness and these senses, in such an unlikely universe.
Fix your thoughts. I can guarantee that many of your thoughts are inaccurate, if not abjectly false. You can easily think yourself into a corner of despair. Always question your thoughts, especially absolutes like, “no one likes me” or “everything sucks.” Always question your beliefs. You live in “your truth,” so recognize it, respect it, but remember that your truth is not the same thing as objective reality. Don’t believe something is The Truth just because it’s your thought. Apart from simple, non-controversial facts (2+2=4), most of our thoughts are subjective and heavily influenced by our personal experiences. Making rational decisions rather than reacting to irrational thoughts is the path to happy(ish).
Don’t take anything personally. This is my favorite of the Four Agreements. Most of the time people (including me and you) communicate from a position of self-interest, and almost everything we say is about ourselves. Even when someone is very directly insulting to you, what they are really saying is, “I hate myself” or “I hate how I feel right now.” Understanding that your feelings are not (and in fact cannot be) produced by others can help you be more empathetic and regulate your own emotions better.
Notice the good stuff. Bad things happen every day. They always have and they always will. Some are huge, horrible, and traumatic. Some are trivial but annoying. It’s easy to get absorbed by an unpleasant interaction at work, that pain your knee, whatever horrible violent act happened this week, or the fact that our ecosystem is collapsing and forget that lots of good things happen every day, too. Take the time to reflect on the good things, even the small ones, like a dish of gelato or a funny cat video.
Do things you enjoy. Duh. I always make time for things I like to do, including the much maligned activity of watching TV. There’s some really great TV, and I really enjoy watching it! I refuse to call anything a guilty pleasure, because pleasure is a vital element of life, whatever its source. The problems come when we get into OVERindulgence… which can decrease happiness real quick. A good binge-watch is therapeutic, though. In the realm of other things I enjoy: great food in unpretentious restaurants, long walks in unfamiliar cities, reading novels, writing, painting, swimming in cold lakes, hotel naps, photography and cocktails. And cocktail photography. Wait, is this a dating profile?
Play games. Doing things that require solving problems or puzzles can help you feel a sense of accomplishment, even if it is not real life accomplishment. This boosts self-esteem, keeps your mental faculties sharp, and improves mood. I don’t necessarily recommend uber-violent games, though. A little Monument Vally is a happiness-inducing way to pass the time. More so than the busywork we usually call productivity.
Keep learning. If I’m not learning something new I get bored. Reading, taking courses, watching documentaries and educational videos are some of the ways I keep my mind engaged and interested. Take an online coding course or learn a new language.
Find empathy. Hatred is a powerful toxin that will kill happiness, and can be rooted in a lack of empathy. For most of us the ability to truly connect with the feelings and actions of others (especially those who feel and act in ways we find hard to understand) takes a lot of practice. It’s a process that involves letting go of ego, which is a challenge for most people. It’s difficult to understand that even people who do terrible things truly believe that that are doing the right things, and believe they have no choice. It’s hard to wrap your head around, but terrible acts (like this week’s tragic shooting in Charleston) are what accepting irrational thoughts as The Truth can lead to. Empathy doesn’t mean you have to like everyone (or anyone), but rather it’s a way of bridging the rifts that lead to fear and hatred. Understand that developing empathy isn’t only for others’ benefit, it’s for your own.
Ask for what you want. Your spouse, your kids, your boss, your friends, the universe, and the mailman are all going to bring you joys and sorrows, whether you want them or not. Sometimes getting the thing you want (rather than a passel of things you don’t want) is as simple as asking. What you want may not be available, but it never hurts to ask. Asking also helps you to get clear with yourself about what you want.
Travel. Getting away from familiar surroundings and routines has a powerfully therapeutic effect. Push yourself to experience the unfamiliar. Learn about the history, peoples, and cultures of different places. Whenever I come back from a trip — even a short jaunt to Portland — I feel like I’ve hit the refresh button on my perspective. Even when travel is stressful or un-fun, I’m always a little bit happier for the experience. Investing in experiences is proven to make people happier, according to science.
Connect with stories. A “bad habit” I have is getting sucked into a book, TV show, or computer game and spending an entire day or more doing very little else. There’s something about spending so much time alone, doing “unproductive” things that sounds like it should make one unhappy (or at least lonely), but I actually find it soothing. I’ve discovered that I need to connect with stories as much as I need to connect with people. Stories are a big part of feeling connected to something larger than yourself.
Push your boundaries. The most satisfying accomplishments in life are the ones that you feel the most uncomfortable about attempting. I would not be who I am today without pushing myself to do uncomfortable or scary things… a lot. I wasn’t born (or raised) with the tools to be confident, but I have gained confidence by refusing to believe that there are things that I don’t have the guts or personality to do. There are plenty of things I don’t have the money, time, physical capability, or skills to do, but I’m not going to let lack of confidence be the barrier. If you don’t have the confidence, pretend you do. This actually works.
Question the system. While you’re questioning your own thoughts, take a moment to question the rationality of the system within which you function. Is it rational? Is our healthcare system rational? Is the economic gap rational? Is our obsession with individual car ownership rational? Is the fact that 80%+ of working people don’t want to go to work in the morning but go anyway rational? I’d say no. But none of this will change until we all begin to question and reject the status quo.
Be a futurist. Now that we’ve established that you, me, and all of humanity are irrational (possibly even delusional), imagine a better way to live. Are there changes that you could make now to start building that future? Imagine living a life that feels meaningful and connected to all the things that make you truly happy. Ask “what if?” and you may see new possibilities open up.