Photo by L’Enfant Terrible
By Alex Fayle
In my last post on The Change Blog, I talked about disconnecting your happiness from others – how when you depend on others for your happiness you only make yourself (and others) more unhappy. Instead, I said, you need to find happiness within.
Easier said than done though, I know. To find happiness within, you can go to coaches, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, therapists, or any other number of happiness professionals. You can read books, blogs, or magazines, watch TV shows and DVDs or listen to the radio, podcasts or self-improvement CDs.
And yet when it comes down to it, there are only two things you need to remember if you want to be happy.
- It’s not about you, so check the ego at the door.
- Whatever you do, do it because you choose to.
It’s not about you
This is easy-sounding advice but probably one of the hardest things to actually implement. Human beings seem to be biologically programmed to think everything has something to do with them.
An earthquake hits their house? A direct attack on their happiness.
A friend says something thoughtless and hurtful? An unfair and gratuitous attack and not because the friend has a splitting headache and has been dealing with a malfunctioning computer all day long.
A loved one does something that’s reminiscent of something that caused pain in the past? How dare the loved one bring up such hurtful memories!
When we make things all about us and don’t check our ego at the door, we shut out the world and yet at the same time expect everyone to consider our feelings, our needs and our emotional baggage before their own. We let pride cause us to react negatively and we let the past overly influence our responses to present situations.
Let’s look at a (fictional) example:
Let’s say I’ve let my partner use my laptop. I don’t like to run the computer on AC power with the battery plugged in just in case the battery has a “memory” — I want to maintain the life of the battery as long as I can. I’ve explained this to my partner and yet one day I come into the room and see that he’s running the computer off AC power and has the battery plugged in as well.
I get angry and express my anger. My partner reacts by saying “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you meant once the battery was fully charged. I was planning on unplugging it once it reached a 100% charge.”
Instead of accepting this explanation, I let pride and ego get in the way and stay angry for several hours, with thoughts like “how stupid could he be?” and “but I explained it to him!” running through my head. In fact, he reminds me of an ex who never listened either and always did the opposite of what I ask.
Plus my partner is now upset because he’s sorry that he misunderstood and angry because I’ve refused to accept his explanation.
Our day is now totally ruined.
If you find yourself in situations like this, before ruining your day (and that of others) ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this a purposeful attack on me or a misunderstanding?
- Why am I really upset?
- Can I change what’s going on?
In the above example, if I had made an effort to hear my partner I would have quickly realized that although his misunderstanding was frustrating, it wasn’t a personal attack or wanton negligence. As well with a little self-reflection, I would have realized that my anger actually has little to do with the current situation and more to do with my own feelings of people not listening to or following my wishes. Again, since the current situation was a misunderstanding, it has nothing to do with the past.
Finally, can I change the situation? In this case yes. If I don’t think my partner will use the computer in the way I wish it to be used, I can ask that he not use it in the future.
By disconnecting myself and my feelings of hurt and frustration from the situation, I can deal with the issue quickly, find a resolution and go back to being happy.
As long as I remember that except for very rare situations with highly negative people, potentially upsetting situations are most of the time only misunderstandings and not personal attacks, then I don’t have to let them ruin my day.
Even in the rare situations where someone is purposefully trying to hurt you, if you remember that it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with that person’s own emotional baggage then whatever he or she tosses our way has no lasting effect on our happiness.
Choose what you do
So that takes care of the actions of others. We now won’t let what other people do affect our own happiness. But what about our own actions? Many people pass through life doing things they hate and tell themselves they have to do them or that they have no choice.
And for some, unfortunately that is the case. People who do not have their basic needs met on a regular basis (i.e., food, shelter and basic security – the first two levels of Maslow’s human hierarchy of needs pyramid) often have to make difficult choices between various shades of unhappiness.
For many people however, everything they do is a choice and if they are unhappy about their choices, often one of three things is getting in the way:
People who live with a sense of obligation are always saying “I should do this” rather than “I want to” or “I choose to.” They feel that the world judge their actions and that they need to conform to some outside view of what is proper and right. They bury their dreams and desires and live to someone else’s code of behavior (often completely imagined).
Others live in the future instead of the present. They have certain goals that they expect to reach (often highly colored by what others supposedly want them to do) and pay no attention to how they feel in the moment. Yes, sometimes to reach a goal we end up doing things that don’t totally thrill us, but if we’re reaching for a goal whose path is loathsome, then why head in that direction?
Then there’s a third group of people who live on autopilot letting situations decide their actions or blindly follow what other people tell them to do without questioning whether it’s right for them. People who live this way are often unhappy but don’t know why they’re unhappy, which makes sense because if they’re sleepwalking through life they’re not going to be paying my attention to their emotions either.
Fortunately this type of unhappiness is relatively easy to cure. It starts by living consciously and being aware of our actions. If necessary we can log our days and our decisions, noting how we feel about each action. By doing so we force ourselves to be aware of every action and every choice we make. We also become aware of the scripts that run through our head as we do things.
For example, I always used to find myself really cranky after hanging up the laundry to dry. For no clear reason, every time I hung the laundry I had formed the habit of letting all the little annoying things about my day, my partner and my business run through my head as I hung the clothes on the line. Understandably I therefore hated hanging the laundry. By paying attention to what I was doing and thinking I changed the habit and now make an effort to think about positive things and I no longer hate hanging the laundry.
The first two types of unhappiness – obligation and expectations – are a little more complicated and require more in depth examination of our motives and desires.
In Spanish there are two ways of asking “why” – one which looks back at reasons (por qué) and one that looks forward at intention (para qué).
When we ask ourselves por qué, we look back at the things that have brought us to the action. For example, before starting my own business, I tried to fit into the nine-to-five office world even though it made me miserable. By asking myself por qué I learned that I was doing so because I thought that’s what a responsible adult did – work and earn money to buy things even if you’re not happy.
Then when I asked myself para qué – what for? what desire was I chasing? – I had no answer. That was when I decided to get out and follow my dreams.
And even though the life of an entrepreneur is hard at times, I’m much (much!) happier.
Now, because I live my life consciously, aware of my actions, and because I ask myself why and what for (reasons and desires), I make decisions and choices on a daily basis that add to my happiness – which comes 100% from within me and doesn’t depend on anyone else.
To finish off, let’s talk a bit about resources.
Everyone has their favorite short cuts to happiness, whether it’s dancing in the living room, getting together with friends, or curling up with a book. If you want some proven ways to make yourself happier, there are a huge number of books and websites available.
I’ve included here my Top Four resources (in no particular order).:
- The Comfort Trap by Judith Sills
- Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
- 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman
- The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (book in pre-order but the blog offers a lot of great tips)