When it comes to finding happiness, the usual approach is to find ways to achieve that goal. Of course, it is intuitively the logical angle, but is it really? I am asking the question because most people either look for or offer “recipes”. Considering the amount of books, methods and “gurus” of all sorts, one would think that everybody would be happy by now. Unfortunately, the ways to find happiness are very similar in their outcome as the many diets promising you to lose weight. Only a lucky few succeed. One of my favorite ways of dealing with impasses is to turn the issue around and ask why it does not work. If it is difficult to find an effective method to be happy, maybe it is better to remove all the clutter first and look at what hinders you from being happy. It is interesting to move away from “How can I be happy?” to “Why am I not happy?” There are many kinds of reasons for that and many of them are sheer happiness killers. Let’s review here a number of them, in no particular order.
There has to be a reason why envy is listed as one of the seven deadly sins. It just makes those suffering of it plain miserable. Wanting the same as what others have is not bringing you happiness if it is not really what you want or need. At best, it can bring some temporary satisfaction or relief, but then there is always something else coming in the picture creating desire and therefore frustration. Happiness is a very personal matter. What makes you happy is not what make others happy. Keeping up with the Joneses or following the herd is actually is major case of self negligence. No wonder that envy is always in the way of genuine happiness. It can also get people in trouble. How many people spend more than they should and get themselves in financial trouble and stress just to have things that does not deliver what they are supposed to? That even adds to the unhappiness.
What a powerful thing is an ego! The problem is that the bigger it is, the more it obstructs the path to happiness. There is nothing like a bit of overblown pride to thwart happiness. Instead of being open to positive change and help, ego will actually cause more blindness and resistance to improvement, and for what? Of course, ego makes some people achieve a lot in their lives, although often it is more about fighting the acceptance of their own insecurities. What better example of this than Orange POTUS #45 (aka Trump), constantly erring in denial, anger and bargaining to fight old demons and refuse reality because it is too scary. You can become the supposedly most powerful person on Earth and yet be insecure, scared and miserable as hell. It is up to you if you wish your ego to stand in the way to happiness.
This is a side effect of envy. If the purpose is to keep up, then you are actually only busy putting up a show. It is not so much about substance as it is about appearance, and let’s face it whether you realize it or not, unconsciously you know that you are only busy filling a big vacuum. And instead of filling it with substance, you are only filling it with hot air. Then, it keeps feeling empty and that is why it feels unhappy. As the term says it, self-esteem is about self. Your self-esteem is about you. If you let the outside world define how you should be and what you should do, there will be little hope to be truly happy. Happiness is personal and you are the only one who knows what is good for you. Nobody else does. There you have it, do what you enjoy doing. Do what makes you happy. There is a reason why this works. Because when you do what makes you happy, your serotonin level gets a boost and that feels great. Neurologists have discovered a long time ago that creatures (not just humans) are always coming back for what gives them pleasure and always try to avoid what they feels as unpleasant.
Doing something you don’t like
Beyond the fact that doing something you don’t like is no fun and clearly won’t make you happy, it is also often a serious source of stress. This is particularly true when it comes to work. Having to go day after day to a place that you dread and resent cannot be good for you. Unfortunately, there are so many people who live this life. Stress is bad for the health, both mental and physical as the two really go hand in hand. How many people just choose for the slow death, somehow thinking that this is the way life is and/or because they fear the alternative. As the saying goes, better the devil you know than the one you don’t. The only problem with this approach is that the devil you know is just that: the devil, and generally speaking it is not a happy company. The solution here is to dare changing your life and that is scary.
Fear of changing something and fear of failure
It is just stating the obvious, but it is true: fear is scary. Fear is paralyzing, too. It is actually what happens in the wild. Fear is a defense mechanism. In that sense, it is a good thing, but the problem is that it is so only if there is real and actual danger. Fear of the unknown is a bit different. The unknown can be scary but it does not mean that it is dangerous. It can be or at least feel risky. There is a chance to take but what is the alternative? Waiting for death? Perhaps, it makes more sense to feel alive, though. Life is about taking chances. When applying for a job, there is the possibility to not get the position. When feeling attracted to someone, there is the possibility to be rejected. But there is always the possibility to get the job and to find love. The only way to know if you can swim is to go in the water. That is scary, too, but it is life. It always comes down to one simple question: “What would you do if you could not fail?” Answer that question and then go for it. If you still feel scared, just realise that there will always be more opportunities later anyway. You might trip on this one attempt, but you just get back on your feet and try again. The only true failure is to not try. The thing with trying is that after a few attempts, it kind of becomes fun to do, although every time there will be that uneasy feeling in your stomach, but that is part of the excitement!
Taking things too seriously, lack of humour
What comes to mind when you think happiness? To me, it would be smile and laughter. Happiness, unlike stress, makes you relax, and when you relax, you smile. In my opinion, it is just that simple. So don’t take things too seriously, after all in the grand scheme of things, everything can be put into a different perspective, to some extent. A good example of that is the song from Monty Python’s movie, The Life of Brian. We come with nothing; we leave with nothing; so we lose nothing. The movie also shows how dangerous and nutty people who take things very seriously can get. Just look around in the world. All the fascists, fanatics and extremists all share one characteristic: they haven’t got much sense of humour, and they tend to kill those who do. The same thing can be noticed with social media and the online shaming and lynching by the digital crusaders and other puritans, aka keyboard warriors. Actually, what do they have in common with their aggressive and intolerant behaviour? Just think about it for a few moments. Here is the answer: they are all very unhappy, probably mostly about their own shortcomings and failures, and they translate that hate of their lives into the hate of those who they think have managed to have it better than they do. What is that word already? Oh yes: envy. Let’s face it; there is no happiness without laughter and humour. Humour is actually a defusing mechanism. It helps us deal with absurdity and impasses by turning a situation into what ridicule it contains. Humour is a way to blow some steam without violence. We have another way to deal with absurdity and frustration and that is a much less pleasant one than telling a joke. The other way is violence. It is also a very natural way of dealing with frustration. It liberates energy and makes the perpetrator feel good. Of course, it is an unacceptable way of dealing with conflict, but it exists and we must not be naïve about it. Just see the rate of domestic violence that has taken place during the Covid-19 lockdowns to see my point. Humour and laughter make people feel good and it has lasting power. Opposite to that, violence does neither. It does not make others feels good and it has no lasting power for the perpetrator’s satisfaction.
Taking things personally
Slightly on the side of the previous point, also about my point on ego, but also about taking things seriously, is to think that everything that happens is about you. Wouldn’t that be wonderful if the entire universe revolved around that one so very special person? It probably would, but it just does not, so let’s get over it and have more humility! At the beginning of my career, I remember a sign that was posted at the door of the mail room of the company where I worked. It was humour, you know, the stuff that makes happy. It said “Do not come here to talk about you, we do plenty of that when you are not around”. I found that was quite funny, and actually very true, as people are people and you can be sure they will judge you, whatever you do. The thing about taking things personally is that it makes you become oversensitive to what happens. I don’t think that there has ever been anyone who has had nothing bad happening to him or her in life. That is the way it goes. We all experience setbacks and disappointments. There are always moments that feel unfair and make us sad and/or angry. That is life. As Nietzsche said “what does not kill you makes you stronger”. That is very true. We do become stronger from those events. We do not really grow from comfort and an easy life. We grow from learning and we learn best from when it is tough. So, it is better to find ways of growing a thicker skin because it helps dealing with disappointments and setbacks much better, and that then leads to a much better ability to find happiness.
Too high standards and expectations
Here is a real killer: aiming for the unattainable! There is no better way to be disappointed than to set the bar too high, because whatever we try and do, we always fail, and the others always fail us. This is the perfect recipe for an everything-sucks state of mind. Let’s think a little here. Is it possible to get some happiness for a self-inflicted world of every sucking? You know the answer as well as I do and I will not elaborate any further. Just adjust your standards and expectations to something realistic. First, who might one be to think that they can set standards to others? If they do not like the people in their lives, they should just go look for some other ones. Also, be cautious about being too demanding, as the result is that others will walk away from you and you might end up alone, and that does not make anyone happy. But adjusting expectations and standards does not mean not having ambitious ones; it is good to have ambition in life. It gives motivation and a sense of purpose. Achieving a better life always increase happiness. It is just that you must aim at ambitious goals but they also must be realistic. Here, realistic is of the essence because as the word says it, it is about reality. Living outside of reality to eventually discover that it is a mistake is a good way to kill happiness.
Negativity, being judgemental
Here is a side effect of unrealistic expectations and considering oneself as the universal standard. We all do some of that at some point and we are all the target of some judgement by others at some point, too. I am not going to set unrealistic standards to human nature and say we should never be negative or judgmental. I would be disappointed and that could make me bitter. Like all things in life, it is a matter of moderation. The negativity that comes from the everything-sucks perception of one’s world is simply destructive. It is a spiral nobody should enter and that anyone stuck in it needs to get out as soon as possible. It is not easy because those suffering from chronic negativity find some sort of a masochistic pleasure in it. It is a great way to deflect one’s own unhappiness on others. After all, everything is the others’ fault. Negativity morphs into victimization –even martyrdom- and self-pitying. Good luck to ever be happy with that! The same thing applies about being judgemental. It really is about comparing oneself with others. It is in a way another manifestation of envy and ego. The problem with comparing is that by doing so, we lose the focus of finding happiness, which is always inside of us, and try to define ourselves relatively to others, which never provides happiness, because our own happiness does not live in other people’s lives.
Not enough communication
Last but not least on this list, communication is of such importance in life in general and happiness in particular. Communication feels good. It is a way of sharing one’s own burden with others, which makes it lighter to bear. Communication also helps others doing the same with us and it gives us a good feeling to help others, especially our loved ones. Communication is the only way we have to solve problems. If we keep our problems inside, how can we or anyone else solve them? Getting input from others and from a different and more objective perspective is quite useful to overcome setbacks and get back on our feet. If we do not do that, there is no way to improve, to learn and to move forward. Without communication, a person is stuck and we all know that this feeling is not conducive for happiness. Nothing is so important that it cannot be addressed and solved. Communication is the way to resolve and avoid conflicts from turning into destructive behaviour. Sadly, too many people suffer from a lack of communication and that is why they decide for alternatives with negative consequences, in which happiness cannot even find its way in. Communicate, and especially listen! This is the greatest gift you can do to another human being.
Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.