Almost every action we take in life is aimed at achieving or maintaining “happiness”—that elusive state where we feel contentment, satisfaction, and even bliss.
Still, happiness can be a bit hard to define. Unhappiness, on the other hand, is easy to identify; you know it when you see it, and you definitely know when it’s taken ahold of you.
Happiness has much less to do with life circumstances than you might think. A University of Illinois study found that people who earn the most (more than $10 million annually) are only a smidge happier than the average Joes and Janes who work for them.
Life circumstances have little to do with happiness because much happiness is under your control—the product of your habits and your outlook on life. Psychologists from the University of California who study happiness found that genetics and life circumstances only account for about 50% of a person’s happiness. The rest is up to you.
Unhappiness can catch you by surprise. So much of your happiness is determined by your habits (in thought and deed) that you have to monitor them closely to make certain that bad habits don’t drag you down into the abyss.
Some habits lead to unhappiness more than others do. These traps are easily avoided once you’re aware of them.
1. Holding your feelings in. One of the great misconceptions concerning emotional intelligence (EQ) is that it is about repressing our feelings and holding them in. While it is true there are feelings that high EQ individuals do not allow to erupt on impulse, that does not mean those feelings are not expressed. Emotional intelligence means honoring your feelings and allowing yourself to experience the catharsis that comes from embracing them for what they are. Only then can you express them in a manner that helps rather than hinders your ability to reach your goals.
2. Numbing yourself with technology. Everyone deserves the opportunity to binge-watch a TV show now and then or to switch on your Kindle and get lost in a book. The real question is how much time you spend plugged in (to video games, the TV, the tablet, the computer, the phone, etc.) and whether it makes you feel good or simply makes you numb. When your escape becomes a constant source of distraction, it is a sure sign you have fallen into the trap of too much of a good thing.
3. Spending too much time and effort acquiring “things.” People living in extreme poverty experience a significant increase in happiness when their financial circumstances improve, but it drops off quickly above $20,000 in annual income. There’s an ocean of research that shows that material things don’t make you happy. When you make a habit of chasing things, you are likely to become unhappy because, beyond the disappointment you experience once you get them, you discover that you’ve gained them at the expense of the real things that can make you happy, such as friends, family, and hobbies.
4. Waiting for the future. Telling yourself, “I’ll be happy when …” is one of the easiest unhappy habits to fall into. How you end the statement doesn’t really matter (it might be a promotion, more pay, or a new relationship) because it puts too much emphasis on circumstances, and improved circumstances don’t lead to happiness. Don’t spend your time waiting for something that’s proven to have no effect on your mood. Instead focus on being happy right now, in the present moment, because there’s no guarantee of the future.
5. Fighting change. Change is an inevitable part of life, and those who fight it do so because they are struggling to remain in control. The problem with this approach is that fighting change actually limits your control over the situation by putting up a barrier between yourself and the actions you need to take to improve your situation.
The idea here is to prepare for change. This is not a guessing game where you test your accuracy in anticipating what comes next, but rather it means thinking through the consequences of potential changes so that you are not caught off guard if they surface. The first step is to admit that even the most stable and trusted facets of your life are not completely under your control. People change, businesses go through ebbs and flows, and things simply do not stay the same for long. When you allow yourself to anticipate change—and understand your options if changes occur—you prevent yourself from getting bogged down by strong emotions like shock, surprise, fear, and disappointment when changes actually happen. While you are still likely to experience these negative emotions, your acceptance that change is an inevitable part of life enables y to focus and think rationally, which is critical to making the most out of an unlikely, unwanted, or otherwise unforeseen situation.
6. Pessimism. Nothing fuels unhappiness quite like pessimism. The problem with a pessimistic attitude, beyond it being hard on your mood, is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you expect bad things, you’re more likely to get bad things. Pessimistic thoughts are hard to shake off until you recognize how illogical they are. Force yourself to look at the facts, and you’ll see that things are not nearly as bad as they seem.
7. Trying to keep up with the Joneses. Jealousy and envy are incompatible with happiness, so if you’re constantly comparing yourself with others, it’s time to stop. In one study, most subjects said that they’d be okay with making less money, but only if everybody else did too. Be wary of this kind of thinking as it won’t make you happy and, more often than not, has the opposite effect.
8. Not improving. Because unhappy people are pessimists and feel a lack of control over their lives, they tend to sit back and wait for life to happen to them. Instead of setting goals, learning, and improving themselves, they just keep plodding along, and then they wonder why things never change. Don’t let this be you.
9. Staying home. When you feel unhappy, it’s tempting to avoid other people. This is a huge mistake as socializing, even when you don’t enjoy it, is great for your mood. We all have those days when we just want to pull the covers over our heads and refuse to talk to anybody, but understand that the moment this becomes a tendency, it destroys your mood. Recognize when unhappiness is making you antisocial, force yourself to get out there and mingle, and you’ll notice the difference right away.
Changing your habits in the name of greater happiness is one of the best things that you can do for yourself. But it’s also important for another reason—taking control of your happiness makes everyone around you happier too.
What do you do to make yourself happy? Please share your thoughts in the comments section, as I learn just as much from you as you do from me.
If you’d like to learn more, my book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is a great place to start.