We all want to be happier, but how? What is happiness? And is it something we should be looking for?
In this week’s blog and podcast, I talk with NY Times bestselling author and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin about what happiness is and what it isn’t, how we can be happier right now, and how we can manage our day-to-day anxieties in ways that bring more joy and excitement to our lives.
First off, it is important to recognize that we define our own happiness. There is no way of being happy; what makes some people happy may stress other people out, and what may bring joy to one person may give someone else anxiety. There is no rule book when it comes to happiness, as it is not a consumer product that can be bought or sold. We all have to find our own happiness project, based on our unique nature, temperament, interests and so on.
However, although happiness is a subjective experience, there are some common factors that define a happy and meaningful life:
1. Chief among these is the power of human relationship: we function best, and we are most happy, when we feel like we belong—when are connected to others in a meaningful way. Of course, this can look different for everyone; someone may find that having one good friend is enough, and another person may need a large social circle.
Nevertheless, we all need to make time for relationships. This is not always easy, but there are ways of making it fun, like planning one big family vacation a year as a family, especially if you all live in different areas and states. Making a plan to invest time and energy into the relationships you value is essential. Yes, your plans can be flexible, because like happens, but if you avoid making any plans at all you can fall prey to decision fatigue, and get caught up in the daily busyness of life.
Don’t let the urgent drive out the important! Although you may have a ton of emails to do or an event in two days, don’t let this stop you from reaching out and connecting with your family and friends, even if this is just a quick phone call or coffee date. There will always be things to do, but making time for relationships is incredibly important for both your mental and physical health.
2. In many cases, we know what we want to do, or what we should do, but we fail to form the habits that we need to change our lives. Happiness is often a problem of execution: how you actually do the things that make you happy, and stop doing the things that make you unhappy?
When it comes to forming good habits, two keys factors should be taken into consideration: convenience and inconvenience. If you want to implement a good habit, try make it more convenient for you, even if this means it requires just a little bit less effort. For example, although the gym 5 miles from your work may be cheaper, it may be better to join the gym right across from your work, even if it is pricier. Likewise, make things you don’t want to do more inconvenient, like putting your phone upstairs in a draw during dinner time, making it that much harder to get and use when you are eating with your loved ones.
If you want to establish good habits, you may also find it helpful to practice pairing: doing something you like with something you ought to do. For example, if you battle exercising, make a plan to listen to your favorite podcast or audiobook only when you are working out. Make it a fun experience!
But what happens when you feel overwhelmed with stress and anxiety? What do you do if worry, not happiness, dominates your thinking?
- Write down your thoughts: this helps the brain organize chaotic thinking patterns, especially before bed, changing the frequency in the brain and calming you down. This, in turn, helps you feel like you have some control over the situation,
- Schedule in time to worry: this can be anytime of the week, and helps you focus on the task at hand or what you need to get done because you know you will have time to worry about “it” later—you don’t have to think about it and figure it out right now.
- Take action: as Gretchen notes, action is the antidote to anxiety; it helps your focus on how you can take some kind of action to improve the situation instead of just ruminating on it.
- Find a distraction: sometimes, distractions can be a good thing! If used mindfully, they can give your brain a much-needed break, like reading your favorite novel or watching your favorite TV show. Moreover, when you do return to the problem at hand, you will do so with more clarity and energy, which will help you feel less anxious about the situation.
- Don’t catastrophize! Sometimes, it is all too easy for us to imagine the worst-case scenario; that person didn’t text us back because they are angry with us, for example, instead of thinking that they may just be busy or have a family emergency. This is why it is important to try to be realistic, and give other people grace and time. Even though we often think we know what someone is thinking, we don’t, even if we know someone well!
- Identify the problem: use the signals of worry and anxiety to identify what may be going wrong in your life, and get to the root of the issue so you can start fixing it. Don’t be vague; for instance, don’t just say “work is tough”. Ask yourself why: why is work stressful? Is it the commute? Your boss? Your sense of purpose? Your colleagues? My new app SWITCH is a great tool for helping people deal with the root of their issues and overcome stressful thought patterns and behaviors through the mental process of reconceptualization, that is facing and dealing with what is causing them pain and unease, before it takes over their lives.
- Start tracking: if you are worried about something, keep track of it over time, especially if this is something physical. This will help you feel like you have some control over the situation and are figuring out how to deal with it.
- Stay focused by reading: reading a good book can be incredibly therapeutic! Not only does it build the brain, increasing your stress resilience, but it can be a very enjoyable and happy experience. Visiting a library is a great place to start, and having a deadline to return the book will encourage you to actually read it, instead of just forgetting about it next to your bed or on your coffee table. It is also important to read books that interest you, not just books you think you should read, as you are far less likely to finish it—always have one of these around in case you get stuck in a line or are waiting for an appointment! It may even be a good idea to schedule in time to read books you love or have been wanting to read; make it a fun experience you can look forward to during the day. And if you find a book boring, stop reading it and start another! Life is too short to read books you don’t want to read.
- Avoid drift: drift really means deciding without deciding, or following the path of least resistance in life. This is not necessarily something lazy, but rather something that comes about because of uncertainty. For instance, someone may become a doctor or lawyer because their parents are doctors or lawyers—this is what they have known their whole life, but not necessarily something that they want. In many cases, this leads to stress, anxiety and burnout, because they are not being true to what they want, or not giving themselves the time to explore their interests and desires. Yes, sometimes it works out: the person in question may end up enjoying the path they chose. However, more often than not, these people are very unhappy—meeting someone else’s idea of who we should be is never satisfying.
- Allow yourself to be surprised: never stop learning, or being curious. Indeed, if nothing is unexpected, then you are not really paying attention to what is going on! So, always ask questions and explore, because surprise can be a pleasurable and happy experience—it is part and parcel of life. You never know what you may learn, or what you may come to love!
For more information on happiness and mental health, and more tips on how to control anxiety and be happier, listen to my podcast with Gretchen Rubin (episode #130), check out her website, her excellent podcast, her Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, and her bestselling books, including The Happiness Project.
Podcast Time Highlights:
5:24 Gretchen Rubin’s background
6:54 What is happiness? And myths about happiness
7:51 Why we all have to figure out our own happiness project
10:00 The importance of relationships
14:02 Common barriers to happiness
21:42 How to form healthy habits
25:41 Anxiety and stress busting tips
39:55 How to stay focused and get more reading done
45:30 What drifting is and how to stop being a "drifter"
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