We are all looking for happiness in our own way. For some, this is an effortless pursuit. For others, it can seem like a daunting task. There are so many things in this world that rob us of happiness, and there are so many people who want to tell us what will make us happy. Here is the cold, hard truth: nobody can tell you how to be happy. We can give you insights into why you might be unhappy. We can share our truths and you can measure your life to those truths to see what overlaps, but ultimately we are responsible for our own happiness.
But this article isn’t about that. It’s about the things that can rob us of happiness. You see, happiness is often like a boat. If you keep it afloat, it will take you to epic places. But if your boat has a hole in it, the waters will start leaking in and eventually sink under the weight. Life can be a bitch sometimes. There’s no avoiding pain, but there are ways to cope with it. The following is more about the things that rob us of happiness. It’s a call to stop looking in the wrong places for happiness.
The Obvious Answer: You can’t Buy Happiness
This is one of those things that have been so rammed down our throats in pop culture that I actually debated whether I wanted to include it in this article. I think most of us realize this in the obvious way: that if we choose the pursuit of money over everything else, we are likely to be miserable people. There are countless examples of rich people who have shared their stories of being rich but still not being happy.
Studies also show that there is a plateau for what salary makes us happy, and that salary is around $75,000 a year. Basically, if you make below that, your salary has the potential to affect your happiness in a real, measurable way. However, once your reach that salary, studies show that happiness metrics do not increase in any significant way beyond it.
There are, however, subtle ways that we still choose money over happiness. You don’t have to be chasing riches or be freakishly addicted to the stock market to let money dominate you. Here’s a hard question: how many of you are working a job you hate just to put food on the table? If you are one of those people, I get it. I was there once as well. There’s no criticism for the person who does what they have to do to feed their family.
Let me ask you the even harder question: what are you doing to change that? What would it take for you to do the thing you love? If the first thing that comes to your mind is something like “well, I can’t just up and quit my job, I have a family to feed” or “it’s too late because ____,” then you are just coming up with excuses. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth.
When I was an Engineer, I was miserable with my job. I loved the people I worked with (most of them anyway). It was a good paying job. I had benefits and vacation and sick days. For all intents and purposes, I had no reason to complain. And that was the excuse I gave myself every time I thought of doing something else. I felt trapped. I had kids to support. I had bills to pay. And no matter how much I thought about it, I couldn’t think of a way out. Until the day I did.
Understand that just because you can’t see a clear path, does not mean there is none. Let me repeat that and bold it: just because you can’t see a clear path, does not mean there is none. Sometimes you need some time to shake loose your preconceptions of how things must go before you can see a clear path forward. Just know that when you are searching for happiness, you won’t find it in unfulfilling work no matter how hard you try.
The Less Obvious Answer: You can’t win Happiness
We live in a competitive society, so when someone tells you to stop looking for happiness in competition, it may come across as trite. A lot of people define themselves through competition, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a path to happiness. I think that many feel that if they can win at whatever they are doing, it will bring them happiness.
Let’s make this very clear: happiness is not something to be won. It’s not something you pursue or catch. It’s not something that is elusive or slippery (thought it often feels that way). There’s only one true source of happiness: choice. Happiness is a choice you make on an internal level. It’s rooted in your perception of life. If you can change your perception of how life is occurring for you, you can make a decision to be happy.
We often reject the simplicity of that message because it doesn’t seem like it should be that easy. I have many students who do well with problems that have a clear, defined process (even if the process is difficult or long) and then stumble over the easiest problems. We feel that if we don’t have to do a lot of work to solve a problem, we must be doing something wrong. This feeling runs deep, and it’s at the core of our psychology. You may not see a way to happiness, because there is no “way to happiness.” Happiness can come to you in the instant you decide to change your perspective.
CHANGE YOUR MIND
I just violated your expectations. When you started this article, you were probably expecting anywhere from three to five headings/points. As you read the article, you started to see a pattern in the way I was making the headings. First, they are all aligned to the left. Second, I started a pattern of “most obvious, less obvious, etc.” Finally, you were expecting another nugget of simple wisdom.
I did this on purpose to show you just how automatic our expectations run under the surface. You were forming expectations and you probably didn’t even realize it until I jolted you out of it with something out of the ordinary. We do this ALL THE TIME. If you were aware of how much of your happiness you place on the expectation of a pattern in your life, you’d probably be speechless.
I was just talking about this recently when the reviews for the Justice League movie came rolling out. If you read the comments on social media from the fans, you’ll hear a similar tune to all of them: the movie is better than they expected, but it had flaws and that a movie like this is supposed to be EPIC. So many expectations packed into one little movie. I explained that this is the problem the DCEU is facing: unreasonable expectations. If you took these movies and released them back in, say, 2006 (before Marvel started rolling their movies out), you’d get a completely different critical reaction to them.
That’s just an illustration of one way people have their expectations twisted. We do this in every area of our lives and it’s so automatic that we don’t even notice it. I’m asking you to notice it now. To pay attention to the things that make you unhappy and see if you aren’t carrying around an expectation for how these things should be. The obstacles to happiness are littered with unreasonable expectations and twisted perceptions. Trying changing yours today.