It would be tough to argue that anything occupies a larger portion of our conscious “think time” than an endless quest for happiness. And yet, despite this being the ostensible end goal for just about everything we do, we sure spend a lot of time … well … not feeling terribly happy.
Are we bad at happiness? Actually? Yes. We sort of are. But it’s more complicated than that, of course.There are two big fallacies about happiness, and letting go of both of them will allow you to embrace your sunnier nature—and enjoy life a little. What do you have to lose besides that whole “misery” thing?
It’s not always that we’re “bad” at being happy. It’s that we’re frequently bad at accurately predicting what will make us happy.
I’ve read numerous happiness studies which support this point (including, but not limited to the book, Stumbling Upon Happiness) some of which cite statistics and anecdotes about lottery winners, models and movie stars, and others who should theoretically be so hopped up on natural beauty/money/fame bliss that they walk around in a perpetual cloud of joy that mere mortals can’t even wrap their sad, delight-deprived minds around.
Except … that’s not the case. Rich people, beautiful people, and famous people may have lives that “stand out” more on E! True Hollywood Story, but they aren’t happier than the rest of us. In fact, if you’ve ever watched such a program, you’ve probably thought, “Dear God, thank you for not making me rich, gorgeous, and well-known.”
Or maybe you haven’t. And it’s certainly a cliché that cash, looks, and constant paparazzi doesn’t lead you to the temple of contentment. But the extreme examples serve to highlight that we really do place a disproportionate importance on those three, in slightly less dramatic forms—our jobs, our sex appeal, or popularity. So we mindlessly toil away without thinking, or worse, strive toward goals which we confuse with happiness. After all, many of us forget—or never learned in the first place—what really makes us content.
As my friend, Tim Ferriss, writes in his bestselling business book, The 4 Hour Work Week, we’re all too quick to “postpone the intense self-examination and decision-making necessary to create a life of enjoyment.” What do we do instead? Distract ourselves with the idea that more money (or losing weight, or getting married) will make us happy.
So what’s the fastest way to really—really—figure out what makes you a happy camper?
Start a list. (Groan) I know, I know. Another list, just what you need. But seriously. You make excruciatingly detailed lists for the grocery store, the IRS, and your wedding. The least you could do is write down a few things that led directly to joy on your part. None of this “the end justifies the means” stuff (you’re not allowed to write anything that “might one day” make you happy. It has to create contentment right then and there.)
And stop with the big things. “My apartment” is too … vague. “My boyfriend” is too general. What about your apartment makes you happy? The way the light streams through the windows at 7:30 a.m.? The fact that you can’t hear your neighbors—ever? Your tiny little balcony, on which you fell asleep last Saturday night, on a blanket, because no chairs fit out there? That’s the sort of thing you should write down.
If you get stuck, think of this very cheesy reminder—Maria in The Sound of Music, singing about “her favorite things.” It seems a bit juvenile, but I promise, as you write down the silly little pieces of life that truly make you happy, I bet you’ll realize you’re happier than you think. And as you do, you’ll begin to notice that happiness is a choice—and it’s a positive feedback loop. As you choose to see the little things that bring you joy, you’ll start to see more of them, which will in turn, make you happier.
I remember reading somewhere that “happiness requires cultivation.” Take the time to cultivate your happiness. After all, what could be more important than that?