Habits for a Happier Life
Recently, I found myself in a funk for a month or two. I don’t want to go all James Altucher and turn this blog into a parade of failures and fears, but I think it’s important to take a look behind the curtain of the generally positive tone I keep here. So, as you read the tips below, keep in mind that they’re coming from someone who needs them.
As you know, I like to have clear definitions before talking about fuzzy topics, so let’s define happiness. I like Shawn Achor’s approach: a happy person believes their actions can impact the world around them, they are a “rational optimist”. Happiness is not the same as pleasure and it’s not something anybody feels constantly. It’s a choice and it takes work. Some people appear to be predisposed to be happier and most people appear to have a baseline level of happiness that they return to after major events like winning the lottery or suffering an accident. So, that means that happiness is a state of belief that your actions can change the world around you, which you can tweak from a likely starting level, and we can count on it to be interrupted by sadness, fear, anger, and everything else.
Happiness research brings us two pieces of good news. First off, it turns out that being a rational optimist improves outcomes on just about every external and internal success metric we have. Secondly, while you may be predisposed to certain default amounts of optimism, certain behaviors can move the needle and change your default level of happiness. Taken together, we’re not stuck based on shitty genes or a bad upbringing: we can be happier with the right habits, and that will make us more successful, creating a virtuous cycle.
Quick aside: none of this is medical or psychiatric advice, as I am not a doctor of any sort - please do not stop or alter any treatment plans you’re following based on reading this - bloggers are a bad choice for medical advice.
What do these happiness boosting behaviors look like? First, we have to deal with unhappiness. As the old saying goes “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” So, before you can start working on being happy, remove or mitigate any clear and present sources of distress you can, like shitty relationships.
The next most obvious things to deal with are the foundational physical things we talked about back in the series on stress. So, take another look at the Stress First Aid questions and ask if any of them are ongoing problems. If they are, consider working backwards to root causes. For example, maybe you’re consistently sleeping poorly. Is it because you don’t care about sleeping well? Probably not. Maybe you’re drinking a bit too much and it’s messing up your sleep cycle. Why the drinking? Work's a bit more stressful than usual. Understanding these second and third order questions can point you to the real problem to treat rather than the symptoms.
Let’s say you’ve removed any obvious reasons for being bummed out and you’re taking care of yourself physically, but you’re still challenged by weird, formless anxiety. I deal with this pretty frequently, myself. For this kind of pervasive negativity, I use a variation of morning pages to stop myself wallowing in inaction and self pity.
Here’s what I do: I take a few minutes in the morning and write a stream of consciousness of what’s bothering me today. I don’t worry particularly about solving anything or even understanding why I feel that way - the goal is just to write it down. I very rarely arrive at a solution or even come to a better understanding of where the anxiety is coming from, but for some weird reason, getting that negativity out where I can see it and realize how arbitrary it is gives me just enough strength to go focus on something useful that will have a greater positive effect - like eating something healthy or working out.
Okay, “don’t be unhappy” is necessary but not sufficient, so what can you do more proactively? My favorite habit is this: write down three things you’re grateful for every day. I’ve been doing this pretty consistently since I started using the Five Minute Journal prompts several months back, but Shawn Achor’s talk at Forefront introduced me to a crucial new component: why. When you force yourself to reflect on why you’re grateful for something, you think about it harder and create stronger connections - which is the entire point of the exercise. You are literally retraining your brain to go to happy places more easily than others.
To avoid using the same answers every day, I recommend two tweaks: 1) only write down things that happened in the last 24 hours, and 2) use the following prompts: something big, something small, and something transient. For example, if you had a delicious dinner right before your journal, you could be grateful for the big fact that you have plenty of money to enjoy a luxurious meal, or the little detail that they had your favorite dessert, or the transient taste lingering in your mouth.
Once you’re consistently taking care of your baseline physical needs and writing down what you’re grateful for, there are some other great habits from Shawn Achor. “The Doubler” involves writing down a pleasant experience in the past 24 hours and at least three bullet points describing it in detail. “The Fun Fifteen” is fifteen minutes of mindful cardio exercise that you enjoy. Mindfulness meditation is paying close attention to your breath for at least two minutes a day. Daily Intentional Kindness involves calling, texting, or emailing one new person a day to thank or compliment them genuinely.
There are lots of options from other folks, of course. For example, Naval Ravikant on the Tim Ferriss show recommends getting more sunlight on a daily basis (~30 minutes, but don’t burn yourself). Another person featured in Tools of Titans, Chade-Meng Tan, suggests wishing for three random strangers to be happy a day. Kamal Ravikant (Naval’s brother) wrote a short book about the power of truly loving yourself. Some of the common links in all of these is being more present in the current moment.
The common thread I’ve come across in all of this is to focus on others instead of yourself - a selfish orientation seems to lock us in to survival mode. Survival mode means stress and focusing on what we don’t have, and unfortunately it’s the easy default because our brain was built to keep us alive, not happy. Everything we experience as happiness was simply the evolutionary carrot to encourage certain behaviors. Humanity’s killer app has always been cooperation, so it makes sense that the most fool proof ways to get happier all revolve around doing things that will make other people happy, and therefore make you a valued member of a group.
We all know that happiness is not a foregone conclusion, and some of us struggle with it more than others. What I hope you’ve learned here is that neither is it impossible to attain. In fact, with some simple interventions, just about anyone can improve their default happiness and see positive results throughout their life.
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