We live in a world of abundance. We have entertainment at our fingertips. We have plenty of food at any grocery store. We can keep in touch with our friends and family more easily than ever before.
Yet, many of us still have a void inside us. We are unhappy. We feel there’s something missing in our lives. And we think, if we can find that missing something, we will be happy.
But, we hear countless stories of people who have it all, like celebrities, who are gravely unhappy. Some were so unhappy that their destructive habits resulted in an early death, such as Whitney Houston, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Chris Farley, and Jimi Hendrix.
So is happiness dependent upon what you accomplish in life? Or how much you have?
Here are five truths nobody ever told you about happiness.
Truth #1: Learn to Surf
For this first truth about happiness, I’m borrowing a quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts.
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.
This quote refers to our lack of control in life. If you think about it, we have control over very little. Suffering and depression occur when we try to control things we can’t.
- Have you ever tried to control
- What other people think about you?
- How your children behave?
- How your employees perform?
- How many sales you closed this month?
- How quickly your body heals from injury?
You can influence these things, but ultimately, you have no control of the outcome.
That’s when you learn to surf. Life hurls waves at you. Some of them big and others small. So the real question is, can you learn to ride it instead of resisting it?
Can you adapt?
Here’s an example from my personal life. I love basketball, but when I hit my 30’s, I developed knee and back problems. And after every game, I felt like a gang pulled me into a back alley and beat me up.
So, I decided to take a break from basketball to heal.
During that break, I signed up for martial arts. The form of martial arts I chose is gentle on the body. Even so, I got a great workout, I was learning something new, and I was building camaraderie with the other students. Best of all, I wasn’t hurting myself.
I realized that’s why I loved basketball: the workout, the learning, and the camaraderie. Martial arts met these core needs. And as long as those core needs were satisfied, I was happy.
That’s learning to surf. Adapting. You don’t know how big the waves will be, but when they come at you, you know you can adapt.
Truth #2: Healthy Brain = Happy Mood
Even though much of our body is still a mystery, science has proven our moods and sense of well being is intimately connected to our physical health. Our brain is a magnificently complex organ with a chemical factory that works hard to keep you in a good mood. But if even one chemical is out of balance, it might cause a chain reaction resulting in anxiety or depression.
Here are some basic tips to keep your brain healthy.
With our busy lives, we often sacrifice sleep to get everything done. And I know it’s not always realistic to get more sleep every night. But, our brains love sleep because it recharges the chemical factory.
Everyone preaches you should sleep 8 hours a night. However, the right amount is different for everyone. You’ll need to experiment to find out how many hours of sleep you need. When you wake up refreshed and don’t feel sluggish during the day, you’ve hit the jackpot.
If you can’t get more sleep on a nightly basis, at least give yourself one day a week to sleep without waking to an alarm. If you have small children, make a deal with your spouse that you each get one morning a week to sleep in while the other tends to the children.
Keep harmful drugs to a minimum
Obviously, drugs like heroine and meth screw up your brain. However, overuse of recreational drugs damages it too.
For example, I enjoy alcoholic beverages. Sometimes in excess. A couple years ago, I noticed I felt depressed after a night of liberal drinking. For a while, I couldn’t figure out why because my life was going well. Then I realized, my hangover also resulted in unbalanced brain chemistry. Sometimes, I had to wait a couple days to feel normal again. That hangover depression was enough to make me decrease my drinking, and I feel much happier because of it.
Take medication if you have to
Sometimes, there’s just something wrong with your brain’s chemical factory. For whatever reason, it doesn’t produce the right balance of chemicals no matter what you try. So, you often feel anxious or depressed.
Doctors call this clinical depression and treat it like a disease. (Although really it’s a disorder. A germ probably isn’t causing your depression.)
In this case, a trip to a psychiatrist may be your best answer. As an alternative, you can always try natural remedies for anxiety or depression. If you think you might be clinically depressed or have an anxiety disorder, seek professional help as soon as possible.
Truth #3: Perfection is Bad
The pursuit of perfection is a bad, horrible, terrible, disgusting goal. Why? Because nothing is perfect in this world. Nothing.
Perfection is a goal that you will never reach. If you spend all your energy trying to construct the perfect future, life will pass you by. Moreover, you will constantly disappoint and criticize yourself for not achieving your idealistic goals. That’s not a formula for happiness.
The desire to be perfect is not your fault. It’s bred into our society. Just look at the media. It bombards us with images of beautiful, successful people. We idolize wealthy actors, athletes, and CEOs.
It’s all an illusion though. We forget that even the wealthy and famous are human. They have to battle personal demons day after day. Just like you.
I’m not saying you should lower your standards or not have life goals. But there’s a huge difference between good and perfect. Work toward a good and happy life, not a perfect one.
Once you let go of the need to be perfect, you will feel happier.
Truth #4 Conflict is Good for Happiness
Conflict between two people is the only way to reveal the truth and therefore, lead to positive change and growth.
Let’s say a co-worker always brings you a homemade treat, like a cupcake, each Friday. It’s a nice gesture, but you’re trying to diet. You don’t want to offend your co-worker by rejecting her offer, but at the same time, you need to lose weight. So, you avoid conflict.
You may throw it away, give it away, or if it’s been a long week, you eat it. Each time, however, it causes a little anxiety. What if she catches you giving it way? Or if you eat it, then you feel bad about cheating on your diet. You may even begin to resent your co-worker – if she didn’t tempt you, you wouldn’t have cheated.
Obviously, resentment and anxiety is not the path to happiness.
So one day, you decide you must tell your co-worker that you can’t eat her treats.
I define conflict as the path to long-term happiness. In the short-term, conflict is scary. In the heat of conflict, sometimes emotions spin out of control and insults fly. One or both people feel hurt. It’s not a happy feeling.
But once the dust settles, that’s when true change and growth happens, almost always for the better.
So one day, you muster some courage and tell your co-worker that you’re on a diet and, while you appreciate her kindness, you can’t accept her treats anymore. She’s a little disappointed initially, but she understands. She respects your decision.
Of course, not all conflicts end rosy like my example. Change is hard. However, over the long-term, you will be happier.
Truth #5: Remove “should” from Your Vocabulary
The word “should” often causes unhappiness, especially when thinking about your past.
Do these sound familiar?
- I should have gotten that promotion.
- I should have studied harder for that test.
- I shouldn’t have eaten all those cookies.
- I shouldn’t have been late to that important meeting.
When looking back on your past, stop judging yourself so harshly. You’re human. You make mistakes.
Mistakes are unavoidable, and they’re the best teachers. Each time you make one, be grateful. It’s an opportunity for growth. And next time, endeavor to learn from it and do better in the future.
Then, you might catch yourself saying:
I should have learned from that last mistake.
There’s a myth that says you should (see, there’s that word again) learn from your mistakes.
Just because you make a mistake, doesn’t mean you immediately learn from it. Sometimes you make the same mistakes over and over again. You might make dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of the same mistake until you learn from it. That’s all part of being human too.
Happiness stems from accepting that you make mistakes and realizing that every other human being on this earth does too.
When you eliminate “should”, you allow yourself to stop dwelling in the past. Because, until they invent a time machine, the past cannot change. “Should” causes regret and resentment. It weighs you down with negative thoughts.
Once you free yourself of the “shoulds” and “should nots”, you begin to live in the present.
As you can see, happiness is about how you relate to the world. It’s not about checking off every box on your life’s to-do list. Happiness is also not about accomplishing what you think you should do, or what you think other people want you to do. (See Truth #5 again for a refresher.)
Making a better life for yourself will make you happier, but there’s a delicate balance between reckless versus healthy ambition.
And, there’s no magic formula. I encourage you to experiment with your life, keeping these 5 truths in mind. If you find an attitude or a way of thinking that works for you, you’re on your way to lasting happiness!
David Nix is an author, entrepreneur, and former shy guy dedicated to teaching people how to overcome shyness.