Humans have been discussing what it means to be happy for thousands of years, and what we have to do in order to achieve this elusive and desirable state. Modern science has confirmed many ancient philosophies of happiness – like accepting things the way they are and expressing gratitude, as well as offering new insights, such as the fact that happiness tends to increase with income up to the $60,000 level before leveling off.
Yet, despite this knowledge, the achievement of happiness remains a difficult if not impossible task for many of us. Sometimes, the extra boost we need comes not from well-trodden conventional wisdom, but utterly surprising, unexpected sources.
Most of us hear the words “you can be anything you want to be” ringing in our ears. We’re constantly sold the image of people who can be, do or have anything and everything they want in life – and that it’s easy! This is not an accurate reflection of reality and sets us up for disappointment. Of course, with hard work and dedication we can all become excellent at something, but going through life with massively inflated expectations sets us up for massive disappointment – not success.
Lowering our expectations isn’t about being negative or pessimistic, it’s about eliminating the sense that we’re entitled to positive outcomes and accepting that most things don’t go exactly as planned. Aspire to greatness and expect little. That’s the recipe for happiness.
There’s hardly a more universally-accepted idea about happiness than goals and goal-setting. Set good goals and happiness is yours! But this conventional wisdom has been thrown into doubt by the work of psychologists like Dan Ariely. In his book, “Predictably Irrational,” he reveals that the achievement of goals only provides a short-term boost of emotion and does little or nothing to affect our overall happiness.
Does that mean goal-setting is useless? Of course not. Goals are a great way to express our values and to orient ourselves towards action. We have to realize that reaching a goal doesn’t fundamentally change who we are or how we see the world. It’s the internal work that we do, not the external results we create, that determine how happy and fulfilled we feel.
Money worries top nearly everybody’s list of concerns. No matter how much we make or how much we have, it seems like there’s never enough. We try to overcome these fears by increasing our earning and limiting our spending. But there’s another, counter-intuitive option: Set a cap on our income.
Why? Because this forces us to define one crucial thing that no other technique adequately addresses: how much is enough. And while this seems crazy at first, we can realize that we do this in almost every area of our life: how much food to eat, how many cars to own, how much TV to watch, etc.
And one thing we can notice with these limits, is that dysfunction starts to occur when they’re not adhered to: obesity, excessive consumption, and in the case of money, debt or workaholism. So where should we set our personal income limit? Low enough to feel some minor discomfort – we live in a society of excess after all – and not so low that we feel outright fear.
A good benchmark to use is the median income level in your area (if you live somewhere with relative income equality). An income limit forces us to examine what is truly important to us and where we’re unconsciously following social norms and expectations. This way we have to decide what we value and where we want to invest our limited financial resources in the exact same way we have to choose how to invest our limited time and energy each day.
Once we do that, and we start putting our money towards the things that matter most, then we can start doing the impossible: buying happiness.
We should all spend time reflecting on our past and planning for the future, but this behavior can be detrimental if done excessively. By placing constant surveillance on ourselves, wondering, “am I happy now?” and then asking why or why not, we take ourselves out of the moment and cease being able to enjoy it.
If we insist on analyzing each and every emotion that floats across our consciousness, we put ourselves at the mercy of people and environments that are going to sway our emotions whether we want them to or not. Instead, we must learn to stay present and focused on the situation at hand, and save reflection for a special time we’ve set aside explicitly for that purpose.
These strange sources of happiness, being at odds with conventional wisdom, may take adjusting before we can integrate them into our lives. Take it slow, choosing the one idea you feel will have the most impact on your life, and work on adopting the new mindset and seeing how it works for you.
Know any other unexpected sources of happiness? Share them in the comments below!
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