There are a lot of discussions going around about what actually makes people happy. In fact, in the last two decades, and entirely new field has been created around this question. We refer to this new area of psychology as “Positive Psychology.”
While the scientific world is discovering the many different factors which go into determining how happy a person will be, throughout history we have been told by the greatest philosophers and religious leaders what to avoid in order to be happy. I’ve compiled what I consider the deadliest attacks on our happiness. These “sins” are so deadly that we often don’t notice we are falling into their trap until we wake up one day and wonder why we are glaring at ourselves in the mirror.
1. Comparing yourself to others
“Comparison is the death of joy.”
Thank you, Mark Twain, for starting our list today.
He’s absolutely right. Whenever you begin to size yourself based on what you see others achieving, you have no choice but to feel unhappy. Either you will feel guilty because you see those less fortunate struggling while you live in relative comfort, or you will feel inadequate because others seem to be better off than you are. It’s kind of a lose/lose scenario.
Instead, focus on making yourself a little better every day.
2. Talking about your dreams instead of going to work on them
“Contemplation often makes life miserable. We should act more, think less, and stop watching ourselves live.” -Nicolas de Chamfort
This brilliant French playwright knew a truth which eludes many to this day: acting will always make you happier than speaking.
Although it is a great idea to talk about your passions and dreams, if all you are doing is talking, you will find yourself depressed in a very short time. In fact, you will begin to feel like a fraud. You will start to question if you will ever achieve these dreams you speak about, and slowly you will stop speaking about them.
The best way to cure this is to start working on your dreams, while you talk about them. I like to say something to the effect of “I’m building up my readership to become an international best-seller. Right now I’m spending some time building up a loyal fan base on Twitter.” Do you see what I did there? I made a large statement about my end goal, as well as what my current action step is. I may not be able to claim to be a best-seller yet, but I can start to build a fan base on Twitter. By following up my words with actions, I’ll avoid feeling like a fraud.
3. Listening to people with nothing positive to say
“A complainer is like a Death Eater because there’s a suction of negative energy.”
Who doesn’t love a good Harry Potter reference? All fictional character allusions aside, you would be much better off taking this wisdom to heart.
Negative people are a drain on you. It’s impossible to become immune to someone complaining in your presence—even when you diligently ignore them, simply being in the same room with someone spouting negatives will affect your mood. The only way to really combat negative people is to avoid them. It is nearly impossible to cheer a negative person up, and even if you succeed for the moment, the chances are high your former sour-puss friend will go back to his/her old ways in short order. The best you can do is go on about your business and stay around positive people.
4. Focusing on the news
“The bad news is that only the bad people reach the news, because they are noisier.”
When was the last time you finished watching the news and felt good about the world? I don’t believe this has ever happened to me.
In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey points out that the majority of successful people spend very little time watching the news. The primary reason behind this is that we really can do nothing about what we are watching, which leads us to feelings of helplessness and negativity. By focusing so much on problems in other parts of the world, we forget how much good we can do in our local communities.
Instead of worrying what is happening on Capitol Hill, why not focus on what you can do in your neighborhood? Are there local kids you can mentor? Can you deliver meals to the elderly? Perhaps you can organize a neighborhood beautification project, which will help everyone around you. By focusing on what you can influence locally, you will create a much greater impact on the world than by simply watching the world news and then talking to your friends about how bad things are. Plus, you’ll be much happier.
5. Deciding someone else needs to change
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
-Jesus (Matthew 7:3)
Regardless of your religious beliefs, there’s no denying the wisdom of Jesus.
Have you ever thought about how much better your life would be if your spouse/coworker/child would just fix themselves(or let you fix them)? You’re not alone. As we can see, this phenomenon has existed for at least 2,000 years, and for much longer, I would wager.
It’s so easy to look at someone else and see exactly what they are doing wrong; the difficult thing is to look at ourselves and see how we can improve instead. As I draw closer to the date of my own wedding, I find myself repeating a simple prayer: “God, please help me be the husband I tell her I am.” I know I don’t always live up to my own expectations of others, but the best place to work is myself.
Instead of thinking about how others can improve, ferret out your own shortcomings and go to work on them. Trust me, you have plenty of work on yourself to keep you too busy to correct others.
6. Thinking “happiness” is a destination you can reach
“Joy has nothing to do with material things, or with man’s outward circumstance…A man living in the lap of luxury can be wretched, and a man in the depths of poverty can overflow with joy.”
Many people walk around saying things like “I will be happy when I get my house paid off” “I’ll be happy when we are finally married” or sometimes “I’ll be happy when we’re finally divorced.” That last one stings a little, but I have had clients tell me that.
You may have the idea that once you accomplish a goal, you will be happy. I’m sorry to tell you, this will never be the case. Whenever you set out to achieve something and base your happiness on that achievement, you have set yourself up for dissappointment.
History is full of people who scrambled madly for money, power, fame, or any other accolade or possession we can think of, only to finally achieve their goal and discover a deep sense of disappointment. The wisest people realize that happiness is only achieved during our journey, not at the end.
Discover what makes you happy on a daily basis and create goals that line up with those activities. If your greatest happiness comes from teaching and working with children, setting a goal to be CEO of your company doesn’t really line up. You might eventually make CEO, but you won’t feel happy about it; a better goal would be to create a lifestyle business which allows you to teach and work with children as often as you like. Maybe you will make less money, but trading money for true happiness is always a good trade.
7. Forgetting to say “thank you”
“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”
— Cynthia Ozick
This last sin is probably the most commonly committed. Regardless of what your situation is right now, there are things you should be grateful for.
Do you have someone who loves you? When was the last time you told them how much you appreciate their love? Do you have a job and receive an income? When was the last time you thanked your boss or company president for providing you this opportunity?
Let’s say you are completely alone, broke, and in poor health; you can still read the words written in this post. Have you thought about how lucky you are someone took the time to teach you how to read, and now you have the opportunity to learn and better yourself because of that gift? Forgetting to stop and say thank you for the blessings you receive keeps you from receiving more blessings. Worse, the blessing you do receive won’t be recognized because you have learned to focus on what you lack, instead of what you have.
Take a small notepad with you throughout the day and write down any little thing you can think of to be grateful for. I promise you, within 24 hours, you will feel happier than you have in years.
Avoid these sins like the plague, and you will be well on your way to a very happy life.
Synthesized in a TEDx Cambridge talk, Norton showed through various tests that giving money to charity or helping out those in need was able to greatly improve the mood and general happiness of people in a wide variety of situations: How Money Can Buy HappinessFeatured photo credit: These White Masks selling in the theatre for children to painting. Actually, the actors use it in the performance as well. via Flickr
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