We all want to be happier. But figuring out how to get there is surprisingly tricky.
The things that we assume will make us happy—money, status, good looks, etc.—usually turn out to be not nearly as effective as we hoped or simply aren’t very attainable. And most of the self-help stuff we read seems, well… similarly disappointing in the long run.
While I don’t have any magic bullet solution, here’s one possibility that’s mostly overlooked:
The most direct path to happiness is to let go of negative mental habits.
As a psychologist, I talk to unhappy people every day—many of whom are quite wealthy, good-good looking, and have read all the best self-help books.
But it seems to me that what most often holds them back from happiness is the collection of negative mental programs running in the background in their minds.
I can’t promise nirvana—and no one solution works for everyone—but if you can learn to identify and reduce these negative mental habits, I think you’ll find yourself a little happier each day.
1. Expectations gone wild
Expectations are beliefs about how the world should work, including how the people in it should act. And while they can be helpful at times, they’re often quite dangerous psychologically.
Here’s an example:
After spending all afternoon cleaning the garage, you expect that your spouse should immediately thank you and express their appreciation. When they don’t, you not only feel sad and disappointed but also angry and frustrated. And when they still don’t mention anything, you start ruminating on all the previous times in your marriage when you’ve done something nice and not been appreciated for it. Of course, this leads to even more anger and resentment, and eventually, is likely to lead to a fight or serious argument.
The issue with expectations like this is that, right or wrong, your expectations will frequently get violated. And each time they get violated, you’re going to experience surprise and shock on top of whatever other emotion you feel.
Trouble is… surprise is an emotional amplifier: Feeling angry is hard enough. But when you feel angry after expecting to feel appreciated, your anger—and all the unhelpful behaviors that follow from it—are going to grow much bigger and more painful.
Difficult feelings are a lot easier to handle when they don’t catch you by surprise.
If you want to become happier, calmer, and more emotionally stable—especially in your relationships—start paying more attention to your expectations. And once you start noticing them, adjust them to be more realistic or throw them out entirely.
2. Judging your emotions
Emotions are not good or bad:
- Anxiety isn’t bad any more than rain or snow is bad.
- Anger isn’t bad any more than having red hair is bad.
- Grief isn’t bad any more than being short or tall is bad.
For something to be morally good or bad, you have to have control over it. This is why no one ever gets sent to jail for feeling angry—you can’t control whether you feel angry or not, and therefore, it’s not something you can be held accountable for.
On the other hand, people get sent to jail all the time for acting aggressively. And the reason? You can control your actions, which means you can be held accountable for them and they can be judged as right or wrong, good or bad.
Judging yourself for something you can’t control is a set-up for suffering because you make yourself feel artificially guilty on top of whatever it was you were already feeling.
Think about it:
- When you judge yourself for feeling sad, now you feel guilty on top of feeling sad.
- When you criticize yourself for feeling afraid, now you feel guilty or angry on top of feeling afraid.
- When you blame yourself for feeling angry, you feel sad on top of feeling angry.
When you judge yourself for how you feel, you only compound your suffering in the long-run.
Instead, try this: be compassionate with yourself when you’re in emotional pain.
When you feel bad emotionally, try talking to yourself like you would talk to a good friend who was suffering—with understanding, compassion, and support.
3. Worrying about the future
If you’re a chronic worrier, you know how much anxiety and stress it adds to your life. You also probably realize that worrying about bad things happening doesn’t seem to actually make good things happen instead. In other words, you probably realize that worrying is all side effect and no cure.
So why do it? Why do we worry even though we know it stresses us out and makes us anxious?
We worry because it gives us the illusion of control.
Here’s how it works:
- Your imagination creates a worst-case scenario about something you can’t actually control.
- You feel helpless.
- So you worry. Because, even though worrying creates anxiety, it alleviates helplessness (temporarily, anyway). And for many people, they’d rather feel anxious and stressed than helpless.
But like any addiction, the short term benefits of worry don’t really outweigh the long-term costs.
Sure, worrying about how you could handle all sorts of terrible things briefly makes you feel in control, but the mountain of stress and anxiety catches up to you eventually. Because when you’re chronically stressed and anxious, you start seeing more and more things to worry about, which leads to more and more anxiety and stress.
And while you probably don’t need me to tell you this, it’s awfully hard to be happy when you’re constantly stressed and anxious.
The real tragedy of chronic worry is that it robs us of our lives.
If you want to end the cycles, reclaim your life, and feel less stressed all the time, the secret is to be more accepting of helplessness and uncertainty.
Bad things happen, much of which you can’t actually control. Much better in the long-run to make peace with this than live in denial about it.
Reassurance-seeking feels good in the moment, but it’s self-defeating in the long-run.
We all feel anxious sometimes. And obviously, feeling anxious is uncomfortable—painful even. So what could be more natural than the desire to alleviate that pain and discomfort?
Nothing. Which is why reassurance-seeking is so common:
- After making a mistake during a presentation at work, you immediately call your spouse, hoping for reassurance and consolation.
- Following an awkward social encounter, you text a friend—hoping to get some kind words that soothe your anxieties.
- As soon as you notice that strange feeling in your stomach, you call up your partner, hoping their calming words will alleviate your fears.
Now look, there’s nothing wrong with reassurance per se. It’s perfectly natural and healthy to want and receive support and comfort from other people when we’re afraid.
Reassurance becomes problematic when it becomes habitual. When our immediate and sole response to fear or insecurity is to go to another person for relief, it becomes a form of self-sabotage.
If you constantly outsource your anxieties to other people, you: A) lose the ability to manage your anxieties on your own, and B) end up creating unhealthy social dependencies—which usually lead to resentments and conflict—in your most important relationships.
Instead of using other people to alleviate your anxiety, learn to mage it well yourself:
- Practice tolerating anxiety and uncertainty rather than distracting yourself from it.
- Work on sitting with your feelings of helplessness rather than trying to eliminate it.
- Learn to live with your fears and insecurities and get on with life despite them, rather than putting your life on hold until other people make you feel better.
Mind-reading is the mental habit of assuming you understand what other people are thinking and feeling.
Human beings have an uncanny ability to make educated guesses about what other people are thinking and feeling based on a variety of subtle external cues.
For example: my wife has a distinctive forehead tightening that can mean only one thing—the kids have been little monsters all day long and you need to take them to the park right now and give me at least an hour of space and quiet or else…
And while I’m very good at noticing this and inferring what she’s essentially thinking and feeling at that moment, this ability to basically read her mind is dangerous.
Why? Because I’m not nearly as good at it as I think I am…
See, for every one situation where you actually are good at reading someone else’s mind, there are probably a dozen where you’re terrible at it. But the success of the one or two victories leads you to a false sense of confidence about the others.
This means that most of us walk around thinking we know what other people want and feel but being wrong most of the time. And as a result, we make lots of bad assumptions about what they want and need. This means we end up doing and saying a lot of stupid things which leads to lots of stupid conflicts which leads to… lots of unhappiness.
Instead of assuming you know what people think and feel, try asking them instead.
This has two very beneficial effects:
- You come across as empathetic instead of judgmental. Right or wrong, when you assume you understand other people, you’re likely to come across as arrogant or even combative. Which is likely to lead to conflict. On other hand, when you assume you don’t know but express interest by asking, you come across as compassionate, which leads to far more productive and enjoyable interactions.
- You get better data. The more you simply ask people how they feel or what they think in a given situation, the better your model for them becomes. And that in turn means your guesses at how they’re thinking and feeling will be more accurate. So we have a bit of a paradox: If you want to be able to read people’s minds more effectively, you need to stop trying to read their minds and just ask instead.
At the end of the day, our happiness is largely a function of our relationships. Are you constantly in fights and battles with the most important people in your life? Then yeah, you’re not going to feel all that happy.
On the other hand, if your most important relationships tend to run smoothly and conflict-free, you are going to feel much happier and more content on average.
So break the habit of assuming you know what people think and feel and build the habit of simply asking instead.
You and everyone around you will be much happier for it.
All You Need to Know
If you want to be happier, focus on identifying and eliminating these 5 unhelpful mental habits:
Expectations gone wild
Judging your emotions
Worrying about the future