As a psychologist, I often get asked: Doesn’t it get depressing listening to people’s problems and struggles all day?
Honestly, not really. And here’s why:
You can learn a lot about how to be happy by carefully observing what makes people unhappy.
After a little back-of-the-envelope math, I estimate that over the last 5 years I’ve spent 6,250 hours in conversation with people who are unhappy enough to see a therapist. I’m no Sigmund Freud, but it doesn’t take a genius to see some patterns emerge with that much data.
Specifically, there’s a set of habits unhappy people get stuck in, and these same habits are noticeably absent among consistently happy people.
Of course, there are often biological and environmental causes of chronic unhappiness. But as a psychologist, my job is primarily to look for the behaviors that lead to both emotional suffering and wellbeing.
What follows are 4 habits that unhappy people get stuck in. If you want to be happier, letting these go is a good place to start.
1. Worrying about things you can’t control
You’re never going to be happy if you’re constantly worrying about the future and dwelling on the past.
Human beings are wired for control. We crave influence and power like almost nothing else. And for good reason—not only did it allow our ancestors to survive long enough to pass on their genes, but it’s enabled our species to thrive and progress to incredible heights. From curing polio to putting a man on the moon, our need for control is a powerful agent of progress.
Unfortunately, it cuts both ways…
Trying to control things we can’t control is a recipe for misery.
No matter how good we get at controlling certain aspects of our lives, there will always be things hopelessly outside our control. Two big ones are the past and the future.
Obviously, we can’t control the past. And while we do have influence over the future, it’s far less predictable or certain that we would like to believe.
So why do we spend so much time worrying about the future and dwelling on the past, even though it leads to so much stress, anxiety, and unhappiness?
Worry gives us the illusion of control.
When you worry about the future, it can feel a lot like genuine problem-solving or planning. And in fact, the only difference between worry and genuine problem-solving is that worry isn’t productive.
But we do it anyway because it briefly alleviates our feelings of helplessness. It makes us feel like we’re doing something—like we have some control.
Unfortunately, in the long run, worry also leads to profound stress and anxiety. And like all addictions, the side effects are never worth the benefits.
Giving up the habit of worry is hard:
- You must be willing to tolerate helplessness when you desire control.
- You must be willing to live in uncertainty when you want to know things for sure.
- You must be willing to accept that bad things will happen and that there’s not a lot you can do about it.
Yes, there are scary, terrible things in life. And we should take steps to address them if we can. But if you insist on living in denial about your lack of control, you’re setting yourself up for chronic unhappiness.
The good news is you can achieve a level of inner peace and calm like you never would have imagined when you stop crushing yourself with constant worry.
Start experimenting in small ways:
- Let go of little bits of worry here and there.
- Refuse to dwell on past mistakes.
- Strive to live in the present when possible.
Prove to yourself that you can tolerate a little helplessness or uncertainty and your innate happiness will begin to shine through.
2. Being judgmental with yourself after mistakes
It’s hard to be happy when you’re constantly criticizing yourself.
Whenever I’m working with someone who’s especially critical and judgmental of themselves, I like to remind them of this:
If you talked to other people the way you talk to yourself, you’d have zero friends, no job, and you’d probably be living in a prison cell.
I mean, isn’t it shocking how you can be perfectly compassionate, supportive, and understanding with other people when they make mistakes, but the minute you slip up on something, it’s like the return of the Inquisition!
Here’s another way of looking at it:
Suppose all day, every day, you were followed around by a bad-natured leprechaun who did nothing but hurl insults and criticisms at you. No matter what you did—big, small, intentional, accidental—he yelled at you and told you what a terrible person you were.
Now, even if I also told you that everything that little leprechaun says is completely false and that you shouldn’t believe a word of it or let it get to you, how do you think you’d feel after just a couple hours with him by your side, much less a couple weeks or years?
Yeah, you’d feel awful! And even really good things that happened to you wouldn’t have the same joy because you were constantly berated by judgmentalness and negativity.
Well, that’s exactly what a lot of people do to themselves!
One of the worst habits unhappy people get into is negative self-talk. Their inner dialogue becomes nothing but criticism, self-judgment, and reprimands. And as a result, they constantly feel bad about themselves.
But why are we so hard on ourselves when we make mistakes?
One of the most common reasons is we believe we need critical, judgmental self-talk in order to motivate ourselves to do well and succeed. I call this the Drill Sergeant Theory of Motivation.
Most people grow up learning that unless you’re “tough” on yourself, you’ll end up slacking off and failing. Most of us had this idea drilled into us as kids in school.
Sadly, many people never update this belief. So they go through life believing that if they lighten up, they’ll “lose their edge” or worse.
Of course, this is nonsense.
Successful people are successful despite their negative self-talk, not because of it.
But the only way to actually change your beliefs about this—to let yourself believe that it’s okay to be gentle and compassionate with yourself when you make mistakes—is to prove it.
So, the next time you make a minor mistake, ask yourself this question: What would I say to a friend who made the same mistake? Then say that to yourself.
I call this The Other Golden Rule:
Treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
Let go of the habit of self-judgment and you’ll find that not only are you a lot happier, but you’ll be just as productive as ever!
3. Hanging on to expectations
Similar to how worry gives us the illusion of control over our past and future, rigid expectations give us the illusion of control and influence over other people.
Of course, you probably don’t see it that way. We all like to convince ourselves that having high expectations for people is a good thing because it encourages them to mature and strive forward to bigger and better things.
Call it what you want, but the basic dynamic is still one of control: You’ve got an idea in your mind for how another person should live. And your expectation is your way of feeling like you’re helping them get there.
But here’s what you have to realize: Expectations are really about you, not the other person. They’re about you feeling less helpless and more in control.
Look carefully enough at your own motivations and you’ll find that expectations are just a nice word for control.
Of course, our expectations come from a good place. You obviously care about the most important people in your life and want the best for them. And it’s understandably painful to see them struggle and suffer.
But making up stories in your head about what other people should do and then getting disappointed and frustrated when they fail to live up to your perfectly crafted story is a set up for even bigger disappointment.
The problem is, you can’t actually control other people, even for the better. Not nearly as much as you would like, anyway. Which means you create a constant vicious cycle of sky-high hopes and grave disappointments and frustrations.
And eventually, all your attempts at control begin to be felt by the people in your life and they get resentful. Let this go on long enough and they may even act contrary to your expectations simply out of spite!
Here’s my challenge to you:
For one month, drop every single expectation in your life and see what happens.
Rather than creating expectations for people, try simply being there for them instead:
- Be empathetic with their failures instead of fantasizing about their future successes.
- Stop demanding perfection and put real boundaries and consequences on poor behavior.
- Meet them where they are rather than where you wish they were.
By all means, hang on to hope. But let go of your expectations.
You’ll be far happier for it. And so will everyone else in your life.
4. Procrastinating on your values
One of the most common characteristics of chronically unhappy people is that they never seem to do the things they say they want:
- They say they want to start exercising more, but they always seem to get distracted by Netflix or work or video games.
- They say family matters most, but they routinely work long hours at the office and travel on weekends.
- They say they’re passionate about writing, but they never seem to sit down and actually write much.
Of course, we all get distracted sometimes. We all let impulses get in the way of goals from time to time. We all put things off despite knowing that we’d be better off doing it now. In other words, we all procrastinate.
But when procrastination is a consistent pattern in your life—when you habitually say you value something but never actually make time for it—it’s a sign of deeper issues. One of which is subtle but powerful:
You’re living your life based on feelings rather than values.
Thanks in large part to my own profession, the cult of feeling has come to dominate the way people think about their life’s purpose. When everything we hear from the youngest ages is about being true to yourself, and finding your passion, and listening to your inner voice, we train people to prioritize how they feel above all else.
And while there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel good per se, how we feel often directly conflicts with our values and highest aspirations:
- Wanting to feel good leads to a second helping of dessert instead of hitting our goal weight.
- Wanting to feel good means an hour and a half of Netflix instead of an hour and a half at the gym.
- Wanting to feel good means getting the last word in during the fight with our spouse instead of taking the high road and letting it go.
The desire to feel good now often conflicts with the things that matter most in life.
On the other hand, the pursuit of values is what really gives our lives meaning and leads to long-term happiness:
- Waking up 30 minutes early each morning to work on writing that novel you’ve always dreamed about.
- Buying only healthy food at the grocery store and getting down to a healthy weight (and staying there).
- Sticking with those guitar lessons you signed up for even though you’re exhausted after work.
Feelings are not the enemy but they’re often a distraction.
And when they consistently distract us from the things that matter most in life—our values and aspirations—we tend to be unhappy.
On the other hand, if you can start making a conscious effort to clarify what your most important values are and then prioritize them, happiness will follow.
All you need to know
Happiness is often about what you do less of, not more of. Let go of these 4 bad habits and let your natural happiness shine through:
Stop worrying about what you can’t control.
Stop being judgmental with yourself after mistakes.
Let go of your expectations.
Prioritize values over feelings.