We all want to be happier. We search our lives for the next big idea, the next fancy promotion, or the next person in our life who is going to make it all better—whether it’s a new girlfriend, a new boss, or a new president.
But for more than 2,000 years, the wisest among us—from the Stoic philosophers of ancient Rome to modern pioneers in psychology and mental health—have been telling us that the source of happiness is not without but within.
Happiness has much more to do with how we think about the world than the world itself.
In my own work as a psychologist, I see evidence of this every day—how subtle but destructive mental habits can sabotage even the best external events, achievements, and relationships in our lives. What follows are 3 of the most common of these mental habits.
1. Expectations Gone Wild
Expectations are an assumption about how things should be along with the certainty that the world will comply and make it so. You expect your boss to be compassionate and constructive in her report on your performance and then you’re shocked and outraged when she’s critical and harsh with you.
Psychologically, expectations are a form of wish fulfillment—temporarily satisfying a desire through an unconscious or habitual thought process. Because you wish for a compassionate boss, you expect that she will be, which, for a moment, makes you feel good.
Expectations feel good because they give the illusion of certainty and order. And high expectations feel especially good because they give our egos a jolt of self-righteousness to boot.
The problem is, the world is neither certain nor orderly, especially when it comes to our fellow human beings. As the great novelist and student of human nature, Dostoyevsky, once said, “Man is a fickle and disreputable creature”
In the long-run, high expectations do more harm than good. They lead to perpetual irritability, strained relationships, anxiety, and even depression.
The trick is to see expectations for what they are—a relatively primitive defense mechanism against the anxiety of uncertainty and our fragile egos. Because once you do, you’ll be much better positioned to cultivate healthier ways of managing your fears and insecurities:
- Learn to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity instead of masking it.
- Get comfortable with disappointment and regret, allowing it “along for the ride” instead of trying to expel it.
- Develop healthy income streams for your identity and sense of self so that you don’t have to rely on criticalness and high expectations to feed your ego.
- Lift your hopes high but keep your expectations low.
Nothing is certain. Accept that and you’ll be happier for it.
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.
2. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning is when you use how you feel as evidence for what you should believe or how you should act:
- You feel irritated with your spouse or partner so you decided that it’s a good idea right now to air all your most pressing grievances with them.
- You feel lethargic and unmotivated so you decide you need to stay in and rest instead of going for that run or hanging out with friends like you promised.
It’s tempting to follow our feelings when deciding what’s true or helpful because they’re so loud. And because they’re loud—because we feel them so strongly—they seem persuasive and convincing.
But the strength of our feelings is a poor indicator of truth or usefulness.
The anger and outrage you feel after reading your sister’s Facebook post about gun-control argues loudly for commenting back with a snarky and sarcastic comment that you feel is sure to show her the error of her ways.
Yeah, ‘cause that usually works…
But if it’s so obvious in the abstract that acting impulsively on how we feel isn’t a great idea, why do we all do it so often?
The short answer: because it makes us feel better.
Strong painful emotions like anxiety, shame, irritability, sadness, etc. are aversive, which means we want them to go away, quickly if possible. And acting on these emotions often helps quell them temporarily.
The problem is, you’re getting in the habit of trading your values—what you believe is true and genuinely helpful in the long-term—for how you want to feel in the moment:
- Staying on the couch instead of going to the gym is trading a temporary feeling (relaxation) for a long-term value (physical health).
- Taking those three shots before going to the party makes you feel better temporarily but in the long-run only reinforces the self-destructive belief that you need something in order to function in social situations.
- Making that sarcastic comment to your spouse feels good in the moment because it boosts your ego with a little hit of self-righteousness, but in the long run you’re eroding trust and intimacy in your relationship.
To avoid the trap of emotional reasoning, get in the habit of clarifying and elaborating on your long-term values.
When you’re overcome with any strong emotion, ask yourself, What do I really want in this situation? What’s going to make me happy in the long-run?
Play long-term games, not short-term ones.
Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed.
3. Judgmental Self-Talk
Whether you realize it or not, you’re constantly talking to yourself—all day, every day. You’re narrating the events of your daily life, some of which are boring and mundane (What type of squash should I get for dinner?), some of which are epic (He’s so negative… I knew I shouldn’t have married him).
But in addition to narrating the events in our lives, we also talk to ourselves about ourselves: We comment on our recent performance in front of the sales team, we tell ourselves how good we look in those new jeans, we worry about how we’ll handle the upcoming exam and whether or not we prepared enough.
This inner speech about ourselves is called self-talk. And, again, whether you realize it or not, you probably have certain patterns or habits of self-talk—in other words, you tend to talk to yourself in a certain way. Maybe you’re in the habit of worrying about how you look anytime you’re around other people? Or maybe you’re in the habit of nitpicking small mistakes you’re made, ruminating on them endlessly for hours, days, even years after the fact.
In any case, your habits of self talk matter a lot because they’re one of the single biggest influences on your mood. Put another way:
How we habitually talk to ourselves determines how we habitually feel about ourselves.
Here’s a quick thought experiment: Suppose a nasty little elf follows you along everywhere you go every hour of the day. And all this nasty little elf does is hurl insults at you—he tells you how bad you look, how dumb you sound, and reminds you constantly that nobody likes you and you’re bound to make a fool of yourself sometime soon.
Now, even if you were a supremely confident person who knew intellectually that none of the little elf’s speech was actually true, think for a second about how you would feel if this was your life—to be constantly berated and insulted every minute of every day? Pretty awful, right?
Well, that’s literally what you’re doing to yourself when you’ve developed a habit of judgmental and negative self-talk. Even though you might know that you’re not a terrible person who always fails and nobody likes, if you talk to yourself like that, that’s how you’re going to feel.
All of which means that if you want to be happier—or at least a little less unhappy—a great place to start is your self-talk.
Get in the habit of paying attention to how you talk to and about yourself? Take notes. Look for patterns. Start to identify your stereotyped forms of self-talk, especially the overly negative or judgmental types.
Once you start to see and identify the most common patterns, you can then begin to change them. Call them out for what they are—unhelpful habits—and ask yourself: What would be a more realistic or helpful way of talking to myself right now?
Try not to buy your own B.S.
The stories we tell ourselves are far more powerful than we realize. Learn to see these stories for what they are—narrative habits—and then you can learn to change them, and in the process, get your self-talk to start working for you, rather than against you.
The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.
― Marcus Aurelius
All you need to know
Our habits of thought powerfully affect the way we feel. And there are 3 dangerous mental habits that we all fall into from time to time that lead to unnecessary suffering—Expectations Gone Wild, Emotional Reasoning, and Judgmental Self-Talk. When we learn to identify and address these habits, happiness has a way of finding us, regardless of our circumstances.
Hold on to hope, but let go of expectation.
Base your decisions on your values, not your feelings.
Strive to be realistic and helpful in your self talk.