Everybody wants to know what they can do to be happier. We crave some combination of lessons, tricks, inspiration, goals, strategies, life-hacks, pills, or even apps that will add more happiness and wellbeing to our lives.
But what if finding happiness is less about what we should add and more about what we should subtract?
What if the smarter way to find your happiness is to focus on removing the things that make you unhappy?
In my work as a psychologist and therapist, I have the privilege of getting to know people on a uniquely intimate level so that I can help them figure out what will really make them happy in the long run. And the more I do this work, the more I realize the key to finding happiness is often less, not more.
It’s about discovering the things that are making you miserable and doing your best to eliminate them.
And more often than not, those things that make us miserable are habits: subtle but powerful patterns we’ve fallen into—maybe since childhood—that gnaw away at our happiness, day after day, month after month, year after year.
Here are 6 of the most common habits I’ve seen that sabotage our happiness and some brief thoughts on how to eliminate them.
1. Worrying about the future and other people’s opinions of you
Worrying is the mental habit of trying to solve a problem that either can’t be solved or isn’t really a problem.
It’s easy to fall into because it feels productive, like we’re at least doing something. It staves off the feeling we hate most of all: helplessness.
Worry gives us the illusion of control.
But here’s the thing: sometimes we are helpless.
Sometimes things are bad, or painful, or terrifying and there’s nothing we can do about it.
- Yes, something terrible could happen to you or people you care about in the future.
- Yes, some people really, truly, deep-down don’t like you very much.
Worrying about it is a denial of reality. It’s a demand that everything be the way you want it. It’s an attempt to control what is fundamentally outside your control. It’s expectations gone wild.
Shit happens. People are jerks.
Worrying about it won’t change things. But it will lead to a lot of anxiety.
Work to become more aware of your habit of worry. Then question it:
- Am I productively solving a genuine problem, or doing mental hand wringing?
- What function does my worry really serve?
- What benefit does it really give me?
Learn to accept the pain of what is or what might be and let go of your habit of worry and all the anxiety it generates.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. — Reinhold Niebuhr
2. Isolating yourself when you’re feeling down
I always think it’s strange that my therapy clients say “sorry” when they tear up or cry during therapy sessions.
Why would you apologize for feeling and expressing sadness?
(I mean, I know the answer. Because it’s socially unacceptable to be sad in public, unless it’s a funeral, then you can cry a little… but God help you if you start blubbering or “lose control!” And we’ve all been trained since we were kids to control ourselves and mask our emotions because they’re unseemly in public).
But still, even though I know why, it doesn’t stop feeling strange to me—that we’re ashamed of our emotions and how we feel and try to hide them from others, even the people we’re closest to.
As a therapist, my clients’ tears are actually really helpful to me. They’re a sign that something we’re talking about is important and valuable. That helps me do my job better because I understand the person across from me a little better.
But that’s not just true in the therapy office. That’s true for all of us!
Visibly painful emotions like sadness and fear and frustration help signal to people around us that we’re struggling and could use some help or support.
You don’t need coping strategies when you’re sad, or discouraged, or feeling lonely, paralyzed, or helpless. You need people. You need support. You need someone to give you a hug, listen carefully to your story, share a pint of Haagen Dazs with.
When we hide our pain and isolate ourselves, we throw away the most powerful antidepressant known to man—loving support from people who care about us.
So, while it’s totally natural to hide yourself away and isolate when you’re in pain or suffering, just do the opposite. Reach out. Ask for support. Connect.
We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep. ― William James
3. Keeping quiet and “going with the flow”
It’s a truism that most people dislike conflict. But that’s just because most people don’t know that there’s a good way to do conflict.
Most of us hesitate to push back and stand up for ourselves because we’re afraid of being perceived as aggressive, pushy, conniving, or rude. And so we default to being passive, accepting, quiet, and generally just “going with the flow” (which is usually just a euphemism for being a doormat).
But there’s a middle road between being a passive doormat and an aggressive (or passive-aggressive) bully: You can be assertive.
Assertiveness means standing up for your own wants, needs, and values. It means asking for what you want and saying no to what you don’t want in a way that’s clear, respectful, and honest.
And assertiveness is a skill anyone can learn.
The road to genuine self-esteem, confidence, and self-respect is assertiveness—through the willingness to align your actions with your values no matter the circumstance.
Staying silent is like a slow growing cancer to the soul… There is nothing intelligent about not standing up for yourself. You may not win every battle. However, everyone will at least know what you stood for—YOU. ― Shannon L. Alder
4. Talking trash to yourself in your head
Everybody has self-talk—that running commentary in your own head about everything from what shoes to wear and why to what your boss’ secretary thinks about your new haircut. It’s our inner narrator who constantly describes the story of our life as it unfolds.
Unfortunately, many of us A) are not very aware of our self-talk, and B) have a brutally negative, judgmental style of self-talk.
Think about it: If you talked to other people the way you talked to yourself, you’d probably have zero friends, no job, and multiple warrants out for your arrest.
The reason we all have such harsh, negative self-talk is because we were taught as children that being “tough” on yourself was motivating and the best way to force yourself to be disciplined and get stuff done.
But the truth is, drill sergeant John Wayne pull yourself up by your bootstraps self-talk narrator guy is not actually a very good source of genuine motivation. Even if you are the kind of person who’s been reasonably disciplined and successful in your pursuits, it’s probably despite your negative self-talk, not because of it.
So if negative self-talk isn’t motivating, what function does it serve?
Nothing good. But it will function to make you depressed, anxious, chronically guilty, and eventually hopeless.
You’ve had the same self-talk program running in the background of your operating system since you were 5. Might be time for an update.
He who would be useful, strong, and happy must cease to be a passive receptacle for the negative, beggarly, and impure streams of thought. —James Allen
5. Trying to manage your stress
The biggest lie we’ve all been told about chronic stress is that you need to get better at managing it.
Why is this a lie?
Stress management is actually a pretty terrible solution to the problem of chronics stress because—to point out what should be obvious—you’re already stressed!
Stress management is a Band-Aid. It’s treating the symptoms.
Which is fine as a last resort, but it’s a terrible overall strategy because it distracts us from thinking carefully about the true causes of our stress, the stressors.
The stressor is the thing that causes a stress response.
If you’re constantly stressed, the long-term solution is to fix the original cause of the stress (the stressor) not the feeling (the stress response).
If you’re constantly stressed at work, you could try and work in more deep breathing exercises or spend more time journaling about the things you’re grateful for and maybe your stress level will decrease a little for a time.
But that’s not going to change the fact that you’re terrible at saying “no” and that you take on way more projects than you can reasonably handle.
In other words, feeling stressed at work is the messenger trying to tell you that something about how you work is deeply wrong. Stress management techniques like deep breathing exercises are effectively shooting the messenger.
Stress isn’t the problem. It’s the constant flood of stressors in your life that’s making you miserable.
Here’s another way to think about it:
The way we think about chronic stress is like an emergency room where the only treatment option is Tylenol:
- Gun shot? Here’s a Tylenol.
- Fractured arm? Here’s a Tylenol.
- Heart attack? Here’s a Tylenol.
Sure, a Tylenol might make you feel a little better in the moment. But it doesn’t address the cause of the pain.
There’s nothing objectively wrong with traditional stress management techniques like deep breathing or mindfulness. The problem is the habit of thinking about chronic stress only in terms of how we feel—our stress response.
In reality, the far more important part of the equation is the stressor(s) that are causing the stress in the first place.
Stop trying to manage your stress and start managing your stressors. — Me
6. Believing your own thoughts unconditionally
What’s so special about your thoughts?
Seriously, why do you give over so much respect and authority and meaning to everything that pops into your mind?
The idea jumped into your head that your co-worker thinks you’re lazy… So what? Does that mean anything? Is the fact that you had a thought about that idea genuine evidence that it’s true? Does it mean you have social anxiety? Is it just another sign that you have low self-esteem and need to get in to see a shrink immediately?
Maybe they do think you’re lazy. But the fact that you had a thought about it doesn’t make it any more or less likely.
But guess what? If every time thoughts like that pop into your mind you give them tons of attention, exert lots of mental energy over them and read into them all sorts of deep, weighty meaning, you’re teaching your own mind to throw more of those thoughts at you.
Cue the vicious cycle of chronic intrusive thoughts and all the anxiety and distress that goes along with them
Remember: Your thoughts aren’t special. And a lot of them are actively detrimental if you maintain a habit of always giving them tons of respect and attention.
Cultivate a healthy skepticism of your own thoughts. Learn to let them be. You’ll be happier for it.
The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. ― Eckhart Tolle
All You Need to Know
Let go of the habit of worry.
Let go of the habit of isolation.
Let go of the habit of going with the flow.
Let go of the habit of trash-talking yourself.
Let go of the habit of stress management.
Let go of the habit of engaging all your thoughts.
Let go of the habits keeping you unhappy and you won’t have to find happiness. It will have found you.
51 CommentsAdd Yours
A great advice.
You’re welcome, Krishan!
Great article,many thanks
The “six subtle habits” article helps me very much.
I will use and reuse the suggestions and make them a “habit.”
K. Soundar Rajan
Glad it was helpful!
I love how you hacked through all the “social constructs” that hold us back from clarity, and zeroed in on the real issues. THANK YOU, just what I needed to hear today.
You bet, Luann!
Reading this just made me realize these were my real problems… I mean the root of most of my problems.
Thanks man this was really helpful.
I would try and implement these in my life.
You’re welcome, Austin!
I needed to read this right now. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Rosalie! Glad it was helpful 🙂
As a life coach, I see so many clients struggle with just getting out of their own heads and ultimately, their own way. So often, we are the stoppers in our own lives. Thanks for being clear and unconventional with the article. I appreciate you!
Thank you, Kiffra 🙂
Good stuff Nick. As a therapist, I agree that this is the kind of thing clients need to be taught. I do a lot of public speaking about mental health. Would like to quote you in my presentations if you approve.
Thanks, Charles! And yeah, go for it!
As a student psychiatric nurse practitioner, I can truly say that the wealth of information here will help guide my practice in ways I can’t even begin to be thankful for. Thank you for what you are doing with this website, you have helped me change the way I think and as a result, will continue changing minds and lives through me.
Cheers from Miami, FL
Thanks for the kind words, Daniel! And best of luck in school—mental health is a challenging but super rewarding career.
Your remarks on stress management are terrific. Great post, thank you.
I’ve voraciously read this article and talked about it with some friends and family members in my home country that have asked me to translate it. I did, and if you are interested in having an Italian translation of this piece i’d love to share it. Thank you for this approachable, simple but not easy method for attaining genuine happiness.
Hey Francesca, a translation would be great! If you want to format it as a PDF and email it to me (firstname.lastname@example.org), I’ll link to it in the article. Thanks!
I appreciate all your suggestions to manage my stressors and will look at your “Let go’s” I think I have been a pleaser all my life and now at 64, I am trying to work on pleasing me! Thanks for your encouragement!
You’re welcome, Sue 🙂
Just read this in Medium and was hit with the synchronicity of the article and a conversation last evening with friends about “worrying” and just how useless it can be. Reading your article validates out very concerns. My mantra for today is “It is what it is no more no less”.
At the very least this changed my day. Thanks Nick.
Glad to hear it, Matt!
Wonderful article. Nice way of presenting the modern world stress causes and how to mitigate. Thank you Nick Wignall.
You’re very welcome 🙂
How much time and energy we waste in
Asking people to change,
Waiting for people to change,
Upset because they don’t change?
Invest a little time and energy in
Teaching your own mind to
RELEASE THE EXPECTATIONS.
– Brahma Kumaris
You really hit the mark with almost everything in this piece! Some of these things are so painfully obvious, but I think a lot of us don’t come to the same conclusions because we’re too afraid to make massive changes in our lives, even if it means more mental stability and happiness. Thanks for sharing 🙂
You’re welcome, Nataly!
Great advice, even though we all know it, it’s great to read in 1 article!!
Hi Nick , I am new to your site and I am finding it very interesting and helpful, I am currently going through a very stressful relationship problem with my spouse of 21years, we have 3 teenage children and a successful contracting and farming business, having huge issues with wife whom has and has had alcohol abuse issues for many many years “high functioning alcoholic in denial, my years of frustration and busy life have resulted in dealing with it in a nasty sarcastic manner with verbal criticism, I am seeking professional help and trying my hardest to repair and improve my self knowledge /awareness and trying to be a better person with less frustration and anger , I need to be there for my kids, I am finding your stuff extremely valuable and look forward to positive progress, thank you , Cameron, Queensland Australia
You’re very welcome, Cameron. Best of luck with the current challenges.
You make sound so fucking easy!
Stress is my biggest problem. Even though I try to stay out I feel totally stressed. It’s not only my work but routine stuff and thoughts.
Nick, do you think to keep the stress to ourselves is a good idea? After my husband leaves for the office, I am mostly alone and busy but still, something or the other strikes my mind.
First time reading on your site. Good counsel. Thank you
The entire summary of life captured eloquently for busy people (parents, regular people, and everybody else) especially in this TMI times.
Thanks a bunch Nick
I think I constantly worrying and think about my future and how other people look at me. I know, it is useless to care, but I just did. I need to find some ways to be present at the moment rather than thinking about how other people are doing or how will they look at me. Thanks for your post, I’m more aware of my own thoughts and I needed to do something about it.
Dear Nick Wignall
Im 56, F, mother of 5.
I used parenting books in the 90s. Self helping books throughout the decades & a touch of tough talking Dr Laura S…..(lol)
Its been years since lve come across direct advice. For some reason professionals too often keep the “direct” tools & concepts to themselves….
l am very delighted that you’re giving us a lesson(s) type view, of what you learned in school. For example, your article about learning how vulnerability deepens our relationships is a newer way of explaining to us. Sort of like youre unafraid to share trade secrets….l sincerely hope my words are clear. I for one, am excited to have signed up for your newsletter (l never sign up for more Email, no matter how hopeful it is)….lve read the help books of the 80s, the 90s, the 2000s and they always contained recipe of 95% description of our “woes” in order for us to feel validated?…& So very little real advice. You actually taught why & what were feeling when we get emotional & what simple response style we need….
Im always telling my 5 grown kids (25to38) that l “young” people, young professionals are the best for newer, freer & truer information. Also tell em young peeps change the world!!!!
Hi Nick, just the article I needed. Straight to the point.
I regretted sharing too much personal information with my neighbour and I’ve had sleepness nights since.
I feel i betrayed my marriage. I even want to talk to him and apologies. I’ve been worrying and through combing the net I came across your article. It has helped me massively and I’m sure sticking to it for the future.
Thanks so much
I’ve found your site a few days ago, it already helped me a great deal and it’s all for free! You’re a true hero!
I don’t agree with you about worry. To me, worry is the stress, the tension, thinking about about what what I should do or what I need to do or what I haven’t thought of that I could do to make things better. What am I missing? Can I fix this but I just haven’t discovered how? That’s worry. To me, things I have no control over, say the coronavirus, are not worries. I do my part, wear a mask, socially isolate, otherwise I don’t worry. However, I do worry how to protect my mom, who is in a senior living facility. And, I worry about my job. Can I prevent being laid off? How? Am I doing enough to protect my job and make myself less dispensable? That worry is draining, but also useful.
Scott, just a semantical difference I think.
To me, if a way of thinking is actually useful, then it’s “problem-solving” even if it leads to anxiety. By (my) definition, worry is unhelpful thinking that leads to anxiety.
Thank you 😊 simple, sensible and logical, I love it!
Hi Nick, I’m so glad I met this wonderful site
I am Iranian and unfortunately Iranian sites do not have this greatness
I wish you the best
This was amazing.
Happiness and mental health go hand in hand and therefore we should always prioritize our happiness for good mental health stability.