We all want to know how to be happy: To live a good life, feel fulfilled, be engaged, create things, and connect deeply with others.
And often, our search for increased happiness means we’re trying to add more and more wonderful things to our lives, when really what we need is to let go of the things that are preventing us from experiencing deep satisfaction in the first place.
These are things that cause suffering, pain, stress, hurt, anxiety, shame, and depression by holding on.
Inspired by Luminita Saviuc’s famous article from 2011 , I’ve come up with an updated list of things to give up in order to be happy:
If there was ever a slow acting venom to sap the vigor of the human spirit, we could call it by the name: perfectionism.
Perfectionism paralyses us, making us unwilling to act for the fear of falling short of out ideals. And then it punishes us when we invariably do, for “perfect” is an impossible standard to live up to.
It’s one thing to always keep our head up, pointed towards our lofty goals – quite another if we’re constantly pushed back into the mud for doing so.
Giving up perfectionism and embracing continual growth is what allows us to enrich our lives, to have new experiences and develop new skills fluidly – without resistance.
Ever have that coworker (or boss) that never smiled, spent all their time working, and frowned on fun? Ever be that person in the name of more “productivity” or “success”?
Being too serious drains our energy, as well as the energy of those around us. It turns a fresh, exciting world into monotony, monochrome, and monotone.
Lightening up doesn’t mean being silly or joking all the time, it means allowing ourselves to enjoy life along the way – even when it’s serious grown up stuff.
Chances are, our lives contain a significant amount of serious-sounding business to take care of. If our commute, our work, chores, and our other obligations can be approached with a light heart and a smile, we’ve just radically improved the quality of our lives.
No, you’re not crazy – the voices in your head really are a crucial part of how good you feel about your life. From PsychologyToday:
“…destructive type of self-talk causes you to question yourself so constantly that you can soon become paralyzed with doubt and uncertainty”
Negative self talk such as “God, I’m such an idiot”, “I’ll never figure this out,” and “I don’t deserve that,” has the power to ruin our self confidence and self esteem, especially if we get caught in a downward spiral.
Stopping this cycle will be like having an elephant lifted off our chest. We’ll be able to think and move and feel without this constant pressure weighing us down.
I once heard it said that, in life, 1/3 of the people you meet will really like you, 1/3 won’t, and 1/3 won’t care either way.
This may not be literally true, but it does make a good point: No matter what we do, some people will like us, some won’t and some will be indifferent.
We’re often so concerned with what other people think that we give up what we want in order to try to squeeze everyone into the “like me” category.
That’s like trying to take the elephant we just got off our chest (see #27 above) and squeeze it into the elevator. It doesn’t fit. It’s a waste of energy.
The only sensible course of action is to live our truth and embrace those who would celebrate who we really are.
Accumulating as much stuff as we can possibly fit in our living space may be one of the most popular pastimes of modern humans, but it’s a poor recipe for happiness.
As Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational explains, buying things doesn’t create lasting happiness. We get comfortable and familiar with what we have, then – like our friendly neighborhood crack addict – have to go out to get another hit in order to keep the jollies flowing.
Except that the joy we get from acquiring new stuff also diminishes as we acquire more, just look at this interesting study conducted by MS Paint about the correlation between the number of pirate hats bought and total happiness:
As we can clearly see, the first couple hats bring us great happiness, but after that it’s harder and harder to get the joy we did from those initial hats.
This is what fuels mindless consumption, the fact that in order to get the same amount of joy we did initially, we need an ever increasing amount of “stuff”. It’s time to break the cycle.
Labels are a great way to find out what ingredients are in our food – but they’re a lousy way to think about people.
The problem with labeling ourselves and labeling others is that these labels attribute value to the group in question.
All of this mode of thinking pulls people apart. People with different labels than our own aren’t as good as us in some way, and don’t belong in our exclusive, correct group – the one group of people smart enough to get it right. Or not.
To create widespread happiness we need to bring people together, and that means seeing all people as just people, without all the qualifiers attached
Blaming others for our problems often seems justified, but it can never move us towards happiness, because it gives all our power to the external world.
Not all depressed people blame the world for their problems, but almost all the people who blame the world for their problems are depressed.
By blaming, what we’re really saying is “I have no power to determine my own happiness, you have all of it, so you’d better make me happy.”
Looking at blame in this light, we can see that it’s actually quite selfish, as well as self-defeating. Taking responsibility for our lives is one of the fundamental principles of leading a happy life, even when it seems like nothing is our fault.
Most people will never be extravagantly wealthy. And thankfully, most people don’t need to be.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re one of the wealthiest people in the history of humanity – even if you’re not pulling in the billions (link: world wealth distribution).
Finding peace with your financial situation and getting the most out of what you have makes more sense than working yourself to death in pursuit of money.
After all, one of the top regrets of dying people is that they worked too hard and didn’t focus on what was truly important until it was too late.
Excuses are a fancy way of saying, “someone else had better come solve my problems.” Maybe the dog really ate our homework, maybe our parents didn’t give us enough love and affection, maybe we had some sort of traumatic experience that affects our ability to trust.
There is always a reason to not reach our goals and fulfill our desires if we look for it. And some people have really good reasons. But the simple truth is that holding on to these justifications prevents us from making progress – and that we’re the only ones who can make that progress.
We have to ditch the excuses, no matter how comforting they may be, and dig down deep to connect with what really drives us, and go for it.
We often find ourselves disapproving with the way the people around us behave. Their habits grind us down. Maybe they’re noisy, leave the TV on when they’ve left the room, don’t clean up after themselves, or spend their money in strange and irresponsible ways (by our thinking).
We wish we could get them to see the world our way and act the way we would. We may even feel disrespected or hurt by their behavior. What we want is control.
But trying to control people is the best-known way to destroy our relationships, and sadly, this tendency affects those closest to us most. Think of parents with rebellious teens or a strained marriage.
Instead of seeing more control over others, self control is what we really need. That, and acceptance of the things that make the people close to us unique and interesting.
There seem to be 2 types of “pasts” – the golden years we wish would return, and the horrible traumas that have left us scarred.
Researchers have found a number of reasons we get stuck in the past that have nothing to do with problem solving for future events, but are replays of our hurts and failings. These can become patterns of thought that are difficult to escape, increasing the hurt, loss, or shame we feel.
Being stuck in the past prevents us from engaging in the present and building the future. The stories we tell about why things are the way they are have a lot of sentimental value, but if we want to write a new ending, then we have to stop reading through the old chapters.
The standard model for losing weight, improving our personal finances, and overcoming other personal challenges is “repress for success.” Don’t eat that lobster. Don’t buy that latte. Don’t watch that episode of Dancing With The Stars!
All of this leads to a guilt-ridden conscience when we inevitably do some of these activities we’ve decided are in the “bad” pile, even though we desire them.
It’s one thing to cater to every fleeting emotion that flows through us, and it’s actually the exact same thing to repress them all: Misery, unhappiness, stress,dysfunction.
There is a middle ground between self repression and reckless indulgence. And it starts with the recognition that are desires aren’t bad and wrong.
Having expectations is an insidious sort of mind virus that is a lose-lose proposition for our brains.
Either our expectations aren’t met, in which case we feel upset. Or they are met, in which case we feel relief. Occasionally, we receive a tiny amount of positive feedback when our expectations are exceeded, but this is rare – and is quite possibly the reason we continue to set high expectations only to be let down.
What we really want is to have no expectations and high aspirations, or “short term pessimism and long term optimism”.
We aim for our big targets, but don’t expect anything that isn’t here, now. I recently aced some job interviews, but I don’t consider myself a salaried employee until the money is in the bank.
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone” ― Pablo Picasso
Procrastination has got to be one of the most-cited reasons for people not achieving their goals. We could do it, but we just keep putting things off. It’s actually rather amazing. We can want something, know how to do it (or find out), have the means to do it, and have the time to do it – yet still not do it! Why does this happen?
Most of the things we really care about require us to do something unpleasant or undesirable. If that wasn’t the case, everyone would be a six-pack sporting billionaire with a necklace of Olympic gold medals – or a rough equivalent.
Procrastinating has more to do with our discomfort with uncertainty, fear of failure, desire for perfection, and other mental hurdles – rather than a major force of its own. Conquer those, and say goodbye to procrastination.
One of the reasons I like writing this blog is I get to exercise my intellectual prowess without censorship or argument. However, leading all aspects of my life in the same way I write a blog post would be ruinous for my relationships.
When we value being right – or rather, feeling like we’ve won an intellectual debate – over our relationships with others, those relationships erode.
It’s understandable why this is the case. Being wrong threatens our identity when we associate too closely with the ideas and opinions we express.
But our ideas are independent of us. In fact, they’re not our ideas at all. The process by which humanity increases its knowledge is a continuous and collective process.
Letting go of the need to be/feel right will allow us to focus more on what’s truly important, our relationships and our ability to come together to find solutions to the challenges that face us.
Attachment is the idea that something is ours to possess. It can be an object such as a book, a person, or an abstract concept such as an idea.
The things we’re attached to create a fear of loss. If we’re attached to our partner, we fear losing them. If we’re attached to our idea that the Paleo diet is the right way to eat, then we fear being proven wrong.
Giving up attachment means realizing that, even if these things are elements in our lives, they aren’t ours to own and keep. This can be particularly hard with our romantic partners – but it’s no less true.
I love my girlfriend, but I certainly don’t own her. Detaching doesn’t mean we can’t love something, it just means we’re no longer irrevocably bound to it, and we don’t have to fear it’s loss.
For instance, I don’t want to lose Katia, someone whom I love, but I don’t fear it either. That’s the freedom giving up attachment offers.
We like to make our surroundings as safe and cozy as we can, and then hold on to this with all our might. Change is scary and threatening. Whatever else happens, we must not rock the boat!
But this sort of safety and security is, for the most part, an illusion. There are far too many things in this world outside of our control to pretend like nothing can happen that will knock us from our ivory towers.
International politics (war), the looming energy and environmental crises, natural disasters, financial sector implosions – all have the power to shake what we believe to be unshakable.
Real security is knowing that no matter what happens, you’ll figure out what to do.
Creativity, resourcefulness, determination, friendship – these are the things that are real security.
Personally, I don’t buy in to any of the doom and gloom predictions the media love to scare us with. But I know that I’m also not above “losing it all.”
Being constantly hooked in to the electro-social web of the 21st century has a lot of allure, but it’s not all wine and roses*. Here’s a quick overview of the symptoms of excessive consumption of the social web – our cellphones, tablets, and computers that keep us connected 24/7 to one another – that, ironically, I’ve collected from around the web:
We are not adapted to this sort of lifestyle and need time to unplug.
For me, one of the best things about traveling the world for a year was that it drastically cut down on my ability to access the network, and I experienced so much life out in the world.
Complaining is a relationship killer. It’s one of the cardinal sins of communication, as exemplified in How to Win friends And Influence People – “never criticize, condemn, or complain.”
Work was tough. The commute was long. The weather was bad. We need more money. Okay? I get it. So does everyone else. We all experiences challenges and rough patches.
Complaining has not helped a single time. If we were to replace complaints with solution-oriented actions, our results would be a lot different.
We spend too much time worrying about what others will think of us, and these worries can spiral out of control and become debilitating insecurities about our self worth.
As we discussed earlier, no matter what we do there are going to be those who like us, those who dislike us, and those who don’t have any opinion. It’s a fruitless exercise to try to make it otherwise.
Insecurity stems from the time we lived in small tribes, and being ousted was as good as a death sentence – small wonder public speaking is cited as being a bigger fear than death! They are actually equivalent – only public speaking is a much more concrete and visceral experience.
By getting rid of our insecurities, we free up our energy to pursue the things we truly care about with relentless vigor.
While it is untrue that happiness is 100% in our own hands – the external world does play a role, to be completely dependent on others for our happiness is basically guaranteeing our unhappiness.
Why? Because other people aren’t looking out for your best interests – even the well meaning ones. Only you have the power to do that.
You know your own mind, your own values, your own passions. And while other people are an important part of expressing these things in the world, they don’t control them.
Waiting for others to come and set things right will have us counting the days, months, and years as life passes us by, as we wait at an abandoned bus stop wondering what the heck is going on. You determine your direction. You take action. You create your happiness.
Nobody else can care about it as much as you can.
Humans are amazing story tellers. One of the reasons we’re so good at it is that our minds don’t cope very well with uncertainty. We tell stories to give meaning to the things we don’t understand. And this takes place with fairly mundane, routine events.
For instance, think of all the times you’ve been puttering around the house and someone (your partner, a parent, a child) asks, “why did you do that?” Maybe you dropped a cup, picked your nose, rearranged some flowers, or laughed hysterically – the particular doesn’t matter.
In any case, we often don’t know why we do the things we do. Most of our actions are automatic, a combination of our habits, current mental state, and environment. So we rationalize, telling a story that seems to make sense. “Oh, well the flowers were leaning to the left and I wanted to make sure they got more sunlight” or some such nonsense.
Normally, this is harmless, but not always. When we form strong opinions about things we haven’t taken the time to research and understand, we’re putting ourselves in a position to hurt ourselves and others.
We feel the need to have opinions about everything, so when we’re queried we come up with answers. We need to stop doing this.
It’s okay to not know. In fact, it’s liberating to stop telling these stories – because the danger is we end up believing them!
It is natural to want to know how things are going to go before we act, but obsessive analysis of every possible scenario ends up being a waste of time.
There are simply too many variables to consider to be able to map our way through a complex task or scenario, such as a job interview or asking someone for a date.
We are much better off preparing our best and then going for it, instead of waiting for more information to come and clarify the unknowns. Because we’ll find that, as soon as the pressure is on and we have to perform, all the planning and information gathering goes out the window and instinct takes over.
We don’t even have access to all the information we were trying to analyze, organize and remember.
Waiting for the stars to align before taking action is a sure way to set the world record for doing nothing.
If that’s not your goal, then you best stop waiting for the right moment, and start making this moment right. There will always be a reason to delay action if that’s what we’re looking for.
Equally, there will also be a reason to act now – if we connect honestly with our desires, interests, and passions.
If you want something, then the time to start is now.
Otherwise, throw out the idea and find something you’re willing to work towards.
We are often quick to criticize the behavior of others, the quality of their actions, as well as the quality of our own.
But with other people, we don’t know what’s going on in their lives. We don’t understand their struggles, their worries, their fears. All we see is the external expression of their internal state, and it’s not always a fair representation of who that person is.
And to be honest, even if it was, passing judgment isn’t likely the way to produce happiness in their lives or ours. For judgment is a divisive action – where as understanding is a cohesive one.
By understanding people as our default goal and position, and by not marginalizing them from the outset through judgment, we allow ourselves the opportunity to learn something about another person’s experience and help them with our suffering.
As for ourselves, we often judge ourselves harshly against standards that we don’t fully understand. We don’t all have the same opportunities or the same level of interest as others, so to call ourselves lazy, stupid, or unmotivated is generally inaccurate – and it’s always counterproductive.
Self understanding is likewise what we need. Putting ourselves down isn’t the way to reach our goals.
Perfectionism applied to romance is one of the saddest recipes for disaster in the Cookbook of Life.
No partner is ever going to meet some imagined ideal of perfection.
Nobody thinks and acts exactly the same way we do, and thank goodness, because otherwise we’d be dating ourselves. So our partners are going to challenge us to grow; to learn to accept them as they are; to love every part of them, including the parts that sometimes make us hang our jaws in exasperation.
It is our responsibility to see the “imperfections” (though you should stop using such a word!) as opportunities to learn about how another person sees and interacts with the world.
Certainty is the twin sibling of perfectionism. The two work hand in hand to paralyze us and turn the saccharine ambrosia of our passions into hardened, crystallize, immobile amber.
As we grow up and get punished for our mistakes and misdeeds, we lose our taste for the unknown, for adventure. We end up craving the comfort of the known and the certain.
But this is like a self imposed handicap that prevents us from getting off our butts and achieving all the magnificent goals we have. We write bucket lists and dream big dreams, but don’t move, because that would require tasting the bitter fruit of uncertainty.
Well it’s time to take that bite and give up certainty for something better: unlocking our full potential as human beings.
Maybe you feel like what you have isn’t enough or isn’t good enough, but looking down at the things we have while salivating over the wonders withheld from us is not the path to lasting happiness.
If we cultivate the habit of being dissatisfied with what we have, then it is inevitable that – should we eventually acquire the things that made our taste buds tingle, we will look down on them too, looking for a fancier and more prestigious next target.
There is no end in sight, and no satisfaction to be had. For we can always have more.
The only way to avoid this is by appreciating the things we have. For when we think “this is good, this is enough,” we free ourselves from the curse of insatiability. This doesn’t mean we can’t have more, but it means that getting more is no longer a prerequisite to being fulfilled.
Wait. What? The number one thing to give up in order to be happier to give up my need to be happy?
If happiness is what we’re demanding of ourselves, then we’re not going to be in tune with how we truly feel. This will create a lot of tension and stress when we realize we’re not happy.
Instead of judging ourselves as “failing” at happiness, we can give ourselves the right to feel anything and everything – the whole cornucopia of emotion human experience has to offer.
It is by allowing ourselves to feel sad, upset, even angry or jealous that we empower ourselves to release these emotions and return to happiness.
Give yourself a pat on the back. If you read all the way through – then that’s nearly 6,000 words of wisdom you can now apply to your life in order to increase your happiness.
Now it’s your turn. What do you need to give up in order to be happier? Leave your answer in the comments below.