I’d like to invite you to stop for a moment and check in with yourself. I know it’s unusual, and at first you might come up empty-handed, but try and persevere: Take a deep breath and ask yourself how happy or unhappy you are right now, at this moment, without having to think about it. This is about feeling.
What was your answer? Was it a 5-star review, or more like a “meh” one? The truth is that most of us don’t feel outrageously happy the majority of the time. We’re not exactly unhappy, either, mind you. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could dial up the happiness meter, so to speak?
Let’s take a closer look.
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Why we feel “meh”
At first glance, it seems unreasonable. Barring serious physical and/or mental illness, which some of us suffer from and which can really mess with your emotions, the majority of us live lives our ancestors would have dreamed of, if they could have imagined them.
We have shelter and comfort. Our food supplies are so abundant, we needn’t worry about ever going hungry. Most of us also have a family and friends we love and who love us. We have more options in terms of fulfilling leisure and sports activities than any generation before us.
We’re living the life of Riley. We should be jumping with joy all day, every day, shouldn’t we?
Then why aren’t we?
There are a lot of reasons, but I’d like to pull up the most common ones.
#1: Negativity Bias
The first would be the evolutionary negativity bias we all carry around with us. I’ve published an entire video episode on the subject recently, so I’ll give you the link here and leave it at that.
It’s fairly obvious why this would dampen your mood, isn’t it? If you have ten good things going on but your genetic programming forces you to hone in on the one problem, it’s bound to affect your happiness levels.
Number two is a little more subtle. It may sound strange, but we’re prone to defaulting to the mood that has become a habit.
I often say that being unhappy is just as much of a habit as being outrageously happy, and if you look around, you’ll see a lot of people just living out their lives without ever experiencing either extreme. We’re surrounded by “meh” people – often in our families, as well as the outside world – and so this is what we learn from childhood on.
#3: Upper Limit
Gay Hendricks describes the “upper limit” of happiness people subconsciously allow themselves. Apparently, the habitual (see my previous point) level of feeling just about okay, feels safe to us. It’s familiar and therefore, comfortable.
This inner thermostat prevents us from feeling very happy – or very unhappy – for any extended periods of time. According to Hendricks, if something wonderful happens in our lives, we might feel overjoyed, but after a while the discomfort from being beyond our own Upper Limit kicks in and we subconsciously create or attract a situation that’ll regulate our happiness levels down to what we’ve come to see as “normal”.
Acute versus habitual (un)happiness
To avoid misunderstandings: I’m not saying we should always be blissfully happy. In fact, I’ve argued that that would be detrimental and unhealthy.
Going through happier-than-usual and also very unhappy periods in life is completely normal. If you’re in mourning or have just lost your job, got divorced, or are struggling with any misfortune in life, it’s normal and even good for you to fully experience the associated emotions.
Similarly, if you’ve just fallen in love or landed your dream job, you’re bound to be overjoyed for a while. Neither of these emotional extremes are better or worse than the other. What they have in common is that they’re bound to a particular situation or event in your life. As such they are also temporary.
What I’m talking about in this article is the way we feel outside such extraordinary circumstances. When our lives are ticking away, we still have a lot of reasons to be happy, objectively, but we might not feel the matching levels of happiness.
How to be
Now if you look at the above, you might notice that a lot of the things that makes us feel “meh” are fairly natural: habit, evolutionary burdens, the things we learn from the people around us from childhood onwards. By now, it should be fairly obvious that there’s nothing wrong with us if we’re not feeling happy all the time.
The point is that it’s possible to turn up the thermostat, to raise the Upper Limit and to create new, happier habits. It’s not something you learn overnight; instead, it requires a long-term commitment and many small steps. Here are a few to get you started.
1. New and shiny
Asked about the times they were the happiest in their lives, most people talk about special events such as getting married, travelling the world, having a child. It seems that humans thrive on the extraordinary and new. Therefore, make sure you do something new regularly! Try out a new hobby. Meet new people. Learn a new skill. It keeps you on your toes, preserves your mental flexibility, and it quite simply makes you outrageously happy.
Do what lights you up. One of the reasons I centre my work around passions is that they are a key to everyday happiness. If you do something that gets you into the “flow”, that makes you forget time, it’s almost like you fall in love: You’re floating on a cloud and your happiness is off the charts.
3. Helping others
There are few things more fulfilling than helping our fellow human beings. We’re social animals, after all! Volunteer your time, get involved in a good cause. You needn’t limit yourself to humans, either: working with animals is immensely gratifying, too. If you’re short on time or opportunity, support a cause through online activisim or donations. I often help provide loans to woman in third-world countries through Kiva, and it gives me so much joy to read their success stories afterwards.
4. Wooing your senses
Make a conscious effort to indulge your five senses. Listen to your favourite music. Redecorate or create a corner in your house with all your favourite colours. Dress in natural fibres and enjoy the feeling of the textures on your skin. Wear your favourite perfume or get flowers whose scent you love. Eat and truly taste your favourite foods and drinks. There are few things that create more happiness hormones.
Pick one or more of the above techniques and apply them regularly. The important thing is to set yourself reminders in the calendar or on your phone in order to make them a habit. Gradually, you’ll feel the difference it makes, and eventually, you’ll spend quite a lot of time being, simply, outrageously happy.
A lot of people I talk to about positive or negative thinking, assure me that they do equal amounts of both and call themselves “realists”. There’s a biological reason why this is not true.
Your mission today is to understand why you’re not a realist and how to avoid the trap of unhealthy positivity.
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Task 1: Why you’re not a realist
If you just let your thoughts happen and you’re a fairly healthy person mentally and emotionally, you should end up with equal numbers of positive and negative thoughts – right?
The reason for this is evolutionary. Imagine when we were hunter/gatherers. There’s a beautiful sunset to the left. To the right, there’s an angry bear approaching. Which one did our ancestors need to pay attention to?
Our survival as a species used to depend on our negativity bias. It’s ingrained in us so that now we need to consciously focus on the positive to be “realistic”.
Task 2: Why positive thinking can be unhealthy
Unfortunately, the insight from task 1 has led to an unhealthy, even dangerous trend in personal development. Some gurus claim you should strive to always be positive. People feel like failures for completely normal feelings of anger, sadness, grief or frustration.
This has been proven to be very detrimental to your mental health. Apart from that: Why wouldn’t you experience the full range of human emotions? Don’t take the positivity focus too far.
Task 3: What positive thinking truly means
If we put the insights from Tasks 1 and 2 together, it’s clear that we need a healthy way to counter the evolutionary negativity bias. Here’s how to do this.
- Make space in your life for your emotions. Consciously welcome everything you feel.
- Instead of judging your emotions, look at them in terms of where you need to heal, what you need to pay attention to.
- Then, once you’ve established that habit, introduce ways of paying special attention to positive emotions, such as daily gratitude, affirmations, prioritising your passions, etc.
“If you do not change direction, you might end up where you’re headed.” -Unknown (often falsely attributed to Lao Tzu)
Everyone I talk to, seems to be convinced that they’re the only person on the planet who doesn’t have their sh*t together. Because everyone else seems so happy and in control (Instagram pictures don’t lie, right? Right??), they’re deeply ashamed of their own struggles.
It’s just not true! Everyone struggles and feels powerless sometimes, especially in the face of things we would like to change in our lives.
There are, however, ways to make change easier. They’re not always the flashiest or most glamorous techniques, but if they cause our lives to improve in exactly the way we choose, wouldn’t they be worth looking at?
The following are three tried-and-tested techniques to get out of your own way and stop feeling awful. One caveat before I begin: Reading this article isn’t going to change anything. Only implementing the steps I describe, will make a difference.
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Things that keep you stuck #1: Your all-or-nothing attitude keeps you feeling bad about yourself
If you’ve ever been on a weight-loss diet, you’re probably familiar with this one. You’re doing the first week according to plan and lose a few pounds. Fantastic! The next week you’re invited to a party. Halfway through the evening, you crack and eat a bowl of potato salad. Then you think: “It’s all ruined now anyway!” and proceed to also eat barbecue, finger food, and generous helpings of dessert.
If you’d stuck to just the potato salad, it would have been no big deal. It’s because you felt that once you’d broken your “winning streak” of perfection, nothing mattered anymore, that you went on that binge and probably ended up gaining back all the weight you’d lost up to then.
I have a bit of a dramatic streak and therefore, I love sweeping changes. Nothing inspires me more than making plans and writing lists and imagining exactly how I’ll do everything perfectly from now on. It just sounds so tempting! However, it doesn’t matter if this is about food, exercise, passions, or anything else – it’s doomed to fail.
In contrast, the way I established a routine of practising the piano after 15 years without a piano, was by making room for 15 minutes a day, which gradually expanded to take up more time. Whenever I don’t feel like practising, I go back to the 15 minutes.
Do you understand? The idea is baby steps. You can do anything in small increments. 10 minutes of dusting the bookshelves is better than no dusting at all. One healthy meal a day is better than none. Sending a quick message to a friend is better than no contact whatsoever.
“Go big or go home” is one of the worst, most damaging sayings I know. Throw it out the window and introduce 5 or 10 minutes of change every day. A month from now, you won’t know yourself.
Things that keep you stuck #2: Trying to do too much
One of the things I often ask my clients to do, is to look for inspiration from historical figures. Almost every art, field of study or discipline has seen a few giants in the past, who achieved unimaginable triumphs or created great works of art.
There’s no doubt that they were great minds and strong characters – but they also had support. Most of these creators – men, mostly, because women weren’t supposed to be artists or inventors – relied on wives (or mothers) and/or servants to look after their every need.
A poet of the nineteenth century certainly laboured over their words, but d’you know what they didn’t do? Wash their owns clothes (or their dishes), cook their own meals, clean their homes, go to yoga, pick up the children from school, attend parent-teacher-conferences, go to the bake sale, buy fresh fruit and veg from the farmers market, …
I don’t mean to diminish their achievements. What I’m saying is that maybe you should stop feeling bad about yourself for not composing operas when even Mozart, who often had financial problems, had a wife and servants to look after his many kids so that he could compose, conduct, rehearse, and generally be a full-time musical genius.
What can you do now, in the 21st century?
- Radically simplify your life and kick out anything that isn’t absolutely necessary for your survival or your family’s.
- Look for help. I don’t know why it’s so frowned upon these days to get a cleaner at least once or twice a month. It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg and it is very much worth the reduction of your stress levels.
We may be used to multi-tasking by now, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. The more you simplify and focus, the more those few focused activities will thrive. As a bonus, you’ll feel at peace and good about yourself.
Things that keep you stuck #3: Responding with more control instead of more ease
Life is unpredictable and even the most organised people sometimes face unforeseen circumstances. When things go wrong, or even if they simply don’t go the way we expected them to go, our first impulse is to tighten our grip. We try to regain a sense of security by controlling things. Nine times out of ten, these attempts fail spectacularly.
Why is responding with control a bad idea?
- It adds stress. Unforeseen events are unsettling enough on their own. Rather than calming us, trying to exert control just serves to make us more tense and add more pressure.
- It’s futile. Life has a habit of being larger than any single one of us. We can’t possibly control its eventualities. Sh*t happens, as they say. Imagine you’re swimming in a sea and suddenly there are a number of mighty, rolling waves. Are you going to frantically scream at the sea to be calm, or would it be better to allow yourself to be carried up and down by the waves until they subside?
- It redirects your focus. The only thing – or rather, person – you have control over, is yourself. You can’t dictate all the circumstances but you can choose your reaction to them. That’s what you should focus on; that’s the area that deserves your effort and energies.
Instead, when you feel like life has dropped you into the quicksand, let go. Respond with ease. Depending on the situation, do whatever is appropriate out of the following:
- look where you can help
- look after yourself
- see the funny side
- be prepared to be flexible and change your plans.
Life happening is the norm, rather than the exception. Learn to “ride out the waves” with grace and ease, and you may eventually even find joy in the process.
From Ireland to Croatia
Here’s a new type of content for this blog: A vlog! I’ll post one of these every month from now on. You’ll still get two monthly “mission” videos and a longer article as well.
In this first edition, I show you beautiful footage from both my old home and the new one, halfway across Europe from Ireland to Croatia. I also tell you what made me leave Ireland, and talk about my passions and the life I’m building here.
Enjoy! If you’d like to follow this page on YouTube, you can subscribe to my channel.
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Imagine a 10-month-old pulled themselves to a standing position, took a step, fell over and thought: “Apparently, I’m rubbish at this walking thing. I’ll just leave it to those who are better at it.” Haha!
Actually, we learn how to walk by trying and failing, until we don’t fall as much and finally, hardly at all. Fast-forward to adulthood, and we’re suddenly anxious to do everything right and never fail at anything, ever.
This is crippling our success and our joy. Your mission today is to find out why this happens, and how to normalise failure to become much happier.
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Task 1: Why we are afraid to fail
As stated above, kids have no trouble being crap at something. So when do we learn to be ashamed of mistakes? Answer: in school.
Our educational system is built on punishing mistakes. Think of every quiz that has ever been graded: It had every mistake marked with red ink, and the number of mistakes determined the score at the bottom! Is it any wonder we’re terrified of failure?
Task 2: Failure isn’t permanent
We all know that failure isn’t permanent, but what we think isn’t what makes us anxious. The fear of failure is deep inside our subconscious mind and usually comes from our school years.
It take persistence to overcome this. Here are 3 ways to get started:
- Give yourself permission to fail. Next time you do something wrong, take a deep breath and say “it’s ok.” Stop yelling at yourself.
- Consciously seek out something you suck at. Many don’t pursue a passion because they think they’re not “good enough”. Do something badly and have fun. Be a clumsy beginner.
- Create safe spaces for failure at work and at home. Encourage people to come clean and see mistakes as opportunities for growth.
These measures take time to show effect, but it’s worth it. You’ll increase your enjoyment of life and your willingness to risk trying something new.