I’ve recently read quite a few “list” articles on the topic of happiness. What to do to get happy, how to stay happy, why you’re not happy, what happy people do, etc. I’ve found them interesting, but they tend to have common themes and make certain assumptions about unhappy people that aren’t always true.
1. Poor Self-Esteem
It’s not a bad assumption that unhappy people have low self-esteem. The problem for me is that I feel I have great self-esteem. I like myself just fine, and while there are aspects of my physical, psychological, and emotional self that I am always seeking to improve, I’ve always been comfortable with who I am at the core.
The thing is, when I’m happiest with myself is when I’m working on trying to change some aspect of myself into something I would rather be. I make those changes because I have confidence that the person I currently am has the strength to make those changes. It’s like cooking or baking. I cook something and think, “Wow. That was delicious. I thoroughly enjoyed the flavors, and my mouth and stomach were quite satisfied with the result. But what if next time I change this little thing so that I like it even better?! That would rock. Next time I’ll change the thing.” And then I make that change, like it (or sometimes not) and have pretty much the same reaction. Completely wonderful, but room for improvement. Next.
That’s how I view myself. I like myself great. But I could be better at certain things. So I make efforts to change those things, and realize that I like those changes (or sometimes not), keep them, and make further improvements. I’m a work in progress. I’ll never be finished until the day I die. And I’ll like that person, too, because of how much work I put into being whoever I end up becoming.
So my happiness isn’t dependent on improving my self-esteem. For me, the two are unrelated.
2. Focus on Self Over Focus on Others
Yeah, no. Sorry. I do struggle with balance in this area, but that’s only because I sometimes forget about myself. Selfishness is definitely important. But the times in my life when I’ve intentionally back-shelved my loved ones for my own temporary enjoyment of life have actually been darker periods of my life. Times when I’ve been remarkably unhappy. I personally need to be needed, want to be wanted, and everything else Cheap Tricky. I love going to my friends’ homes and randomly washing their dishes. In that instance, it’s two-fold: piles of dirty dishes annoy me to no end, and doing something nice for a friend makes me feel good. I’m alleviating my annoyance and being helpful. If I didn’t do that thing, or countless other things I like to do for my friends, then I would feel sad, unfulfilled, burdensome, and really bored.
I need to focus on me, you betcha. But me wants to do nice things. That actually IS focusing on me, and it IS selfish. Selfishness isn’t the same as self-centeredness. I can’t be self-centered, and I have no desire to be. Balance is key.
3. Act Happy/Don’t Complain/Visualize Your Perfect Life
I lump these together because they have been the exact things that contributed to my personal unhappiness, and because they’re pretty much just different ways of saying the same thing. The worst habit of my life, one I am constantly trying to overcome, is to forget to acknowledge how bad things are.
I have to let myself be depressed. If I ignore the chronic state of impending depression with which I constantly deal, then when it shows its inevitable head it’s 10 times worse than if I allow the natural flow of doldrums infiltrate my reality. Sadness and depression are real things, and I MUST acknowledge and accept them. Ignoring them and acting happy does nothing but perpetuate the problem.
I have to complain. About my shortcomings, about my loved ones who annoy or disappoint me, about how things just aren’t working out right now. Keeping it inside and never letting it out with the necessary complaining is toxic to my existence.
Visualizing my perfect life has held me back more times than I can count. I live an incredibly different life inside my head than has ever existed, than ever WILL exist, in my reality. For me, that visualization creates an expectation that contributes to my unhappiness more than I can possibly ever express. Yes, I daydream. But now I make a point of telling myself ahead of time that it’s just my imagination, just a daydream, and it will never happen. Then when it doesn’t, I’m not left feeling worse off than before I had the thought of perfection.
4. Have a Sense of Humor
Really?! This one shows up a lot, and it is hilarious. The funniest people I’ve ever known are those I’ve noticed dealing with more unhappiness than anyone else. Does laughing make you happy? In that moment, you betcha. But the funnier the joke, the larger the reaction, the bigger the letdown that follows. Having a sense of humor does not equal happiness. How many comedians have to commit suicide before that fallacy is finally shut down? Jesus.
5. Be Grateful/Appreciate the Good Things
“Well at least I don’t have cancer.”
“At least I have SOME money.”
“At least I have SOME loved ones around.”
I can’t say more about this, except it’s akin to the idea that pretending to be happy and ignoring the problem will make you actually happy. To this, I say simply, “No.” Am I grateful for the good things? Sure. Do I appreciate when good things happen? Yup. But when I’m having an especially awful day, does it make me happy to realize those good things? No. Sorry. Try again. It may make me less unhappy for the moment, but all that is truly achieved is a steady ambivalence towards life.
The thing with all this, the goal to life as I see it, is that happiness isn’t the goal. At least it’s not my goal, not permanently. I don’t want to be happy all the time. It’s not how life works. Life is full of sunshine and thunderstorms. People are born and people die. People have money and people lose it all. People have wonderful relationships that can end at the drop of a hat. The true goal, as I see it, is to exist. To be real. To be genuine. To try for the best, expect the worst, and eventually achieve a level of contentment that leads you to your next happy, depressing, enraptured, tragic moment. And to work towards your next level of contentment.
Happiness is stagnant. And not true happiness at all.
On the other hand, try giving an unhappy person a giant stack of money, and you will discover another fallacy.