Everyone wants to be happy. In fact, happiness is probably at the top of your list of goals in life, and I’m sure it’s been a New Year's resolution in the past. Wishing you were happier won’t get you very far because as you’ll learn, your happiness is actually something you can control. But what about your unhappiness? You aren’t alone focusing on what you want and neglecting how you feel. It seems intuitive to avoid negative feelings because they're uncomfortable and feel bad, but by ignoring them you’re actually losing some valuable information that can change you and your life on a deep level.
I like to teach about the equation of pain + reflection = wisdom.
Emotions on their own are really just energy passing through your body. It’s what you attach to your feelings that generates the experience you have and the amount of suffering you can cause yourself. It’s not a good idea to ruminate on feelings or overanalyze them, but sometimes—and this is the case with unhappiness—you can really learn a lot by understanding what is being communicated through your feelings.
Most of the time you probably know you’re unhappy and wonder why you’re not happy, but it’s rare that I see people ask themselves why they’re unhappy. Digging into this kind of self-inquiry can be really fruitful because it’s very hard to turn unhappiness into authentic happiness if you’re not clear about what you need to shift in your life.
Step One: Make a list of reasons why you’re unhappy (here are some examples):
- Single and lonely
- Hate your job
- Going through a breakup
- Stressed about money
- Don’t like where you live
- Feeling lost and adrift
- Bored with your life
- No social life
Step Two: Get clear about what happiness is.
Happiness is a state of being, not an end goal. There are things that you do or don’t do that contribute to your level of happiness at any given time. For example, people who socialize more are more likely to live happier lives than people who isolate or spend too much time alone. Happiness is connected to your brain's wiring so when you stimulate certain parts of your brain and the neurochemicals housed in there, you are “triggering” your happiness.
Step Three: Uncover your happiness triggers.
Give some thought to what does make you happy or where you feel the most happiness. It might be on vacation, hanging out with friends, or on a hike. What do you feel in those situations? There will always be things in your life that make you feel happier and those that make you feel unhappy, so learn to add to your happiness quota. Picture the counter-balance of an English coin scale with one side being happiness and the other unhappiness. The more you add to each side, the lower the other side will be.
Step Four: Practice being happy.
In essence, happiness requires action; it doesn’t just happen all the time. Like with gratitude or self-compassion, you have to practice at being happy regularly. This takes effort, but it’s completely in your control. This means reaching out to make plans so you can feel connected even if you don’t feel like it, spending a Saturday volunteering because altruistic behavior increases happiness, or spending some time in nature instead of in front of your computer. All of these activities will increase your happiness quotient.
Step Five: Choose happiness over unhappiness.
As you look through your unhappiness list ask yourself if you can choose happiness in any of those situations. Making a conscious choice to feel happier sets an intention and commitment to yourself to live as often as you can in a more positive mindset. It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself and get stuck in feeling like you don’t have any power to change your unhappiness, but in reality, you are the only person who can. You don’t have to change what’s making you unhappy, you need to make sure you’re adding more happiness-promoting ingredients to your life soup.
Relieve yourself of any unrealistic expectations of being happy all the time. Unhappiness is an important part of life because it’s a reminder that things aren’t as good as they could be, and it can motivate you to make changes in your life. Most unhappiness comes from a feeling of being trapped or like we don’t have control over what’s happening in our lives, but the one thing you can almost always control is how you feel.