Nothing makes you happy or unhappy. Some aspects of your life can facilitate happiness. Having certain things in your life can add to your happiness. But, ultimately, your happiness is on you.
We’re all subject to seeking happiness from outside of ourselves. It is what it is. But it’s important to keep things in perspective and understand that there are many ways to chase happiness that don’t actually lead to it.
We’ll tell ourselves a story about what we think will make us happy, only to find that it didn’t fill the void we thought it would. As Dan Gilbert put it in his book Stumbling on Happiness, there’s always a tricky balance to figuring out what will make you happy in the future:
“We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy… But our temporal progeny are often thankless.
So we all keep going through this trial and error journey to see what sticks. We even chase after things we know won’t make us happy deep down, but we chase them because we’re just kind of wired to do it. It’s okay to learn from mistakes, though. And going through the process of trying to gain happiness in a mistaken way can lead to a truer sense of happiness.
Let’s take a look at some common areas people mistakenly look for fulfillment and see the truth underneath them.
According to research, there are three different attachment styles when it comes to relationships:
The attached types have a tendency to think a relationship will make them happy because it will fill some sort of void in their life. Both the anxious and avoidant types tend to get into co-dependent relationships, which means that they need to draw energy from the relationship to feel whole instead of just feeling whole as a default state.
An avoidant type who might stray or bounce around from relationship to relationship is looking for happiness in the freedom from commitment, but instead of trying to draw happiness from a single person, they’ll look to continually draw it from many other people, which is different than being okay with being alone.
Secure people come into relationships with an understanding that they don’t need the relationship itself to be happy. They want the relationship to work. They are happy when their relationships go well. But they look at their partners as partners, not someone who needs to make up for their sense of lack.
If you look at a relationship as a source of happiness instead of being a happy person before entering a relationship, you’ll always have a sense of dread in the back of your mind because of your need for the relationship to work. And even if entering a relationship makes you feel good in the short term, you’re in for a nasty downfall if things don’t work out. If you want to have happy and healthy relationships, you have to learn how to be happy being alone, being single, and building a solid relationship with yourself first.
Research has shown that happiness tends to level off after you make $75,000 a year or more. Making more money does alleviate the stress of being broke and living paycheck to paycheck. It provides options you didn’t have before. But money in and of itself doesn’t make you happy.
It’s not like money in and of itself is going to magically change your disposition after you reach a certain amount of it. But, money can and does give you access to a lifestyle that can increase your happiness if you use it wisely.
This point sounds a bit like me saying that money does make you happier, doesn’t it? Here’s the point: the almighty chase of the dollar in and of itself won’t make you happier. How you make your money matters. So does what you do with it. I encourage everyone to try and get wealthy but do it for the right reasons — the main one being that you can buy your life back.
There’s this saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Many people will engage in certain activities and behaviors because they think that the experiences will somehow make them different people.
Take travel for instance. Traveling is fun, but you can also chase a wanderlust dream in hopes of finding yourself, only to find that traveling didn’t change you at all.
Here’s a great excerpt from a viral article called Travel is No Cure For The Mind:
Regardless of what you do to break out of the box [of your mundane life], it won’t work. You can change your external environment all you want, but you will continue to travel with the one box that will always accompany you.
The box known as your mind.
Some people will move across the country in the hopes they can become a brand new person once they land in a new spot. Wherever you go, there you are. Even if this works, it wasn’t the city itself that changed them. They decided to change because of their fresh start.
Having amazing experiences like traveling can be great compliments to your life, of course. Moving to a new city can provide a ton of new opportunities and give you a much-needed sense of a fresh start.
You should enjoy having hobbies, entertainment, novel experiences, the list goes on. These experiences will give you a broader perspective which can make you a more interesting and well-rounded person.
But don’t fall for the mistaken belief that any of these activities will change you. If you change, you’re the one who changed you. You have to be you, always. All the window dressing in the world won’t change that. But you can change. How? A lot like enjoying life on your own without needing a relationship, you can learn how to enjoy your life without needing certain experiences as catalysts. Way easier said than done, I know. But true.
I used to want to be really famous. I thought that having the adoration of millions of people would make me feel larger than life. Part of me still enjoys attention. And I need attention to facilitate this career that I love. But, these days, I’m focused on building a tribe of people who enjoy my work and want to engage with me instead of trying to become a superstar.
I just realized that no amount of followers is going to make me feel better. I’ve experienced watching the numbers grow and eventually they just become numbers on a screen. Honestly, some of the most fun periods of my career were when few people knew who I was. When things were fresh and I had a mountain to climb. This is no ‘woe is me’ point though.
To a certain degree, having status in an area is a reflection of the quality of your work. It feels good to be recognized for the hard work that you do. If you’re a creator like me, you need to reach a certain amount of people be on your team, your 1,000 true fans, to make a living. It’s awesome when people reach out to you to let you know you’ve made an impact on your life.
But, chasing fame probably won’t make you happy. Ask Tim Ferriss who wrote this post about the downsides of fame:
If I’ve learned anything, it is this: fame will not fix your problems.
Instead, fame is likely to magnify all of your insecurities and exaggerate all of your fears. It’s like picking up a fire extinguisher for your pain that ends up being a canister of gasoline.
If you think you have problems that fame will fix, I implore you to work on the inside first.
Focus on being recognized for something you care about doing. Yes, the numbers will grow. Yes, you can appreciate the tribe you’ve built. But it has to come as a bi-product of the work. Don’t make it the overarching goal.
Politics matters. The decisions politicians make will affect your life. But looking at politicians as saviors or turning politics into a religion is not a recipe for happiness, quite the opposite.
Out of all the possible areas one could look to for happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of meaning, the government comes at dead last on the list for me. But some people treat politics like fans treat their favorite sports teams. Or they treat it like a holy war.
Let me burst your bubble right now, nobody is coming to save you and utopia will never come. Don’t hold out hope that your team is going to fulfill all your wishes. Stop looking at politicians as these messianic characters. Don’t let the whims of these people affect your disposition too much in either direction.
Yes, pay attention. I certainly do. But I stopped putting so much mental weight into it. I realized that I’m just going to have to deal with the consequences of who’s in power and the decisions they make.
I used to listen to a punch of political podcasts, YouTube videos, blog posts, etc. They all just made me come to the conclusion that focusing on it too much was a net negative.
Think about your life. Your team has both won and lost in the past 12 months. Did your life personally get any better if your team did win? Maybe you’re a bit relieved the other side is out, but beyond that, are you happier? Was spending four years fretting over things worth it?
The overall point? Nothing outside of yourself is going to make you happier. I know that’s so trite and cliche but it’s true and something I personally need to remind myself of.
Nothing that happens in your life changes your mind. You decide to change your mind because of the result. Accomplishments matter. You should measure them. Positive life experiences add value to your life. You should treasure them.
Changing certain aspects of your life do give you room to be happier. No question. I’m not the type of person who thinks that you should renounce all your possessions and meditate in a cave forever. You live in the material world. You’re wired to want praise, recognition, and social standing.
But these days I understand that, to a degree, all of these things are copes and band-aids. So I just focus on the ratio between the happiness I draw from within and the fools gold sense of happiness I get from the outside world. I try to enjoy the material world without taking it too seriously. I realize that my happiness is my job.
Yours is, too. I have no magical answer for how you can be happy. I just know that it’s something you continually work on your entire life. Life is something to enjoy but there’s also an art of learning how to live well.
Think about what that means for you. Think about ways to increase the balance of your own internal happiness account. Realize that the answer lies somewhere within you.