In the illustrated book, Brave Girls Club: Choose Happy, Melody Ross describes happiness as, quite simply, “a choice that we make every minute of every day”. Happiness is a much researched and sought-after state of being that philosophers and great thinkers alike have tried to explain. As they see it – happiness is simple and achievable.
When you’re faced with transition, change, and disruption, happiness can feel unobtainable. I believe it’s there to be found, but not in the way you might believe it can be. Here’s my take on happiness: reimagined, with 6 somewhat unconventional ways to be happy (nearly) all the time.
1. Love people; use things.
The 2015 documentary The Minimalists follows the journey of Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus defining the actual important aspects of life. Their mantra? “Love people, use things. The opposite never works.” Got an urge for something shiny? Keep asking why. Why do I want to buy that car? Because it will make me look successful. Why do I care about looking successful? Because of what [insert name of person] will think. Why do I care what [person] thinks? Well? Hang out with people who don’t care what car you drive, because it really doesn’t matter.
If we don’t find the way to happiness ourselves, other people will tell us how to get there. Marketing teaches you what not to be happy with; our relationships, job or appearance. Advertising guides us towards specific goods and services on the premise that they’ll make us happy. In reality, people often find that the things that they think will make them happy actually don’t. Money. Fame. Possessions. It’s well documented that lottery winners often regret having ever won the money.
Day-to-day this means focusing on the time you can spend with people you love and not on the objects you can purchase. Gifting your presence instead of buying presents. Avoid those who make you feel rubbish and go see those who you enjoy spending time with.
2. Get some perspective.
In the 2002 Flaming Lips song, Do You Realize, they sing the line: “do you realize that everyone you know someday will die”. In the Derren Brown book Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine, Brown says “everything worthwhile in your life draws its meaning from the fact you will die.” The Stoics use the Latin phrase “memento mori” as their reminder of mortality.
Get comfortable with the idea that one day you and everyone you know won’t be here. Let that dictate your every moment. Find happiness in the absurdity that we’re all taking ourselves so seriously when really it doesn’t even matter. The hit musical Wicked describes it best in their song ”Dancing Through Life”, with the lyrics “nothing matters, but knowing nothing matters”. That person who slagged you off behind your back? Who cares?! That competitor who copies everything you do. So what?! Good luck to them all. You hope they make it. It’s not a zero-sum game and thinking it ignores the real heart of the matter – you’re not going to live forever.
Find freedom in the fact that whatever happens, one day you’ll be gone, so you might as well be happy today while you are alive. Your problems really aren’t that big.
3. Control what’s controllable.
Herbert Bayard Swope once said, “I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.” Now I’m not promising I can give you a formula for happiness, but a definite formula for unhappiness is to worry and stress about things that are completely out of your control.
In season 5 episode 18 of US sitcom Friends, Monica is throwing a party and wants to control everything: the food, the guest list, and the entertainment. Phoebe tries to help and Monica, to keep her away, puts her in charge of two things that she deems insignificant: cups and ice. Phoebe is now clear that most of the party is out of her control, but she goes to town on what she can control: cups and ice. She makes cup bunting, cup towers, ice sculptures, snow cones, dry ice, crushed, cubed, and so on. She promises that Monica will “rue the day she put me in charge of cups and ice”. The cups and ice become the centerpiece and the talking points of the entire gathering, much to Monica’s annoyance.
The first step is to work out what is in your control and what is out of your control. Other people’s actions? Out of your control. The football score? Out of your control. What people think? Out of your control. In your control: your attitude, your actions, your words, your thoughts, your choices. Make a list. Focus on what you can control and give it everything you have. Forget everything else.
4. Avoid labels.
When something happens it’s human nature to want to define it. It’s ‘awesome’, it’s ‘bad’, it’s ‘unfair’. Actually, it’s none of those things; it’s just something that has happened. The label given to it is purely one person’s perspective, not necessarily the truth.
When I was on my graduate scheme, my manager Glyn was from Sheffield and spoke in idioms. One day he used the line: “at the end of the day, it is what it is and that’s that.” At the time I thought that phrase was a convoluted way of saying absolutely nothing. Now I realize it was deeply profound. At the end of the day, it is what it is and that’s that. I have since found that training my brain to see things as they are, and avoiding the perceptions and labels that can surround them, has avoided drama and headaches like nothing else. Go one step further by avoiding the need to hear other people’s opinions. Opinion pieces on [insert current political happenings], what [outspoken celebrity] thinks about [what another celebrity has said or done]. Who cares, right? Avoid forming opinions, because opinions don’t make you happy.
Start avoiding opinions day-to-day and you will realize how often they are aired. Opinions are just that; they are not the truth so never treat them as such. Like a ball being thrown at you; you choose whether to catch it or dodge it. You don’t need to disagree (that would be an opinion too), just be mindful of what you choose to let enter your inner being. Your thoughts become your words and your words become your actions, and, by extension, your reputation and success.
“We are, each of us, a product of the stories we tell ourselves” ― Derren Brown
5. It’s all a game.
In his bestselling book, Key Person of Influence, Daniel Priestly says “the minute you begin to feel yourself “working hard” as opposed to “playing a challenging game, it’s time to take a break.” I believe that given everything in point (3), happiness comes from viewing everything as playing a challenging game. Not just work but life too.
Accept that things out of your control will happen and they won’t all be favorable. You must be ready for them. Taking a break in the short term might help, but in the long term, train yourself to deal with anything that comes at you. Because it will keep coming at you and it won’t stop, so you might as well get good at it.
Whilst you might crave picturesque scenery, rolling hills and nothing but the sound of birds singing, real happiness comes from calmness in the middle of a crowd, in the middle of a tense conversation or on the battlefield. Happiness is riding the waves and not being pulled about with each occurrence like an emotional rollercoaster.
A technique I learned about in the Tim Ferriss book, Tools of Titans, is saying the word “good” after anything that happens. Anything. My work got deleted? Good. A chance to do it again, better. The internet is down? Good. A chance to read a book. My food is taking ages to arrive? Good. A chance to practice patience. I feel overwhelmed? Good. A chance to make a change. Doing this conditions your brain to see opportunities rather than problems in every set of circumstances.
6. Don’t take it personally
In Confessions of a Conjuror, Derren Brown writes: “Each of us is leading a difficult life, and when we meet people we are seeing only a tiny part of the thinnest veneer of their complex, troubled existences. To practice anything other than kindness towards them, to treat them in any way save generously, is to quietly deny their humanity.”
It would be easy to let the actions of others dictate your happiness, but what would this achieve? If you receive an email you perceive to be unfriendly, or someone cuts you up or doesn’t let you out, it’s not personal. That person might have just lost a family member, they might be dealing with problems far worse than ours. They probably didn’t mean it to upset you. Seeing other people and their actions as being out to get you is the surefire route to unhappiness because, in reality, it’s probably nothing to do with you.
There’s a bias that can happen when individuals assess their own and others’ behavior: attribution bias. According to Wikipedia, when judging others we tend to assume their actions are the result of internal factors such as their personality, whereas we tend to assume our own actions arise because of the necessity of external circumstances. So when someone turns up late to a meeting with you, you might label them as lazy or inconsiderate, but they will explain their lateness by pointing to the traffic jam or train timetable. Happiness is being able to understand the actions of others, not label their character.
True happiness comes from knowing what is in your control and out of your control and acting accordingly, whilst being careful what you let into your inner sphere. It comes from watching your thoughts for those that are unhelpful or untrue, showing kindness wherever possible and, above everything else, remembering it’s all a game and we’re not going to live forever.