Want to be happier? Of course! But how can you get there from here?
There’s no magic technique to eliminate the painful and unsatisfying things life may throw at you. But there are steps you can take that, over time, will reduce the unhappy aspects of your life and add to the joyful ones. Here’s how to make the incremental changes that will add happiness to your life:
Play to your strengths. For each of us, some things come more easily than others. There will always be things you have to do that you aren’t particularly good at, but the fewer of them you have, the happier you’ll likely be.
If you have a partner, divide domestic tasks so that each of you does the stuff that’s easy for you. If there are things that neither of you likes, take turns doing them. Voila, half as much of that yucky chore in your life!
In your career, look for work that uses your natural skills and demands less of things you’re not good at. For instance, math is a chore for me. I could probably be an accountant if I had to, but I’m much better off being a therapist and writer because words and human interactions come more easily to me. If you’re an introvert, can you find a job that gives you more time for quiet focus and less interaction with people? If you’re a hands-on person, look for work that lets you work with objects rather than a computer screen. Don’t try to fit your round peg into a square hole.
Don’t let impulses control your life. I’ve seen a lot of misery caused by people making short-term choices at odds with their long-term goals (say, to stay healthy and be financially secure). Many things that feel good in the short run (eating that junk food, buying that impulse item, zoning on the couch rather than going to the gym) can lead to unhappiness in the long run (as you feel less healthy or your debt goes up). The small choices we make every day can end up limiting our ability to do big things that are more meaningful.
Instead of going for what’s easy, keep your longer-term goals in mind. One thing that helps is paying attention differently. Rather than thinking about how deprived you are for skipping that junk food, start to notice how you feel after eating it. Heaviness in your belly? Pumped up for a few minutes, then gloomy when your blood sugar crashes? When you eat a healthy meal, notice how light and energetic you feel. Notice how your muscles feel when exercising starts to make them stronger. Read your bank statements and celebrate how your balance inches up (or your debt comes down) when you hold off on buying things you don’t really need. Those happy developments come with an earned sense of pride: you’re making your life better. Over time, being healthier and financially secure will let you do the things you really want to do.
Notice what brings you down—and do less of it. Pay attention to what makes you feel drained and unhappy. Sometimes these things are obvious, but sometimes they’re not. It’s all very personal; something that makes one person feel overloaded can be exciting to someone else.
Observe your reactions to:
Tasks and activities. Some of the things you do every week may be downers. Do you have to do them? Can you arrange for someone else to handle them? Can you find a way to make them less unpleasant? Or maybe a recreational activity that used to be fun just isn’t doing it for you anymore. Listen to that message from your gut. Do something different, or just give yourself more downtime. Or maybe you need to get out and try something new. Look for adult ed classes or parks & rec programs that spark your interest, and give one of them a try.
Negative people. Some people lift our spirits, but others bring us down. Is there someone you consider a friend but who makes you feel bad? Maybe he’s super-critical or she’s always creating drama. You may still care about the person, but you don’t need to spend as much time with them. Stop inviting them (or invite them less); say Yes less often when they reach out to you. Free up time for people who feed your soul—even if that means making new friends.
Screen time. It can be fun to surf the internet or see what your friends are posting on social media. But how does it make you feel, really? Many people find themselves feeling drained after spending time on line. Maybe you feel envious about the fun vacation pictures people post or how happy everyone seems. Maybe the scatteredness of following one link after another leaves you feeling empty. Experiment with dialing back your screen time and see what effect it has on your sense of well-being.
Notice what gets you energized—and do more of it. Some things that boost your mood may be recreational; others may be productive. Strive to have both in your life. What things in your day or week do you look forward to? What tasks give you a feeling of satisfaction? Where do you feel flow? What are the things that call to your heart?
If there’s a career you’d just love to have, how can you start to move in that direction? Maybe take one relevant class or volunteer doing something related. If there’s a hobby you’re passionate about, how can you start to arrange your life to allow more time for it? If you want deeper connections, how can you start to make friends who want them too? There are always steps, sometimes small ones, that can move you in the direction you’d like to go.
Building a happier life won’t happen overnight. It takes time to make new friends, train for a new job, get healthier, and make other big changes. But starting the process is worth it—at a minimum, you won’t feel stuck anymore. The ultimate goal may be the most satisfying, but really, it’s about the journey. Each step you take toward things that make you feel peaceful and energized will make your life that much happier.