7 Ways You're Thwarting Your Own Happiness

Apr 26, 2016
Raj Raghunathan is a professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin and author of If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy?

Most people around the world agree that “being happy” is one of their most important goals. So, you would think that the smarter and more successful you are, the happier you would be, right? Wrong!

As it turns out, the smart-and-the-successful aren’t that much happier than their not-so-smart-or-successful counterparts. For example, by most accounts, wealth doesn’t contribute to happiness beyond a point. Fame, too, doesn’t bring lasting happiness. And if you thought being better educated will make you happier, think again. In summarizing these results, Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the world’s happiness researchers, concludes that it’s a myth to believe that happiness can be changed by changing life circumstances—how well-educated you are, your net-worth, etc. Life circumstances contribute to only about 10% of happiness.

So, back to the conundrum, why is it that the smart-and-successful aren’t as happy as they could—or should—be?

The answer, it turns out, is that the smart-and-successful commit some of the very “happiness sins” that the not-so-smart-or-successful do. Indeed, the smarter and more successful you are, the greater the chance that you commit these sins.

One sin is devaluing happiness: not giving happiness much priority. Here’s a quick demonstration of this sin: Imagine that a genie—similar to the one in Aladdin’s story—appears before you and grants you three wishes. What wishes would you make? If happiness is one of your top goals, it should figure on their wish-list. But chances are, it didn’t. In the studies I have conducted, only about 6% ask for happiness. This suggests that people forget all about happiness as they go about their daily lives, which is in fact what we find.

Another sin is chasing superiority, which translates to wanting to be better than others at something. This desire results in social comparisons, the tendency to judge oneself relative to others, typically on wealth, power, attractiveness and fame. Findings show that such a tendency is one of the biggest happiness killers.

Yet another sin is wanting to be the center of attention—the desperation for love and adulation. Again, findings show that this desire deflates happiness levels because it leads to either neediness or to avoidance in relationships.

A fourth—and perhaps most important—sin is the desire to control others or outcomes. Although such a desire can be a good thing up to a point, being overly controlling of others and outcomes is guaranteed to lower happiness.

Other happiness sins include distrusting others, having an indifferent pursuit of happiness, and mind addiction, ignoring or underestimating the important of gut instincts and feelings.

How can one overcome these happiness sins?

Clearly, if happiness is important to you, you need to give it priority. You can do this by figuring out the answer to two important questions: 1) what does happiness mean to me?, and 2) what activities reliably make me happy? To most of us, happiness is a feeling of joy or love, and we feel these emotions when we are among friends and family. Merely giving happiness a higher priority, findings show, will improve your happiness levels.

In addition to giving happiness higher priority, here are a few more things you could do:

1. Maintain a gratitude journal. Simply making a note of three good things that happened to you each day (e.g., “a stranger smiled at me,” “I found $1 bill on the way from the garage to work”) for a mere 15 days can boost your happiness. In fact, it can even lift you out of depression!

Why does expressing gratitude have this effect? There are many reasons, but one major reason is that it mitigates the desire for superiority. It makes you realize that other people—and luck—played an important role in your successes, thereby making you less prone to social comparisons.

2. Do random acts of kindness. Being nice to others, it turns out, is a surprisingly reliable happiness-booster. Of course, you shouldn’t feel obligated to be nice. So, don’t volunteer for the soup kitchen if waking up at 5 am and being in a hot, sticky kitchen isn’t your cup of tea. But if you can figure out a way to have fun (e.g., by paying the toll for the car behind you, leaving a box of chocolate outside your neighbor’s house) while making others happy—again, it doesn’t have to be anything big—you’ll almost certainly enjoy an increase in happiness. How? By making you develop stronger—more intimate and meaningful—bonds with others, thereby enabling you to experience the sense of connection with others that you seek.

3. Gain “internal control.” Make it your goal to retain the keys to your happiness in your own two hands. This means never blaming others or the circumstances for your unhappiness. There are several ways to gain internal control, but one of the most powerful—and seemingly non-obvious—ways is to lead a healthier lifestyle. A healthier lifestyle involves three things: eating right, moving more and sleeping better. Leading a healthier lifestyle makes you feel good from the inside out, making it easier to exercise internal control.

As it turns out, even minor adjustments to your lifestyle—such as, starting your meals with the healthiest items, installing a pedometer app on your smart phone, and not checking email after 9 p.m.—can significantly increase the amount of internal control you have. And the greater the internal control you have, the less the external control you will seek.

If you can put even just one or two of these practices in place, you’ll experience a significant boost in happiness levels.

Adapted from If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy?, copyright © 2016 by Raj Raghunathan. First hardcover edition published April 26, 2015, by Portfolio/Penguin. All rights reserved.

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