A dear reader recently wrote to me about how she just doesn’t feel happy even though everything in her life is damn good. I could relate, because I’ve been in that exact same spot. Many times as a matter of fact.
It got me thinking about how, in different phases of life, I’d been there for completely different reasons, and how identifying the reason was the key to fixing it.
But before I get to the reasons and the fixes, let’s clarify what I mean by happiness. Because we are not after some kind of perfect nirvana here. I believe that highs and lows are a part of life. We are going to have good days and bad days. We are going to have times when everything just flows and times when we feel like we are sinking.
And that’s ok. A rich life includes all kinds of experiences. Good. Bad. Easy. Difficult.
I think happiness is about balance. It’s about finding enough good to help you endure the bad. It’s about curling up on the floor to cry, but eventually getting up because you remember the good times. It’s about living a life that feels worth living.
The problem is that sometimes the “good” isn’t so easy to find. Kind of like when you’ve lost your keys and dumped the contents of your purse on the bed and looked between the couch cushions and yelled at the kids for making the house a goddamn disaster and now you are digging through the trash.
That’s kind of what it’s like when you’ve lost the “good”. And I wish I could give you an exact treasure map of where to find it – row your boat to the deserted island, find the fifth coconut tree to the right of the pond, and then take 10 steps south – but I can’t.
What I can do, however, is give you three potential reasons why the “good” might be lost and some ideas for how to go about finding it in each case. You might be 1) overemphasizing the bad, 2) unaware of what actually makes you feel good, or 3) not doing enough of what makes you feel good. Or you might well be suffering from a combination of all three.
Read on for more details on each.
1. You Are Overemphasizing The Bad
Sometimes there is already a whole lot of good in our lives, but we don’t notice it because we are only focusing on the bad. This can come about a couple of different ways.
Only Thinking About The Bad
Let’s say 90 percent of your life is pretty good, but you spend all your time ruminating about the 10 percent that’s shit.
THE FIX: Learn to notice the good. You could try one of these exercises:
- At the end of each day, write down five things that made you feel good that day. Be super honest with yourself and write down only things that ACTUALLY made you feel good. Don’t write down things that you think you should feel grateful for or things that should feel good. If you can’t find five things that ACTUALLY made you feel good, then the problem isn’t that you are not noticing the good. It’s that the good isn’t there.
- At the start of each day, put a bunch of small objects in your right pocket – rocks, paper clips, whatever. Every time something good happens during the day, something that makes you feel good, take one object out of the right pocket and put it in your left pocket. At the end of the day, count the objects in your left pocket and remember the good moments you had that day.
- Write a list of things that you are happy about. Make it as long as possible and add to it whenever you think of something new. Carry the list in your pocket and read it whenever you feel like you could use an extra dose of positive.
Negativity can also take the reigns if your thoughts are not consistent with reality. Psychologists use the term cognitive distortion to describe some common thinking errors. Here are a few examples:
- Exaggerating and overgeneralizing: Everything is shit. Nothing ever goes my way. I always screw everything up.
- All or nothing thinking: If I’m not 100 percent perfect, I’m a total failure. If my life is not perfect, it’s a shitty life.
- Emotional reasoning: I feel anxious – Something bad is about to happen. I feel dumb – I must be dumb.
THE FIX: Learn to recognize and challenge irrational thoughts. Here are some things you could try:
- Simply becoming aware of all the possible ways humans engage in irrational thinking was huge for me. The three examples I listed above merely scratch the surface. Google “cognitive distortions” or search for “cognitive distortions” on Pinterest and you’ll find a ton of helpful examples.
- Whenever you find yourself feeling bad, make note of the thoughts that are running through your mind. Are they all completely accurate and rational? Do you have reasonable evidence to support your thoughts? Do any of the cognitive distortions apply?
- Seek a second opinion. If you are not sure whether you are thinking rationally or if the rational side of you needs reinforcement, ask someone you trust for their opinion.
Caveat: It’s Not Always All In Your Head
With all that being said, I’m sending you a big fat caveat with this section.
Some people believe that if you just fix your thought patterns, happiness will automatically follow. That it doesn’t matter what situation you are in. That it doesn’t matter what environment you are in or who you are with. That if you just keep chasing after change in your circumstances, you will be chasing forever. That it’s all in your head. That it’s all about the attitude. That if you just manage to think positive, you will feel positive.
And maybe that’s the way it works for some people. But that’s not the way it has worked in my experience. Here’s what has been true in my experience:
Not all bad stuff is a figment of your imagination.
- I’ve had a few really bad things happen to me. They happened to me through no fault of my own, because of external circumstances that I had no power over at the time. There was no silver lining. They were simply bad things that happened for no good reason. And I didn’t get through these things by “thinking positive”. I got through them by acknowledging that a really shitty thing had happened and by grieving and giving it time.
When life in general feels like shit, there is usually a problem there to be addressed. Even if you are thinking about the problem irrationally or exaggerating it, that doesn’t mean that there is no problem at all.
- I believe that wallowing in the negative and distorted thinking can make life feel worse than it actually is. But whenever I’ve experienced prolonged lows in my life, just working on my thinking patterns alone was never enough. When my life felt like 90 percent shit and 10 percent good, focusing on the 10 percent good was not the answer. Nor was trying to convince myself that the 90 percent actually wasn’t that shitty. The answer was making changes in my life so that the percent shit would come down and the percent good would go up.
Identifying problems and making changes to solve them does lead to a happier life.
- Whenever I’ve been able to nudge my circumstances into a direction that is better aligned with my personality and preferences, I have gained a higher level of general life satisfaction. And not just momentarily. Even if I’ve kept seeking further improvements, my baseline feeling about my life has gone up and stayed up.
2. You Don’t Know What Makes You Feel Good
Sometimes the good is lost, because we don’t know what actually makes us feel really good. And when I say “makes us feel really good”, I mean activities that we honest-to-goodness, truly and purely, enjoy. Activities that make you lose track of time. Activities that you look forward to. Activities that you feel passionate about. Activities that physically trigger your brain to feel good, so that you know with your whole being that you are feeling happy right this second. Activities that put your brain in “flow” or “the zone”.
The prolonged lows that I have experienced always coincided with times when these “feel-good” triggers were missing from my life. I have found that I need at least some moments of actually truly feeling good in order to give my brain energy and help me deal with the rest of life. And it took some serious investigation to figure out what exactly my feel-good triggers were. There are a couple of different reasons why they are sometimes difficult to identify.
Reason #1: You Are Wired Different From Most
What brings you true enjoyment might be completely different from most people around you. Your family, friends, and society at large may have given you all kinds of expectations about what should feel good, but that doesn’t mean it actually will. For example, here are the kinds of statements I’ve heard people in my life repeat over and over again:
I love hanging out with my friends. I love going to parties and getting together with people. All I’ve ever wanted is to get married and have a family. I love spending quality time with my kids. I want a good job that pays well, so I don’t have to worry about money.
So for a long time, my expectation was that those same things would make me feel good too. But if I’m brutally honest with myself, they don’t.
These are my actual feel-good triggers:
I need to spend long stretches of time in solitude to feel my best. I love spending hours and hours thinking about ideas and then writing about them. I love learning about new topics – learning everything I possibly can – and then moving on to the next thing. I love having a very small handful of people in my life who I feel very connected to and who accept my very unconventional self exactly as it is.
Guess how many role models I have had for this model of happiness?
Reason #2: Doing Something You Feel Good About Doing Doesn’t Automatically Make You Feel Good
Doing something you want to do doesn’t automatically bring you pure enjoyment. Doing something you feel good about doing, in that you think it’s the right thing to do or it’s consistent with your values, doesn’t automatically bring you pure enjoyment. To give you a couple of examples:
I have a good job that pays well and lets me work from home. I feel good about the fact that I’m good at my job. I feel good about the fact that I’m able to provide for a family of five. I feel good about the fact that the money I make enables us to live in an area with great schools. I WANT to keep this job a while longer because of the money and because it’s convenient right now. But doing the work required by this job doesn’t ACTUALLY make me feel good. It doesn’t put my brain in flow. I lost interest in the job years ago and now it’s boring at best and stressful at worst. I don’t enjoy it.
I have three kids who I love like crazy. They are by far the most awesome and interesting people I’ve ever met. I WANT to be a great Mom to them and I WANT to give them everything they need and I WANT to spend time with them. And yes, sometimes spending time with them does feel good. Sometimes there are moments of great joy. But if I’m honest, a lot of times it doesn’t feel good. A lot of times being a parent is hard and stressful and exhausting. It’s a challenge that is worth it to me, but it doesn’t put my brain in flow.
THE FIX: Regardless of why you don’t know what makes you feel good, the fix is to find whatever it is that brings you true enjoyment. You need to find your thing. The thing that makes you tick. The thing that puts your brain in flow. I can’t tell you what exactly it’s going to be for you. But I can share with you how I figured this out for myself. The posts listed below are all about how to find YOUR path to happiness. 🙂
Related: 10 Questions To Find Your Passion
Related: How To Make Your Brain Happy
3. You Are Not Doing Enough Things That Make You Feel Good
Sometimes the good is lost, because there are not enough hours in the day. You know exactly what would make you feel good, but actually doing it is a whole different matter. You have responsibilities and commitments. You have all those things that you feel good about doing. And if your responsibilities and commitments and the list of things you want to do are not in alignment with what you ACTUALLY enjoy, it can be really hard to find the time.
THE FIX: This is where life changes come into play. Again, the goal isn’t to achieve some kind of perfect illusion where you feel good every second of every day. But the trick is to work in enough good feelings, enough enjoyment, into your life that you feel energized to deal with the rest:
- In the short term, start setting aside time to do whatever it is that makes you feel good. I can’t tell you how much time is going to be enough for you, but I can tell you I need at least some “me-time” most days. Whenever I start having inklings of a “low” coming, I nip it in the bud by upping the amount of “me-time”. If you don’t have time in your schedule, something else has to go. I’m married with three kids, and my husband and I both have full-time jobs. Wanna know how I’ve had time over the last eight months or so to write all the articles for this website? I have learned to make my own well-being a priority. I have mastered the art of saying no to anything and anyone that is not super important to me.
- In the long term, the more the cadence of your daily life, your social life, and your work life are in harmony with your authentic personality and preferences, the easier it is to feel good. These are often not things that can be changed overnight, but in the long term, they can be nudged in the right direction little by little. Paint a picture of your best life. What changes can you start making, what goals can you start working toward, in order to get closer to that life?
(Pssst, if there’s a topic you would like to see me write about, you can send me a message here.)
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