How To Be Happy: Change The Way You Think
Over the past year, I’ve been traveling along a steep learning curve. In July 2015, I left my secure, income-steading, part-time job to focus full time on my ever-fluctuating coaching basis. It was something I’d been meaning to do for a while but it seemed rather daunting, and a little reckless, as it was only two days a week - how hard could that be? Yet, I got to the point where I felt the job was getting me down and making me unhappy.
I’m not sure what changed really but, one day, I just decided I was going to resign whether it made financial sense or not. So, I left, following what I now see as a rather scathing exit interview where I was quite critical of my manager, linking her downfalls to my reasons for being unhappy and causing me to leave after 6.5 years of working there. However, what I have learnt since then is that, actually, no job or person makes you unhappy. It’s you, and only you, that makes yourself unhappy by interpreting situations and behaviours in certain ways, saying certain things to yourself that cause you to feel upset as a result.
In a nutshell, what happens to you does not, by itself, cause how you feel or how you choose to react. People do not make you angry; you make yourself angry about what people do. Bad things do not make you feel sad or upset; you make yourself feel sad or upset. People or things do not make you happy; you do. It is what you infer from what happens to you i.e. what you believe it means to you, or about you, that results in how you feel and what you do. This is great news because it gives you a lot of freedom and choice when it comes to creating happiness in your life.
It was working with a Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapist that drilled this point home for me, and it’s really changed the way I see the role of coaching in peoples’ lives. Perhaps it’s not simply about finding the job or career that’s going to make you happy - perhaps happiness can come from changing the way you see and think about your current job. Perhaps changing things in all areas of your life might result in no change whatsoever in happiness because you continue to place your happiness in the external hands of other people and things. Perhaps how you’re seeing everything in your life is what’s contributing to your unhappiness in the first place.
Let me explain
What you do does not and will not make you happier because you’ll be taking your current mindset and thought patterns with you, which might be contributing to the negative interpretations that lead to you thinking that things aren’t right. By all means, change what you do for a living, treat yourself to nice things, but do this in the knowledge that this may not be the making of your happiness directly. Changing career may not be the answer to all your problems. It may create a new, exciting phase for a couple of years whilst it’s novel, but once that wears away, the mindset that’s using work to define you, and measure your worth and status in the world, may soon kick back in and you may start ‘searching’ again for that change that is finally going to make you happy.
To a degree, ambition can be the enemy of happiness. It can make you think that the next step will be it - once you’ve achieved it then you’ll be happier. However, once you’re there, it might feel just the same if your mindset continues to look outwards for happiness. It can be a dangerous path to venture down; one where we won’t rest till we push and push to see if that next item on our to-do list will finally make us happier. Perhaps it’s like a drug addict who is constantly chasing a high that’s better than the one before, until they end up overdosing in search of that ultimate high and feeling of happiness. If I can just keep going then I’ll be happy - sound familiar?
The key then is to examine how you think. We need to disconnect our mind from things, jobs, people etc as potential sources and causes of happiness. If you’re happy in yourself and infer mainly positive interpretations from what happens to you then your happiness should remain pretty stable over time. Tweaks to your life can of course help but only to a degree. It might be simply too much to expect any one thing, job, or person to be the answer to all your problems.
What will make you happy is perhaps the wrong question to be asking yourself; reflect on what’s going on when you’re at your happiest instead. How are you seeing things? Are you looking to your job or manager for self-worth, validation, recognition, and positive feedback? The key is to provide yourself with all of these things internally, not externally, otherwise your happiness will forever be up and down, dependent on the way others behave, which, of course, you have no control over. With a healthy, internally-focused mindset, very little would impact your level of self-worth and happiness because it’s a level that’s consistent with you and how you see things, which is the one thing you can control in life.
So, how do you create a healthy mindset?
I’ve learnt that the first step is to really examine what you’re saying to yourself when you feel unhappy. What assumptions are you making about the situation or person? How might any negative or deprecating assumptions not necessarily be 100% true? What might be a more helpful, optimistic perspective to take? If you were at your most confident and self-assured, would you be seeing things the same way?
It takes a lot of maturity, honesty, and courage to shift the responsibility for how you think and feel on to yourself rather than blaming others. No one else is to blame unfortunately - it’s your thoughts that are getting in the way of your happiness. Your career is pointless and makes you unhappy? Perhaps it is actually your expectations of how things should be and what you’re saying to yourself about your job that’s behind your frustrations. Your boss making you feel worthless and useless? Perhaps it is actually how you’re interpreting their behaviour or constructive feedback that’s the problem. If you have a healthy mindset and strong self-esteem, there is no criticism in life - simply a variety of opportunities to learn different, more effective ways of doing things.
I’ve found that learning all of the above requires a complete shift in how you see yourself, others, and situations you find yourself in. It requires the difficult task of taking responsibility for how you see things, and what you say to yourself on a daily basis. It requires hard work and commitment to consistently addressing the source of your frustrations, namely your expectations of others. By being more flexible in how life and others treat you, our lives can be much easier. It takes time to change the way we think but it is definitely worth breaking our old habits. If it feels easy, I would propose you’re falling back in to the old habit of blaming others or your situation. Take a step back, challenge the accuracy of what you’re saying to yourself about what’s going on. Work hard and make the effort to gain an alternative perspective that’s more helpful, flexible, and optimistic about yourself, others, or the situation you’re in. Give yourself and others the benefit of the doubt. It’s harder to do but, seriously, your happiness depends on it.
I could not recommend Alice highly enough. She strikes a great balance of acting as an independent sounding board and confidant but also playing devil’s advocate, which prompts thought-provoking introspection.