We all want to be happy, right?
We’re constantly looking for the next big idea, the next big promotion, or the next new person in our life who is going to make us happier.
But for thousands of years, wisdom traditions across the world have been telling us that happiness comes from within ourselves, not outside. In other words…
Happiness comes from how we think about the world, not the world itself.
As a psychologist, I see evidence of this every day in my work with clients. Specifically, I see first-hand how how destructive mental habits can sabotage even the best external events, achievements, and relationships in our lives.
If you want to be happier and more at peace in your life, try to recognize these psychological habits in yourself and work to correct them.
1. Using Emotions to Make Decisions
Emotional reasoning is the habit of using how you feel as evidence for how you should act.
- You feel frustrated with your spouse, so you decided that it’s a good idea to immediately air all your biggest grievances against them.
- You feel lazy and unmotivated, so you decide you need to stay in and rest instead of exercising or hanging out with friends as you promised.
It’s tempting to follow our feelings because they’re so loud. And because they’re loud — because we feel them so strongly — they seem persuasive and convincing.
But here’s the thing about feelings:
The strength of feeling is a poor indicator of its truth or usefulness.
For example: The anger and outrage you feel after reading your sister’s Facebook post argue loudly in favour of commenting back with a snarky and sarcastic comment that you feel is sure to show her the error of her ways. Of course, we all know how helpful snarky Facebook comments are…
If it’s so obvious in the abstract that acting impulsively on how we feel isn’t a great idea, why do we all do it so often?
The short answer: because it makes us feel better.
Strong painful emotions like anxiety, shame, irritability, sadness, etc. are aversive, which means we want them to go away, quickly if possible. And acting on these emotions often helps quell them temporarily.
The problem is, you’re getting into the habit of trading your values — what you believe is true and genuinely helpful in the long-term — for how you want to feel in the moment:
- Staying on the couch instead of going to the gym is trading a temporary feeling (relaxation) for a long-term value (physical health).
- Taking those three shots before going to the party alleviates your anxiety temporarily but in the long-run only reinforces the self-destructive belief that you need something in order to function in social situations.
- Making that sarcastic comment to your spouse feels good in the moment because it boosts your ego with a little hit of self-righteousness, but in the long run, you’re eroding trust and intimacy in your marriage.
To avoid the trap of emotional reasoning, get in the habit of clarifying and elaborating on your long-term values.
When you’re overcome with any strong emotion, ask yourself,
- What do I really want in this situation?
- What’s going to make me happy in the long-run?
Play long-term games, not short-term ones.
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.
― Friedrich Nietzsche
2. Unrealistics Expectations
Expectations are an assumption about how things should be.
For example: You expect your boss to be compassionate and constructive in her report on your performance and then you’re shocked and outraged when she’s critical and harsh with you.
Psychologically, expectations are a form of wish fulfillment —briefly satisfying a desire through an unconscious or habitual thought process.
Because you wish for a compassionate boss, you expect that she will be, which, for a moment, makes you feel good.
Expectations feel good because they give us the illusion of certainty.
But the world is far from certain. And the people in it, even less so.
In the long-run, unrealistic expectations do more harm than good. They lead to perpetual irritability, strained relationships, anxiety, and even depression.
The trick is to see expectations for what they are — a relatively primitive defence mechanism against the anxiety of uncertainty and our fragile egos.
Because once you do, you’ll be much better positioned to cultivate healthier ways of managing your fears and insecurities, like:
- Embracing uncertainty and ambiguity instead of masking it.
- Tolerating disappointment and regret, allowing it “along for the ride” instead of trying to expel it.
- Cultivating healthy income streams for your identity and sense of self so that you don’t have to rely on criticalness and high expectations to feed your ego.
Nothing is certain. Accept that and you’ll be happier for it.
When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.
― Donald Miller
3. Negative Self-Talk
Whether you realize it or not, you’re constantly talking to yourself.
You’re narrating the events of your daily life, some of which are boring and ordinary (‘What type of pasta should I get for dinner?’) and some of which are epic (‘He’s always so negative, I never should have married him’).
But in addition to narrating the events in our lives, we also talk to ourselves about ourselves:
- We comment on our recent performance in front of the sales team.
- We tell ourselves how good we look in those new jeans.
- We worry about how we’ll handle the upcoming exam.
This inner speech about ourselves is called self-talk. And whether you realize it or not, you probably have certain patterns or habits of self-talk. In other words, you tend to talk to yourself in a certain way.
- Maybe you’re in the habit of worrying about how you look anytime you’re around other people?
- Or maybe you’re in the habit of nitpicking small mistakes you’ve made, ruminating on them endlessly for hours, days, even years after the fact.
In any case, your habits of self-talk matter a lot because they’re one of the single biggest influences on your mood.
How you habitually talk to yourself determines how you habitually feel about yourself.
Here’s a quick thought experiment:
- Suppose a nasty little monster follows you along everywhere you go every hour of the day.
- And all this nasty little monster does is throw insults at you — he tells you how bad you look, how dumb you sound, and reminds you constantly that nobody likes you and you’re bound to make a fool of yourself sometime soon.
- Now, even if you knew for sure that none of the little monster’s speech was actually true, think for a second about how you would feel if this was your life — to be constantly berated and insulted every minute of every day? Pretty awful, right?
Well, that’s literally what you’re doing to yourself when you’ve developed a habit of judgmental and negative self-talk.
Even though you know intellectually that you’re not a terrible person who always fails and nobody likes, if that’s how you talk to yourself, that’s how you’re going to feel.
If you want to be happier — or at least a little less unhappy — a great place to start is your self-talk.
Get into the habit of paying attention to how you talk to and about yourself. Take notes. Look for patterns. Start to identify your typical forms of self-talk, especially the overly negative or judgmental types.
Once you start to see and identify the most common patterns, you can then begin to change them.
The stories we tell ourselves are far more powerful than we realize. Learn to see these stories for what they are — mental habits — and then you can learn to change them.
Why not train your self-talk to work for you, rather than against you?
Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.
― José Ortega y Gasset
All You Need to Know
Of course, it’s not all in your head. Material wellbeing does contribute to happines. But a large portion of your potential for happiness lives inside of you. Specifically, your habits of mind—how you look at and think about yourself and the world—plays a dramatic role in how you feel.
You can’t always control the world, but you can control yourself.
If you want to be happier, work on these 3 psychological habits:
- Be helpful, not negative, in your self-talk.
- Let go of unrealistic expectations.
- Use values, not feelings, to make decisions.