Finding Happiness Within

finding happiness

In my last post on The Change Blog, I talked about disconnecting your happiness from others – how when you depend on others for your happiness you only make yourself (and others) more unhappy. Instead, I said, you need to find happiness within.

Easier said than done though, I know. To find happiness within, you can go to coaches, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, therapists, or any other number of happiness professionals. You can read books, blogs, or magazines, watch TV shows and DVDs or listen to the radio, podcasts or self-improvement CDs.

And yet when it comes down to it, there are only two things you need to remember if you want to be happy.

  1. It’s not about you, so check the ego at the door.
  2. Whatever you do, do it because you choose to.

It’s not about you

This is easy-sounding advice but probably one of the hardest things to actually implement. Human beings seem to be biologically programmed to think everything has something to do with them.

An earthquake hits their house? A direct attack on their happiness.

A friend says something thoughtless and hurtful? An unfair and gratuitous attack and not because the friend has a splitting headache and has been dealing with a malfunctioning computer all day long.

A loved one does something that’s reminiscent of something that caused pain in the past? How dare the loved one bring up such hurtful memories!

When we make things all about us and don’t check our ego at the door, we shut out the world and yet at the same time expect everyone to consider our feelings, our needs and our emotional baggage before their own. We let pride cause us to react negatively and we let the past overly influence our responses to present situations.

Let’s look at a (fictional) example:

Let’s say I’ve let my partner use my laptop. I don’t like to run the computer on AC power with the battery plugged in just in case the battery has a “memory” — I want to maintain the life of the battery as long as I can. I’ve explained this to my partner and yet one day I come into the room and see that he’s running the computer off AC power and has the battery plugged in as well.

I get angry and express my anger. My partner reacts by saying “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you meant once the battery was fully charged. I was planning on unplugging it once it reached a 100% charge.”

Instead of accepting this explanation, I let pride and ego get in the way and stay angry for several hours, with thoughts like “how stupid could he be?” and “but I explained it to him!” running through my head. In fact, he reminds me of an ex who never listened either and always did the opposite of what I ask.

Plus my partner is now upset because he’s sorry that he misunderstood and angry because I’ve refused to accept his explanation.

Our day is now totally ruined.

If you find yourself in situations like this, before ruining your day (and that of others) ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this a purposeful attack on me or a misunderstanding?
  • Why am I really upset?
  • Can I change what’s going on?

In the above example, if I had made an effort to hear my partner I would have quickly realized that although his misunderstanding was frustrating, it wasn’t a personal attack or wanton negligence. As well with a little self-reflection, I would have realized that my anger actually has little to do with the current situation and more to do with my own feelings of people not listening to or following my wishes. Again, since the current situation was a misunderstanding, it has nothing to do with the past.

Finally, can I change the situation? In this case yes. If I don’t think my partner will use the computer in the way I wish it to be used, I can ask that he not use it in the future.

By disconnecting myself and my feelings of hurt and frustration from the situation, I can deal with the issue quickly, find a resolution and go back to being happy.

As long as I remember that except for very rare situations with highly negative people, potentially upsetting situations are most of the time only misunderstandings and not personal attacks, then I don’t have to let them ruin my day.

Even in the rare situations where someone is purposefully trying to hurt you, if you remember that it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with that person’s own emotional baggage then whatever he or she tosses our way has no lasting effect on our happiness.

Choose what you do

So that takes care of the actions of others. We now won’t let what other people do affect our own happiness. But what about our own actions? Many people pass through life doing things they hate and tell themselves they have to do them or that they have no choice.

And for some, unfortunately that is the case. People who do not have their basic needs met on a regular basis (i.e., food, shelter and basic security – the first two levels of Maslow’s human hierarchy of needs pyramid) often have to make difficult choices between various shades of unhappiness.

For many people however, everything they do is a choice and if they are unhappy about their choices, often one of three things is getting in the way:

  1. Obligation
  2. Autopilot
  3. Expectations

People who live with a sense of obligation are always saying “I should do this” rather than “I want to” or “I choose to.” They feel that the world judge their actions and that they need to conform to some outside view of what is proper and right. They bury their dreams and desires and live to someone else’s code of behavior (often completely imagined).

Others live in the future instead of the present. They have certain goals that they expect to reach (often highly colored by what others supposedly want them to do) and pay no attention to how they feel in the moment. Yes, sometimes to reach a goal we end up doing things that don’t totally thrill us, but if we’re reaching for a goal whose path is loathsome, then why head in that direction?

Then there’s a third group of people who live on autopilot letting situations decide their actions or blindly follow what other people tell them to do without questioning whether it’s right for them. People who live this way are often unhappy but don’t know why they’re unhappy, which makes sense because if they’re sleepwalking through life they’re not going to be paying my attention to their emotions either.

Fortunately this type of unhappiness is relatively easy to cure. It starts by living consciously and being aware of our actions. If necessary we can log our days and our decisions, noting how we feel about each action. By doing so we force ourselves to be aware of every action and every choice we make. We also become aware of the scripts that run through our head as we do things.

For example, I always used to find myself really cranky after hanging up the laundry to dry. For no clear reason, every time I hung the laundry I had formed the habit of letting all the little annoying things about my day, my partner and my business run through my head as I hung the clothes on the line. Understandably I therefore hated hanging the laundry. By paying attention to what I was doing and thinking I changed the habit and now make an effort to think about positive things and I no longer hate hanging the laundry.

The first two types of unhappiness – obligation and expectations – are a little more complicated and require more in depth examination of our motives and desires.

In Spanish there are two ways of asking “why” – one which looks back at reasons (por qué) and one that looks forward at intention (para qué).

When we ask ourselves por qué, we look back at the things that have brought us to the action. For example, before starting my own business, I tried to fit into the nine-to-five office world even though it made me miserable. By asking myself por qué I learned that I was doing so because I thought that’s what a responsible adult did – work and earn money to buy things even if you’re not happy.

Then when I asked myself para qué – what for? what desire was I chasing? – I had no answer. That was when I decided to get out and follow my dreams.

And even though the life of an entrepreneur is hard at times, I’m much (much!) happier.

Now, because I live my life consciously, aware of my actions, and because I ask myself why and what for (reasons and desires), I make decisions and choices on a daily basis that add to my happiness – which comes 100% from within me and doesn’t depend on anyone else.

Happiness Tricks

To finish off, let’s talk a bit about resources.

Everyone has their favorite short cuts to happiness, whether it’s dancing in the living room, getting together with friends, or curling up with a book. If you want some proven ways to make yourself happier, there are a huge number of books and websites available.

I’ve included here my Top Four resources (in no particular order).:

  1. The Comfort Trap by Judith Sills
  2. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
  3. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Photo by L’Enfant Terrible

17 thoughts on “Finding Happiness Within”

  1. Alex,
    You’ve made two really good points that can definitely support being happier. I would add letting go of resisting any of our experiences. It might sound paradoxical, but when we find that we can be at ease with fear, anger, tension – anything that arises – then we are no longer ruled by these emotions, We are then much more likely to be able to actually choose our behavior, as you suggest, and happiness becomes so deliciously apparent.

  2. I agree that finding happiness from within makes one truly happy compared to finding happiness from outside which can only be temporary and then fade away. Like you said, finding our “why” to what we are doing truly questions ourselves if we are happy and unhappy. The more purposeful the “why”, the easier it is to make decisions and choices that create more inner happiness for us.

  3. Really, really great post. Happiness comes from within — that’s something I’m learning about and confirming in my own life every single day. I really liked this post and appreciate you sharing a personal story!

  4. Good stuff here Alex. Like you, I do believe “the here and now” contains the right mix we need to find our happiness. Our happiness may, or may not exist, in our future, but at least we need to give it the chance to exist right now.

    Thanks for sharing,


  5. I very often decide that something that happened with another person was a misunderstanding, and I resolve not to let it happen again.

    But you know what happens!

  6. I think following the advice here will be very benenficial and lead to more happiness.

    An intellectual problem I have is: if we got rid of the ego would we be seeking happiness for ourselves. This probably doesn’t matter for getting happier but it is a problem in how we communicate about these things.

  7. So many of us do things because we ‘should’. We should get the 9-5 job and pursue a high paying career over all else. It’s not until we think about the picture in 50 years that we wonder if it will really be worth it.

    Rather we should focus on creating our happy life now.

    I liked your bit on doing the laundry, it is the times when we are most free to think that we need to be most vigilant.

  8. Hi Alex .. a really good post – Ilike the Spanish connection .. that can make sense. It really is about us .. as we are and we believe we can be and thus act – make others happy too.

    It is interesting the idea that we still do not properly know how to listen, or how to interpret what’s said .. we say something and someone else hears something slightly different.

    Thanks – interesting ideas to think about –
    Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  9. @Gail
    I like the point you’ve added. Resisting experiences does just make us unhappy and like the Borg said – it’s futile.

    It all comes from awareness – the deeper we ask why the deeper our happiness.

    @Positively Present
    I figured if I had gone through this then others have to be feeling the same thing and and I’m glad to hear that it’ll help on your daily journey.

    I used to live in the future and was never really happy. Now I’m much happier focusing on the now!

    You’re very welcome! And I like your last point – we choose to let things coming from outside affect us or not.

    I hear you – I think it happens in every romantic partnership I’ve ever seen – even though we use the same words, no one speaks the same language and much gets lost in translation.

    To me “ego” is the part of ourselves that thinks in terms of pride and honor and says things like “how dare…!” Drop that and yes the happiness we seek isn’t selfish, but it has a stronger foundation.

    Glad you like the laundry example. It took me a long time to realize what I was doing. I just thought I hated hanging the laundry!

    As I said to David – we all use the same words, but every word has its own meaning to each person, making full understanding next to impossible and isolating everyone inside our own head. The less we use our egos to communicate, the less we try to push our meanings on others and the more we try to understand their meanings.

  10. I can sometimes overreact to situations. I final realized that getting angry at other people just causes more stress for me without really accomplishing anything productive.

    In Japan, there is a strong culture of gift giving every time you travel somewhere or at certain times of the year. I used these occasions to buy gifts for cranky neighbors that complained about everything.

    My wife and I just kept giving small gifts to people, even if they were jerks to us. Of course, all of our problems stopped and most even started giving gifts back in return. It is really hard to be angry at someone who is always nice to you.

    Even if you are correct, give nice and you will likely get nice in return.

  11. “Getting rid of your ego at the door” is good advice Alex. No doubt most of us have a hard time with this as well. I used to think that meant “get rid of your sense of self completely”….as if you’d disappeared….vanished….or…..Holy bad mistakes Batman!…. died. Needless to say that did NOT sound like something I wanted to do. But it doesn’t mean that at all. In essence it means giving up selfishness. To begin dumping ego then, treat the world kindly. Take up giving. Become compassionate. Practice listening. A little altruism never hurts either. Those are everyday ways of “checking your ego at the door”. But you can go further too. Here’s an everyday example. Jig-saw puzzles. When jig-saw parts blend together they “give up their egos (separateness) completely” to let the whole picture emerge. If the pieces were people, they’d simply see that they were all different parts of one whole. When completely ego-less like that, they’re all parts of each other. Nothing bad happens to the individuals of course. Real people can do this too. Just imagine you and the world are different parts of one whole. If you can do that (takes some training) you’ll realize that guy over there is a different part of you. And? You’ll automatically begin doing those un-selfish things I mentioned above. Why? Because you and he are different parts of each other……and…..chances are you won’t treat YOURSELF badly. Seeing that you and the world are different parts of one whole is the MAX version of “getting rid of your ego”. It’s the full-blown deal that sages talk with reverence about. Most of us will have a hard time getting that far. But everyone can become less selfish. Ciao Alex. John Duffield

  12. @John
    My parents taught me that the best revenge is kindness. ;) And yes it works really well as long as your own happiness doesn’t depend on keeping the neighbors happy.

    I used to have the same problem with the idea of “letting go of ego” – no way! I like my personality! – but then I learned that it didn’t mean destroying my sense of self – only my need to be dramatic about everything. ;)

    I really like your puzzle piece analogy, by the way!

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