Thomas Fiffer shares a single, simple pitfall that happy people avoid.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
And I ain’t the Lord, no I’m just a fool
Learning loving somebody don’t make them love you
—Jack Johnson, Sitting, Wishing, Waiting
A while back I wrote a Facebook status that I knew would turn into an article for The Good Men Project.
When we remain in an unhealthy relationship, we believe we are waiting for our partner to change. In truth, we are waiting for ourselves to change, a process that often takes longer than we expect.
It took me 15 years to figure this out—much longer than I expected—and another seven to connect it with happiness, and I believe this fundamental misconception is responsible for millions of unhappy relationships—both personal and professional—and perhaps billions of unhappy people. Yes, billions.
So here’s the nut: Happy people don’t try to change other people or wait for them to change. They work only on themselves.
It’s stunningly simple.
But stunningly difficult to embrace.
Because we tend to believe that happy people are lucky and unhappy people aren’t. It’s easier to believe that, more comfortable to believe that, than to admit that happiness is a choice, or more accurately, the result of a series of choices.
Put another way, it’s easier to answer the question, “Why am I so unlucky?” than “Why am I so unhappy?” because the second question requires deep introspection and achieving self-awareness, while the first can only be acknowledged as rhetorical or answered with a statement that avoids personal accountability (e.g., “Because God hates me”), because luck by definition is beyond our control.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking exploration of intuitive and deliberate thinking, he explains the phenomenon of replacing one question with another: “When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”
Happy people may appear not to be doing any work to be happy. It just seems to flow for them. But happy people always return the focus to the more difficult question, the one with an answer that in all likelihood requires hard work on the self, while their unhappier counterparts default to the belief—and false sense of relief—that others need to change, a belief that is fatal to their pursuit of peace and contentment. The sooner we learn that people only change when they want to, at their own rate, on their own schedule, the sooner we can get busy on ourselves. Personal growth can be encouraged from without but can only occur from within.
In conjunction with the flawed belief that others must change first, we also put too much faith in our power to influence others, setting ourselves up for crushing disappointment—and potentially paralyzing depression—when we fail in our futile attempts to change them. This often leads to our stepping it up (because we’ve been trained never to quit and to keep trying harder), and trying to force change through threats and manipulation. Can you think of a greater recipe for unhappiness than that? Except perhaps engaging in an endless, pointless struggle?
Happy people are not the shiny, lucky, blessed ones to whom nothing bad ever seems to happen. They’re the ones who handle the bad stuff in stride.
And it’s not that happy people don’t have losses. They do, just like the rest of us. But they act faster to cut them and move on.
So the next time you’re wondering, ask yourself, “Where am I focusing my change energy? On others? Or on myself?”
The answer will tell you everything you need to know about being happy.