Are you waiting until your life is problem-free to be happy? If so, you could be waiting for a long time — like forever.
It’s common for all of us to tell ourselves during times of stress, “When I finally have ___ (fill in the blank), or when ___ (fill in the blank) is over, then I can be happy.” That first blank could be “a home of my own,” “a committed relationship,” or “a better job.” The second blank could be anything from “the divorce,” “the home repair,” “the illness,” “she stops drinking,” or just a particularly busy time.
But the idea that you can’t be happy unless and until some condition is met can itself be a huge barrier to happiness. While it is certainly normal to wish that a period of unusual stress would be over, you could be losing a lot of your precious life by giving in to excessive misery and unhappiness. (I would like to clarify that I am talking here about the relatively predictable crises of everyday life, not catastrophic events. Dealing with trauma is a different process from dealing with stress.)
I’m not suggesting that you fake-happy your way through the day — not at all. Within your challenging context, I’m suggesting that you find real happiness, if only for a few minutes at a time. Of course, if you are feeling depressed, out of control, traumatized, or suicidal, please get help.
Try these 12 ways to become less miserable — and even happier — right now:
1. Recognize the unhappiness you are experiencing. Research (link is external) indicates that accepting your negative feelings will, paradoxically, increase your well-being. Accepting negative feelings such as disappointment, anger, and sadness will also reduce stress. While it is not clear why acceptance of negative feelings is such a potent strategy, previous research has shown that labeling negative feelings — “I’m feeling resentful,” “This is sadness,” etc. — shifts your feelings from the emotional part of your brain to the thinking part of your brain. Once your “thinker” (the prefrontal cortex) is on board, you can put your feelings in perspective.
2. Give yourself some compassion. Talking kindly to yourself could bring moments of comfort. You may not have many people in your life right now who can give you the deep empathy that you need, but you do have one person — you.
3. Give yourself permission to be happy when possible. Tell yourself that you don’t need to feel guilty for wanting moments of relief, happiness, and joy in your life.
4. Experience pleasureful and healthy distractions. Once you give yourself permission to be happy, you can better allow yourself the experience of small pleasures — a walk, a cup of coffee, a chat with a friend, a visit to the park. Music, books, and films can provide both escape and contentment. Remind yourself that it’s OK to have fun, even though part of your life may be falling apart.
5. Hold tightly to your self-care program. Or start one if you don’t already have one. Exercise, eat right, connect with friends, and get plenty of sleep. Resist the “false friends” of over-drinking, over-eating, and the couch-potato life.
6. Seek out creative and meaningful activities. Pour your feelings into a hobby or a creative activity. Writing in your journal can help you focus and may even be therapeutic, according to studies by James Pennebaker and others.
7. Compartmentalize. If the source of your unhappiness is work, put your work struggles in the “work compartment” of your brain. Leave them there when you’re at home so you can enjoy your home life. When you get back to work, take those work issues out again, and deal with them as best you can. Taking a mental break from your troubles may even help you envision new solutions.
8. Realize that everything changes. Events change, feelings change. However you feel now, you are likely to feel differently in the future … perhaps even in the next moment. Let “this too shall pass” become your motto.
9. Change one small aspect of your situation. Is there a way to make even a tiny change that will improve your life? “Do one thing different,” as therapist Bill O’Hanlon wrote in his book of the same name. Then take another action that will help you. And another.
10. Ask for help. You may think you are admitting defeat by asking for help. Reframe this destructive idea. Instead, think of yourself as the CEO of your own life (because you are), and delegate some responsibilities to others. Use the time you gain for self-care, fun, and meaningful activities. Find a therapist who can be your ally and sounding board.
11. Help others. While it may sound odd to suggest to help others when you yourself need help, research shows that helping others will make you happier, among other health benefits. You may also realize that your situation could always be worse — because it could. (If you are already a full-time caregiver, this tactic may not be the best one for you.)
12. Be grateful for what you can. Gratitude is the cousin of happiness.
There are times when searching for happiness could be a way to avoid facing serious problems. For example, if you are unhappy because you are in an abusive or life-threatening relationship, it could be a cop-out to focus on moments of happiness. Call a hotline for help, and get out when you can.
And some extraordinary people can find happiness even under the harshest conditions. Such individuals amaze and inspire me. For example, when poet and author Nina Riggs was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, she knew she would die and leave her two young sons behind. Before her death at age 39, she was able to tell her husband (link is external), “I have to love these days in the same way I love any other.”
When you wait for some external event to occur so that you can be happy, you are taking a passive stance toward your own well-being. Remember, you alone have the ultimate responsibility for your own happiness.