August 2018: It’s been months since the last wild night with the boys, ambitious project at work, or whirlwind romance. Given that pretending to be a rock star is one of my favorite pastimes, this is a dramatic change of pace for me. I feel… boring.
And yet, despite the boredom, happiness keeps sneaking up and slapping me in the face. I notice it coming home from the gym, making dinner with a friend, going for a walk in the mountains, or working from a coffee shop on a Friday. After a year defined by just trying to keep my head above water, this is a very welcome change of pace.
I’m a bit reluctant to publish this article. Not because it’s controversial, but because it’s simple. In fact, the idea is so simple that I can sum it up in a sentence: you can significantly increase your happiness by removing the things that destabilize you and make you unhappy.
I realize that for many people, this is obvious. Still though, it took me nearly 33 years to understand it. Even still, it’s easier said than done; we often end up addicted to or identified with the things that make us unhappy. So, with that in mind, I’ll break down the process that I used to find stable happiness in hopes that it will serve you too.
Kill the bull in your china shop
Most of us have one or two things that create a disproportionate amount of chaos or unhappiness in our lives. It can be an unhealthy relationship, a lack of discipline, a dormant dream, a crappy job or boss, a lack of self-care or self-esteem, an addiction, the need to lose weight, unresolved trauma, or a million other things.
You may already know the biggest sources of your stress and unhappiness. If not, they tend to exhibit a few common traits: it’s the stuff that keeps you up at night, that you dread when you have to deal with it, that fill your body with tension, or that you spend the most time worrying and complaining about.
If you’re still struggling to pinpoint what’s sabotaging you, consider asking a few close friends if they have any idea about what’s going on. Keep in mind that you may not love what you hear. One of my best friends looked me right in the eye and said, “You love chaos man. You always have. You won’t really be happy or stable until you shake that.” Talk about bitter medicine, but also a true friend.
Once you’ve identified the major roadblock(s), work to eliminate or fix them. I know that most self-help people will encourage you to make changes quickly, but I don’t buy it. I think there’s something to be said for moving slowly here. Besides, if you need to change something big, like your job, you may need to move slow if you want to do it responsibly.
For me, the biggest barrier to happiness was work. My heart was no longer in my consulting practice, and I needed to figure out what my next move was. Instead of blindly rushing towards the next shiny object, I spent a year experimenting with different options until I found the right move, and starting in January, I’ll begin a new career.1
And don’t feel like you need to go it alone either. When I was 30, I spent months in therapy removing some of the obstacles to happiness from my life. If you’re dealing with a particularly difficult problem, recruit support.
Return to stability by eliminating instability
Next, remove all of the things that reliably destabilize you.
For me, this included eliminating:
- Caffeine (I love coffee more than life itself, but caffeine makes me jittery and destroys my sleep)2
- Dating (there weren’t huge gaps between my last few girlfriends, and I could benefit from some time on my own)
- Work drama (I cut my hours and services, and only took on home-run clients; this slashed my income but saved my sanity)
- Career change drama (I started telling people who offered unsolicited advice that I appreciated their intent but didn’t want to hear their opinions)
Of course, you may need to eliminate other things. A few areas to consider:
- Video games
- Alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs
- Casual or reckless sex
- Excessive screen time (think: TV, internet, your phone, movies, etc.)
- Extreme busyness
- Constant travel
Don’t limit yourself to this list. If there’s something else you think you’d benefit from giving up, then try that.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to give these things up forever. Letting go of them for two or three months should help you find increased stability. After that you can decide for yourself whether or not you’d like to add them back in.
An uncomfortable note: if the idea of giving something up makes you anxious, then you should really explore that. Ask yourself why you’re so afraid of letting go. We often engage in mild (or serious) forms of addiction, anxiety and compulsive behavior as a protective measure to help us avoid deeper issues. The problem is those deeper issues will continue to sabotage us until we address them, and if we’re using addiction or anxiety as an unconscious avoidance technique, then we’re effectively shooting ourselves in the foot. Again, no need to do this on your own; if necessary, get the help you need.
Setting boundaries is more of an art than a science. As far as I can tell, it boils down to this: when someone treats you differently than you’d like to be treated, let them know. If they continue treating you poorly, consider spending less time with them.
Keep in mind that you can – and should – set boundaries with yourself too. One personal example is that I try to only take unscheduled calls when I’m genuinely excited to chat with whoever is calling me. If I’m busy or just not in the mood, I let it go to voicemail and call them back some other time.
Will you or the people you care about be perfect at setting and respecting boundaries? Nope. We’re messy creatures guaranteed to make mistakes. The important part is letting people know when they’ve upset you and that they, in turn, strive to change their behavior. Of course, it’s on you to respect other people’s boundaries as well.
Fill the space with stuff you love
If you’ve followed along so far, there’s a good chance that eliminating things has left you with some free time. One option is to leave the space open and allow yourself to hang out in the grey for a while. That’s what I did. It took a bit of time to adjust, but now, I love it. I sleep, read, see friends, try to play ukulele, watch The Wire, and go for more walks. Of course, this won’t go on forever – I have a small project in October, and a huge one in January. But for now, I’m really cherishing the space.
The other option is to dedicate some of your newfound time to things that you know make you happy. While there are countless ways of doing this, here’s some of the stuff that tends to work:
- Engaging more with spirituality, religion, or nature
- Creating art
- Practicing meditation or gratitude
- Spending time with friends and family
Keep in mind that the goal isn’t to keep your life on hold forever. The goal is to build a solid foundation of happiness to operate from and slowly begin to add stuff. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that you no longer crave the things that used to sabotage you or that they no longer have the destabilizing effect they once did.
PS: You may not recognize yourself at first – I didn’t
September 2018, after spending 5 minutes updating N* on what I’ve been up to lately: “…so that’s the gist of it man. I’ve been boring and happy. I don’t know that I have tons of stories to regale you with.”
N*: “Dude, what are you talking about? You just told me that in the past week you saw Nine Inch Nails, spent two nights in the mountains with friends, published a well-received article, and hit a grand slam for your client. Why do you think you’re boring?”
It was kind of surreal when N* held the mirror up for me. For the first time, I understood that I failed to recognize some of the quieter emotions. Most of 2018 was defined by feelings and experiences that burn brightly, like chaos, drama, and anxiety. Happiness, at least for me, is a bit different. It’s kind of like a warm breeze on an already perfect evening – if you don’t know what to look for, you may not even notice it.
It may take a beat for your system to calm down enough to appreciate the more subtle experiences of life. Change always brings a bit of discomfort and if you’re used to instability, then your resting state may be one of heightened alertness.
That’s what happened to me. Without realizing it, I adopted a kind of always-on-guard stance in life. I needed to let go of the anxiety that kept me poised in order to let the waves of joy wash over me.