“I began to think, I want to feel good today. I don’t want to keep living for some far-off day that might never come—where I’m rich and finally feel good about myself.” —Tom Bilyeu
There was a time when I thought the best way to be happy was to change my outside world. Amateur move, I know.
I used to tell myself things like,
- If I could just get my online store off the ground, I could quit my job and move to a tropical beach town.
- I have to convince my boss to let me start work at 10 a.m. so I can get to the gym.
- I will go crazy unless I’m writing at least a few pages every week.
My mantra was, I’ll be happy when X happens. For 15 years, I made it my goal to master goals. These days, obstacles barely slow me down; difficulties complain about me.
Those three checkboxes above? I checked ‘em all, at least in a way I’m happy about.
- I cut my work hours and found time to build my business, and will be on a Mexican beach two or three times this year.
- Instead of starting work later, I tossed my no-gym-on-weekends tradition.
- And I started waking up earlier and found plenty of quiet time to write.
I got what I wanted, so I expected happy. Instead, I got… angry.
When the Pursuit of Happiness Makes You Miserable
It’s people on the subway that set me off the most—the guy blocking the door at a busy station; anyone who tries to walk and text on crowded stairs (you’re holding up traffic, man).
A breakfast of spewing dry sarcasm at strangers every morning is empty emotional calories, so I stepped back to ask: If I keep ticking all these boxes and have a great life on the outside, why do I feel like I’ve been watching cable news for 47 hours?
My need to change became obvious one ordinary Saturday morning. I was on the way to meet friends for brunch when I asked myself, I’ve got an amazing woman in my life, a house and a garden, money coming in, interesting work, and I’m healthy—why am I lecturing a 70-year-old lady about letting passengers off the bus before barging on?
The answer, I think, is that all the work you do to order your outside life is worthless if your inside life is arranged like a hoarder’s living room. Sit back and let me lay out for you a three-step process of taking out your mental stacks of newspaper:
1. Thoughts are power.
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” —Jim Carrey
If I have a superpower, it’s that the information I need to grow always tracks me down at exactly the right time. It may be something a friend says, or a book that lands in my lap. In this case, it was The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.
The first agreement: “Be impeccable with your word.” Speak with integrity and say only what you mean.
Words have an almost magical power, says Ruiz. You can tell a child, “Keep it down,” and she will interpret that as “I suck at singing” and never hum another note for 30 years.
However, if you always speak with honesty and compassion, you lift up others. Tell someone how much you admire their work ethic, and watch them work even harder.
I wondered: If my words have such power over others, what about the things I tell myself in my head?
“He littered! I’m outraged!”
Think this, and you’ll spend the day brooding.
I mindfully started to watch this process of cause and effect, and I saw a clear and direct link between my internal dialogue and the frustration I’d been carrying around like a bag of bricks. I was losing the (head) game—one where I was the only player.
Walking around angry most of the day is exhausting, so I decided to become impeccable with my thoughts.
2. Talk back to the critic.
Psychiatrist David Burns literally wrote the book on feeling good. It’s titled Feeling Good, and I think it’s no exaggeration to call it an instruction manual for your mind.
His main idea, and the central thesis of cognitive therapy, is that all your moods are created by your thoughts.
The way you feel about an event is not an accurate depiction of reality. That feeling is planted by the meaning you give to reality.
Have you ever been mad at someone, only to find out later they didn’t do what you thought they did? Reality was not the cause of your agitation—it was the story you created, what author Brené Brown calls your “Shitty First Draft” (we’ll come back to her).
Adopting a subtle shift in the way you approach the world can be the difference between “this person doesn’t respect me” (anger) and “this person must be dealing with a lot of pain” (compassion).
But, Dr. Burns, how do I change my thoughts? Well Mike, it’s simple. First, you have to identify the thought that created the emotion. Second, you talk back to the thought.
Doc Burns created the triple column technique to help you do just this. Create a table with three columns with these headings: 1) What is the thought? 2) How have I distorted reality? 3) What is my rational response?
Now, when I see someone text-walking, I try to approach it like this:
“What a zombie, I take great umbrage.”
“He must be having an inane, unnecessary conversation.”
“I have no idea what he’s texting—maybe he’s trying to reconcile with his wife, or talk to his dying mother, and I can be patient.”
There is a good chance he is in fact capturing Pokémon, but if I have the choice, why would I choose to believe the story that makes me agitated?
3. Act: Choose your own emotions.
“A real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken a new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.” —Tony Robbins
By bringing more mindfulness to the moment-to-moment thoughts that were robbing me of my happiness, I could choose new ones that create better feelings.
At this point, let’s invoke the grit and wit of Brené Brown, researcher, student of the human experience and author of Rising Strong. (Sidebar: I may have a minor platonic crush on Brené, a woman 16 years my senior. She’s such a lovable cowgirl-librarian combo… plus, typing Brené is fun. OK, let’s move on.)
What do you do after you become aware of the power of thoughts and start talking back to them? It’s time for a revolution, baby.
This is the part where you take massive action—even if only in your head. Take up arms and attack the old wisdom… Elect new thoughts; install a new sheriff in your (mental) town.
“Unlike evolutionary change, which is incremental,” says Brené, “revolutionary change fundamentally transforms our thoughts and beliefs.”
Small steps won’t lead to the kind of spiritual transformation we need. If I limit myself to the minor change of watching how my morning commute starts the mental gymnastics, I get minor changes. Instead, I can recognize how insane it is to make myself miserable with any thoughts, in all situations, and to make the revolutionary choice to reject them entirely.
I made a decision to choose thoughts that produce positive emotions—on the bus, at home and work, and in my relationship. After only a week of careful, active mindfulness, I started laughing a lot… at nothing! Until then, I had forgotten what genuine happiness felt like: effortless.
Now, You Try
I don’t always succeed in choosing positive thoughts. Some Tuesday afternoons, I’ll only be aware that I’ve been agitated by something after hours of stirring it around in my brainpan.
But I’m working on it. Effortless happiness will never be permanent, though I’m sure it’s more likely to visit when I’m impeccable with my thoughts, talking back to the negative ones, and stubbornly choosing only positive (but realistic) beliefs.
I find it helpful to remind myself that achievement and feeling good are two separate realms.
Working to improve your outside world is commendable—it does have some bearing on your happiness. But it would be a mistake to neglect your inside world, your thoughts, which literally create your reality. In this moment.