“There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.” ~Anthony de Mello
Do you believe in soul mates?
I did. I also believed that the only way to be blissfully happy was to be with mine.
At a New Year party, I finally found her. As we chatted and danced through the evening, we fell in love. It seemed perfect.
Life, however, had other plans. Soon after, she moved to another city. I never saw her again but continued to be in love with her for the next four years.
Why? Because I was consumed by the belief that she was my soul mate, and that fate would bring us back together someday.
It’s strange, isn’t it? How each of us have our own beliefs about the “secret to happiness.” We live our lives in accordance with those beliefs, rarely questioning them.
Over those four years, my belief that I could never be happy with anyone else held me back from finding love and happiness elsewhere.
But I was so wrong. I did meet someone else later and have been gleefully together with her for ten years now!
We define our reality by what we believe.
Our beliefs make us who we are and determine the choices we make. Very often, those beliefs, far from leading us into happiness, bring us truckloads of pain and trouble.
The good news? We can be far happier and contented simply by altering our beliefs and looking at the world differently.
Here are five beliefs about happiness that actually make us unhappy:
Belief 1: I need other people’s approval to be happy.
Do you often do things only to please other people?
Human beings are driven by “social proof.” Approval is extremely important to us.
We wait to buy the latest gadgets to look cool. We attend boring office parties to fit in. We don’t pursue our dreams because our families don’t approve.
But just ask yourself: Are these actions (or inactions) bringing you any real happiness?
The pursuit of approval is very different from the pursuit of happiness. Let’s not fail to distinguish between the two.
Belief 2: I will be happy when I have…
…a bigger house, a promotion, a baby, awards, respect, those designer shoes!
Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the “arrival fallacy” in his book Happier. It’s the belief that when you arrive at a certain destination (or attain a specific goal), you will be happy.
The reason why this belief is so strong is because it’s partly true. Yes, you will feel happy when you get promoted or buy a house.
The question is: Is this happiness lasting?
While you will escape your landlord’s ranting, you will have to pay new taxes and spend good money maintaining your new house.
Each level of accomplishment will bring its own set of problems.
Does this mean you stop working toward your goals? No! Goals are important, and one needs to be ambitious.
However, think about this: You can be happy now and also when you get the promotion.
Do you really need to postpose your happiness?
Belief 3: I can’t be happy unless everything goes right.
Have you ever lost your luggage on a vacation? It upsets everything, doesn’t it?
Instead of enjoying the charms of a wonderful new city (or countryside), you’re running around buying clothes and other stuff, wondering if the airline will ever return your luggage.
That’s what happened on a vacation with my family.
Strangely, now when we think about that vacation, the trouble we faced because of the lost luggage doesn’t bother us. We just talk about the wonderful time we had.
The vacation didn’t have to be perfect. The only thing that really mattered to us was that we had an opportunity to have a great time together.
Think about it: are vacations, parties, dates, or any other special occasions ever perfect? If something goes wrong does that mean the entire trip or evening is a failure?
Yes, it is a failure, but only if you believe so.
Let’s extend the discussion further: Is anything in life ever perfect? We have ups and downs every day.
Life is imperfect—perhaps that’s what make it more interesting!
Belief 4: I can’t be happy because of what’s happened in the past.
The past controls us in mysterious ways.
You might have lost a loved one to misunderstanding or death. You might have failed to achieve your dreams. As a result, you may have developed one of these beliefs: “I am not meant to find happiness” or “It’s not my destiny to be happy.”
Personally, I haven’t lost much in life, but I know someone who has. I used to wonder how she could enjoy life despite such tragedies, until she revealed her simple secret…
She believes that she has the right to be happy, despite her past misfortunes.
Your past doesn’t control your future unless you let it. Millions have turned their lives around. If they can be happy, why can’t you?
Belief 5: Happiness is not a habit that can be learned.
Can you actually learn to be happy? Like learning baseball or the guitar?
Yes. Happiness is a skill—one that you build through a number of daily choices.
Numerous studies have indicated that people who are happier have certain habits: they exercise, meditate, pay attention to their relationships, pursue their goals diligently, lead balanced lives, are grateful.
Research shows that by thwarting negative emotions, such as pessimism, resentment, and anger, and fostering positive emotions, such as empathy, serenity, and gratitude, the brain can be trained to become happier.
Happiness does not depend on fate; it depends on our habits—habits that anyone can learn.
Our beliefs can bring us happiness or sorrow.
Question your beliefs about yourself, your life, and happiness from time to time. See if they still serve a positive purpose. If not, change them.
What beliefs do you think you need to change to be happier?
“See the positive side, the potential, and make an effort.” ~Dalai Lama
I was a perfectionist growing up, always trying to bang my flawed round-shaped self into a perfect square hole that couldn’t possibly contain me.
In my early twenties, I decided to focus on personal development—a positive thing, I assumed.
I figured if I worked on improving a little every day and nurturing a positive mindset, I’d feel a lot better about myself than I did when I got down on myself for my flaws.
I didn’t take into consideration that I might become a perfectionist about positivity.
That I might catch negative thinking and feel guilty about it instead of letting it go and moving into a more positive space.
That I might muster every piece of my will to avoid negative feelings and end up over-thinking them instead of simply feeling them and letting them pass.
For most of my life, I’ve fought reality. I didn’t like the way people responded to me, so I tried to manipulate their perception. I didn’t like the world around me, so I tried to control it. I didn’t like the world within me, so I tried to escape it.
Even when I tried to be positive, I was resisting the present. If only I was positive enough, I thought, I could create a better tomorrow—then I’d really be happy.
I tried on different positive hats in my pursuit of happiness.
I’ve told myself that everything really is in my mind—that if someone appears to be mean or inconsiderate, it’s largely a consequence of how I’m interpreting things. But then I started wondering if that’s the case, what’s wrong with my mind? Why do I so frequently assume the worst first and then have to catch it and change it?
I made lists of all the things my life would involve if it was more positive: I’d volunteer; I’d be open-hearted, always eager to greet a stranger with a smile; I wouldn’t fear lacking, and would freely give to anyone who needed it. Then I felt overwhelmed by the list of things I needed to do. Who has the time and energy to be that positive?
I’ve focused on things I appreciate in life by keeping a gratitude journal. Oddly enough, I stressed about that, as well. I felt guilty if I missed a day and continually measured whether or not I was doing enough to express gratitude in my daily life.
Positive thinking didn’t bring me peace because I was still the one doing the thinking, and I hadn’t really changed. I was still fighting, judging everyone and everything, including myself, and wondering when life would finally get easier.
No matter how positive I tried to be, it never worked because I wasn’t working for it.
Working for it, for me, involves just fifteen minutes a day.
I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t experienced it myself, but a brief morning meditation has a profound effect on me. When I start the day by sitting in silence for even a short while, my mental space transforms.
Without some type of contemplative practice, my busy mind gets overwhelming. Without taking time to clear my head, positive thinking is only moderately effective because there are just too many thoughts for the positive ones to have an impact.
Positive thinking, in itself, isn’t enough for me to experience the world in a present, joyful way. The most positive thinking, I’ve decided, is less thinking.
I’d like to say I no longer over-analyze, get lost in my thoughts, or get hard on myself, but that’s not entirely true.
Even with tools that help me feel calm and centered, I still feel this way at times.
There are days when I fight with myself and the world and judge myself pretty harshly. It’s usually when I’ve stopped doing the things I know I need to do for me. When work gets overwhelming and people seem demanding, sometimes I don’t make those things a priority.
I am still imperfect, I still make bad decisions at times, and I still struggle with letting go. It’s called being human.
Growth is rarely a straight line. It’s more like an EKG monitor. It’s tempting to look at it with a sense of anxiety. To measure the peaks and valleys, wondering if the peaks are high and frequent enough.
But I’m learning that being positive means releasing the need to judge—to stop assessing what’s right and good enough, and whether I’ve been right or good enough, and approach each new moment with a sense of space.
It’s my job to create that space—to clear out all the thoughts that drown out the positive ones.
The biggest barrier between me and peace is my instinct to analyze why I didn’t, don’t, or might not have it. Stillness silences that instinct.
When I take time for stillness, it doesn’t matter how I interpret things because suddenly I stop telling stories about events as they happen to me.
When I take time for stillness, it doesn’t matter how many positive things I could do if I tried; I’m too busy putting good into the world to dwell on those lists.
When I sink into stillness, it doesn’t matter how many things I write in my gratitude journal; I’m too busy appreciating the world in front of me to worry about jotting it down.
Today, I feel peaceful. In this moment, I am not trying to be positive. I created space for myself to just be. And that, I’ve learned, is the most positive thing we can do for ourselves.