It’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, right?
That all-important phrase sounds to me like we should chase happiness, seek it out. And we do. We know we need to take care of ourselves, and we know we need to do things that make us happy. We vacation, we spend time with friends, we have hobbies, we meditate.
There’s a good evolutionary reason for why we are obsessed with pursuing happiness. For most of the time that the species known as humans have existed, it has made good adaptive sense to have a heightened sense of bad and a weaker sense of good. Responses to threats and discomfort (ah! A mountain lion!) are faster, stronger, and harder to restrain than responses to opportunities and joys (nothing to see here, just some sunshine and no predators).
This is one of the reasons that human beings today find it much easier to take in the negative—negative feedback from a boss, a snippy comment from a friend, whatever pain-in-the-a is happening to us right now—than the positive. We’ve been hardwired to emphasize the negative, and for most of human history up through this morning’s news, there has been plenty of negative to notice.
But happiness isn’t always about pursuit; it’s also ditching the things that don’t make us happy—that actively detract from our happiness.
I don’t take issue with the concept of trying to do things that make you happy. I mean, that’s a really good thing to do. It’s just that one thing I know that is true about my life—and probably yours—is that there is simply a limited capacity to add things INTO our lives. Am I right?
I started thinking about this while training for the NYC Half Marathon this year. There were years when running fell right behind my husband, son, cat, coffee and wine in the list of things that made the happiest. But there I was in the middle of a long run, something that used to make the day my most favorite day of the week, and I was thinking to myself, “I am miserable. I hate this. This no longer makes me happy.”
In hindsight, I’ll guess that at least three out of my four training workouts a week were actually detracting from my happiness instead of boosting it. Simply from the stress of lugging my heavy bag full of workout clothes and hairstyling equipment (yes, equipment) to the office, fixing my makeup on the run (last week was in the bathroom at daycare), and well, not using that time on something that does make me happy. So I stopped training and didn’t run the half.
Interesting thing that the things that make us happy change over time and with our life circumstance, isn’t it?
So here is your assignment: Do a quick scan of the major dimensions in your life—your finances, relationships, work, health, and the communities you’re a part of (including your own household). Rather than looking for things you could start doing to improve your happiness in those areas, instead look for things you are already doing that detract from your happiness. Things that you can ditch.
Is there someone who you always dread calling back but feel like you have to? Is that “have to” really worth the suck on your precious happiness? Something you’re doing that you’re only doing because you always have? A household chore you HATE that you can ask or hire someone else to do, buy something to make it easier on yourself, or do it less often?
Extra credit: Think all the bad thoughts. All the “I don’t want to be a quitter;” “I don’t want to be a jerk;” “I don’t want to seem lazy.” And ditch it anyway. You'll be pleasantly surprised that nothing bad actually happens.