How NOT to be Happy: 6 Bad Habits That Drain Your Happiness

“And they walked their separate ways, living unhappily ever after…” ?

Have you ever heard a story end like that?

Probably not! “Unhappily Ever After” doesn’t make for a great story.

But the usual storyline of “Happily Ever After” is also a poor objective, because never-ending happiness only exists in fairytales.

In this world, happiness is a bit more complex.

What’s the Deal With Happiness?

Happiness is a huge topic. But you don’t need to know everything there is to know about happiness to start experiencing more of it in your life.

In this article, we dig into:

  1. Why Your Happiness is Worth Prioritizing
  2. The Multiplier Effect of Happiness
  3. Why Happiness can be a Tricky Topic
  4. How NOT to be Happy: 6 Behaviors That Lead to Unhappiness

Why Your Happiness is Worth Prioritizing

More happiness in life tends to be a good thing.

(Thank you, Captain Obvious…)

But I’m not just saying that, there’s loads of research to back this up.

As positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky outlines in her book, The How of Happiness, “…across all the domains of life, happiness appears to have numerous positive by-products that few of us have taken the time to really understand.”

When you think about it, it makes sense. If you’re feeling happy, lots of other things tend to be going right!

By doing things that promote your happiness, you’re also likely to experience:

  • Higher energy levels
  • Better immune system function
  • Improved physical and mental health
  • Better self-confidence and self-esteem
  • etc.

Happiness is not necessarily the source of these byproducts. But since happiness is a good approximation for wellbeing, pursuing one naturally begets the other.

The Multiplier Effect of Happiness

The best part about focusing on your happiness is that there’s a multiplier effect on everyone around you.

Just think about what it’s like to have a conversation with someone who radiates positive energy. You can’t help but feel better!

When you cultivate a positive state, with greater energy, the other people around you also benefit.

[Related reading: The Surprising Value of Self-Care]

Happiness is a Tricky Topic

With that in mind, happiness can be a challenging to address at times, because it’s hyper-personal.

Here’s what I mean by that:

  • Everyone comes from different backgrounds, and has different values and priorities.
  • What makes you happy will not make me happy in the same way.
  • And what makes you happy today may impact you differently in 3 months.
  • Even the word “happy” calls different things to mind for different people.

One final note, happiness is not the end-all-be-all. And it probably shouldn’t be held as one’s only goal in life.

But it’s certainly an important ingredient in a life well-lived! As such, it’s worth learning how to cultivate greater happiness.

To do this, we’ll take an unconventional approach by examining the opposite.

How NOT to be Happy: 6 Behaviors that Drain Your Happiness

Not making errors is often just as important as excelling at something.

So to understand how to cultivate greater happiness in life, you can start by learning what not to do.

You may be surprised at how naturally some of these bad habits show up!

But when you understand what to avoid, it becomes a challenge of mindfulness. Simply notice when these behaviors flare up, and redirect your energy accordingly.

Bad Habit 1: Leaving Happiness to Chance

“…becoming lastingly happier demands making some permanent changes that require effort and commitment every day of your life. Pursuing happiness takes work, but consider that this ‘happiness work’ may be the most rewarding work you’ll ever do.”

~ Sonja Lyubomirsky

Sometimes you wake up in the morning and feel great!

But leaving your happiness up to chance is an unreliable approach, and won’t lead to increased happiness long-term.

Happiness is a choice, and a skill to be cultivated. Just like building patience or compassion, it takes deliberate time and attention!

The Redirect: Commit yourself to the practice of happiness. Pay attention to what brings you up and what brings you down in life, and modify your behavior accordingly. As with any behavior change, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Pick one focus area to start, and gradually add others with time.

Bad Habit 2: Keeping Your Eyes Forward at all Times

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”

~ Socrates

Humans are masterful at adapting to new situations. This is a great skill in times of uncertainty or strife, but if unchecked, it has a way of sapping your happiness.

Hedonic Adaptation is the process by which you get used to the good things in life very quickly.

When something great happens to you, it creates a temporary bump in your happiness. But soon you adjust, and start seeking the next thing.

hedonic adaptation.png

It can create a never-ending quest for what’s next.

  • “Once I finish my degree, I’ll be happy.”
  • “Once I get that next promotion, I’ll be happy.”
  • “Once I get married, I’ll be happy.”

The antidote to the never-ending-quest-for-the-next-thing is appreciation and gratitude. Without feeling grateful for your life as it is, you’ll never feel lasting happiness from a new addition.

The Redirect: If you find yourself stuck on the hedonic treadmill, start keeping a Gratitude Journal. Commit to a set period of time (e.g. 30 days) where you’ll write 5 things you’re grateful for each day. Revisit your journal at the end of this time.

Bad Habit 3: Comparing Yourself to Others

“You can’t be envious and happy at the same time. People who pay too much attention to social comparisons find themselves chronically vulnerable, threatened, and insecure.”

-Sonja Lyubomirsky

Humans are comparison and judgement machines. Everywhere you go, you’re making judgements about the world around you.

Unfortunately, comparison drives feelings of scarcity and inadequacy.

In short: we judge other people and get jealous.

To combat jealousy, it’s important to understand that life is not a zero-sum game!

When something good happens to someone else, it doesn’t make it any less likely for something good to happen to you.

zero sum.png

To avoid jealousy, I like to think of myself as a member of Team Human.

I’m not competing with anyone but myself. So when I see other people thriving, I celebrate their successes and thank them for shining so brightly!

The Redirect: Join “Team Human”! Next time you see someone succeeding at something, or possessing something you want, be happy for them! Celebrate the successes of your “teammates”. Loving-Kindness meditation is another amazing practice to cultivate this mindset.

Additionally, being jealous of other people by longing for their best qualities is an insane game to play! You don’t get to cherry-pick. To be jealous of someone, you’d need to be willing to do a complete swap.

“Do you want to actually be that person with all of their reactions, their desires, their family, their happiness level, their outlook on life, their self-image? If you’re not willing to do a wholesale, 24/7, 100% swap with who that person is, then there is no point in being jealous.”

~ Naval Ravikant

Bad Habit 4: Searching for “The Holy Grail”

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” ― Albert Camus

There is no “secret sauce” of happiness.

If you’re consistently unhappy, adding something to your life usually isn’t the solution.

This is because happiness is a default state of the mind. When you let go of everything else, like thoughts and judgements, all that’s left is a sense of peace and happiness.

Some mistakenly think that letting go of thoughts leaves you with a blank, neutral slate. But anyone who practices mindfulness knows the always-accessible joys of present-state awareness.

This natural quality of peaceful happiness is like the bright blue sky. Dark clouds (thoughts) can easily obscure the blue sky from your vision. But let the clouds pass by, and the blue sky emerges once again. To see this beautiful blue sky, you don’t work to paint the sky blue. You simple letting go of whatever is obscuring it to see what’s always there.

blue sky.png

The Redirect: When you find yourself feeling down, remember that it’s your interpretation of a scenario that determines how you feel about it. By locating the thought that’s causing your unhappiness, you have the opportunity to let go of it, and re-frame your interpretation. Oftentimes, these challenging thoughts have a “should” in it. (e.g. We really should have won the game.)

Bad Habit 5: Never Taking Your Foot off the Gas

Busyness has become a bit of a badge of honor.

But working straight-through every day without breaks is optimizing for quantity of inputs instead of quality and quantity of output.

And it’s a recipe for burnout and dissatisfaction.

To do the most quality work, you need to make smart use of your time. Doing this means working with your body’s natural rhythms, not just steamrolling through every day expecting to be alert and focused.

Just like you have REM cycles every ~90 minutes while sleeping, your natural energy oscillates throughout the day in ~90 minute cycles (these are called Ultradian Rhythms.)

After ~90 minutes of energy, there tends to be a ~20 minute dip. Perfect for taking a rejuvenating mindful break.

The Redirect: Use your time well each day by working with your energy fluctuations. Pay attention to your Ultradian Rhythms. When does your energy starts to “dip” throughout the day? Take rejuvenating breaks during these times, knowing that it will help you do your best work.

Bad Behavior 6: Go BIG or go Home

“Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.”

~ Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Big events, parties, and vacations can create moments of intense happiness. It’s a magical “I’m on top of the world” type feeling.

But that intense happiness is an exception to the rule, and shouldn’t be your main goal.

As Lyubomirsky’s outlines in her other book, The Myths of Happiness, frequency matters more than intensity:

“…the results of research favor the ordinary over the intense. It turns out that the key to happiness and health (and to all of their auspicious by- products) is not how intensely happy we feel, but how often we feel positive or happy. “

Mindfulness plays a big role here. By cultivating mindful awareness in everyday life, you can appreciate the little things more effectively. Taking time to create and notice little awesome moments during your day is an endlessly rewarding practice.

The Redirect: Create a list of happiness habits for yourself, and use them as breaks throughout the day! Now that you’re paying attention to your Ultradian Rhythms, you can use that time purposefully.

Choose Happiness Today

Don’t leave your happiness up to chance! Instead, commit to the practice of happiness.

Though happiness isn’t the end-all-be-all of a life well lived, it does coincide with a host of benefits for you and other people in your life.

It’s a personal practice, and it does take work. But if happiness isn’t worth working for, I’m not sure what is.

Just remember that there’s no such thing as “arriving” in at happiness, or “happily ever after.”

As Roy L. Goodman reminds us, “…happiness is a way of travel, not a destination.”

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