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If You Don’t Know How to be Happy

expectations goal happiness happy purpose Jun 21, 2022

Do you ever find yourself thinking, “I don’t know how to be happy.” No matter what I do, no matter what happens, I just can’t seem to figure out how to be happy.

We live in a world where happiness seems to be the only goal. We spend our lives chasing it, pursuing it, and trying to find more of it—but somehow it just keeps eluding us.

It’s not that happiness is so difficult, and it’s not even that you don’t know how to be happy, but our thoughts about happiness often keep us from feeling as happy as we want to. If you want to figure out how to be happy, I invite you to think about happiness differently than you ever have before. 

Here are six shifts you can make in the way you think about happiness:


Shift #1: Life is 50/50

One of the biggest reasons that we think, “I don’t know how to be happy” is because we think we’re supposed to be more happy than when we are. When we think we’re supposed to be happier, more of the time, we start to think that we don’t even know how to be happy.

But the truth is that you aren’t supposed to be happy—at least half the time. And that is the first shift in thinking about happiness I think you should make.

I spent a lot of my life thinking that I wasn't as happy as I should be and then thinking there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t figure out how to be happy. But it turns out that I was just mistaken about how much happiness I was supposed to feel.

Our earth life experience is designed to be one of contrast, one of opposition, where there are opposite experiences like happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain, joy and grief. For every positive emotion we experience there is a negative counterpart. Life is supposed to be 50/50. 50% positive and 50% negative. Not 90% or 100% happy.

As soon as I realized that I was supposed to be unhappy (or feeling some sort of negative emotion at least half the time), I relaxed. I realized that there was nothing wrong with me and in fact I was only creating even more pain for myself by thinking I was doing it wrong.

You don’t have to solve for all your unhappiness. You are supposed to feel negative emotion at least half the time and you don’t have to fix that or change that or think that anything has gone wrong.

You can try this exercise: The next time you feel a negative emotion, try not to make yourself wrong for it. I like to say to myself, “Nothing has gone wrong. This is just the part of life where we feel _______. And it’s okay.” This allows me to just lean into how I am feeling and remember that at least half the time, I am not supposed to be happy and that doesn’t mean that I don’t know how to be happy.


Shift #2: Happiness isn’t created by circumstances

The next thing to consider if you think you don’t know how to be happy is to understand what creates happiness in the first place.

Most of us think that happiness will be created by things outside of us, like maybe if the weather is nice, or we win the lottery, or by our children’s choices, or the words of our spouse. We think that maybe we’ll be happier if we accomplish something or if we can go on vacation or if there’s no traffic. 

I know we’ve all heard the saying “Money can’t buy happiness,” but we still sort of think it can, right? Or if not money, then something else—something else OUTSIDE of us. We think if that thing happens or when this happens, then I will be happier. But what we find is that we get there and we’re still not as happy as we think we should be. This then leads us to think we don’t know how to be happy.

So what creates happiness?

Happiness is a feeling. And all of our feelings are created by our thoughts. All of our feelings are the way our brain communicates its THOUGHTS with the rest of the body. 

So when we have the thought, “I won the lottery,” we will probably feel happy. Our brain will likely send that feeling to our body. But as soon as our thoughts change, our feelings change. So maybe we think, “Now everyone’s going to ask me for money,” then we might feel dread or obligation instead of happiness.

Happiness is created with your thoughts. If it seems like something outside of you created your happiness, it is actually only because of whatever you are THINKING about that thing.

And that’s really good to know! That means that there is nothing wrong with us if we aren’t feeling happy. We are simply thinking a thought that isn’t creating happiness, and that’s okay. (Remember Shift #1…you aren’t supposed to be happy all the time!)

And if you ever think, “I don’t know how to be happy” and you want to feel more happiness, it is simply a matter of choosing a different thought—one that creates the feeling of happy in your body. Nothing else in your life or in your circumstances has to change. You can feel happy anytime you want to choose a thought that will create it.


Shift #3: Your brain’s goal isn’t happiness

The third shift to make if you think “I don’t know how to be happy” is to recognize that your brain doesn’t care at all about being happy. Your brain only cares about keeping you alive. 

When we learn that our thoughts are creating our feelings, we can sometimes feel bad that we have such “negative thoughts.” We think there is a problem with us that somehow we always choose thoughts that make us unhappy. We tell ourselves that we are ungrateful or discontent and we’re just never happy no matter what.

And we see this tendency towards negativity as a personal deficiency.

But it isn’t!

This is just how your brain works. Your brain is constantly on the lookout for what’s gone wrong. It wants to know what the problems are, where we might be in danger, what the threats are. And so it is constantly offering us thoughts about how bad things are and how everything is scary and horrible.

This isn’t you. This is just your brain at work. Your brain will almost always only offer you negative thoughts because those are the only kinds of thoughts that are relevant to your brain to ensure your survival. 

When you know this you can stop thinking that you don’t know how to be happy and recognize that your brain doesn’t want to be happy. Your brain wants to be alive. And it gives you negative thoughts because it thinks that will be useful in meeting that objective. 

This is why we can find something wrong no matter where we go—on vacation, to work, to church. Even when everything is fine, your brain is going to offer you thoughts about what’s gone wrong, but that doesn’t mean you don’t know how to be happy. You can be happy by purposefully choosing a new thought (see Shift #2) and we’ll talk more about this later.


Shift #4: The only thing making you unhappy are your expectations 

Byron Katie famously said that the only thing that causes our pain is our expectation that something should be different than it is. And it’s no different when it comes to your happiness.

As I said earlier, our expectation that we should be happier than we are often makes us even unhappier than we need to be. 

Our expectation that we should be happy on vacation or when things are going well or when “nothing’s really wrong” can also make us unhappier than we need to be.

Examine your own expectations about happiness. Do you think you should be happier? Do you think it should be easier to be happy? Do you think you should have figured out how to be happy by now? Do you think you live a life where you are very blessed and you have no reason to not be happy?

Whatever your expectations are about your own happiness, if they are different than your reality, then you are causing extra pain by thinking it should be different than it is. 

You can make the shift by deciding you should always be as happy as you are. We are as happy as the thoughts we are choosing to think and so that means we are always as happy as we are.

When my daughter was in high school she was very sad and angry and I kept thinking “She should be happy.” Which was ridiculous. My expectation (that she should be happy) was very different than the reality (she was sad ) and I created lots of pain thinking she should be different than she was.

Of course she “should be” sad because she was. Of course she should be said because she was thinking thoughts that created the feelings of sadness and anger inside her, not happiness. 

If you don’t know how to be happy, drop your expectations about how you should be feeling and accept exactly where you are.


Shift #5: Avoiding pain or discomfort isn’t the same as being happy

The fifth shift to make if you don’t know how to be happy is to recognize that many times, in an attempt to feel better, we do a lot of buffering. Buffering is any activity in which we are trying to avoid pain or discomfort, but sometimes just ends up creating some net negative consequences and more unhappiness.

For example, if I’m stressed or bored, and I think I should be happier and I want to avoid feeling stressed and bored, maybe I eat a snack. If I keep eating a snack whenever I’m trying to avoid feeling stressed and bored, eventually, I may gain weight or have a blood sugar spike and drop or feel sick. Eating the snack momentarily let me avoid the pain and discomfort of stress and boredom but it didn’t make me happy.

There may be things you’re doing that are temporarily allowing you to avoid some negative emotion, but that isn't’ the same as happiness and often when we engage in it, we actually feel worse.

Lately I have noticed that when I’m working and I don’t know what to write or say in the next podcast or the next email and I feel confused and anxious and lost, instead of feeling those negative emotions, I pick up my phone and scroll TikTok videos for a while. 

In that moment I have tried to put off feeling bad, but when I’m done and the work still needs to be done, I feel even worse. Plus, the more I scroll and watch the videos, the worse I feel about myself. 

If you think you don’t know how to be happy, consider the idea that avoiding pain and discomfort isn’t the same as happiness and assess where there are things you have been doing to avoid feeling bad, but it’s only making you feel worse in the end.


Shift #6: Just because you have to choose happiness on purpose doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong

By now you have learned some really important things about how to feel happy. You know that happiness is created by your thoughts and most of the time your brain isn’t going to give you those happy thoughts automatically. This means that if you want to be happier you are going to have to purposefully choose the thoughts that will create more happiness.

And this brings us to the last shift. To be happy, it takes purposeful, intentional work and it doesn’t happen automatically and that doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong. 

A lot of us think that it should be easier to be happy, that if it takes work or if we have to put effort into it that we must be doing it wrong. But this isn’t true. If you want to feel differently than the way the default thoughts your brain gives you makes you feel, it will take work and that’s okay. 

Again this means that we need to adjust our expectations and stop telling ourselves that we don’t know how to be happy, just because it’s not happening “automatically.” Because of the way your brain works, this is exactly how happiness works and you aren’t doing it wrong.

You have the ability to choose your life experience. Which means that if you want to feel more happiness you totally can. But it also means that it is a choice that you will make in your mind, not something that will just happen to you.

Knowing that you can choose as much happiness as you want and knowing exactly how to do it is really powerful. That doesn’t mean you want to feel happy all the time, but it means that it is available to you anytime you are ready and willing to choose a thought that will create it.


If you want more help learning how to be happy

I teach my clients that all their feelings are coming from their thoughts, but even when we know this, sometimes it still feels impossible to think differently. This is where it can be so helpful to have a coach.

A coach can show you how every thought you have is optional and can help you question it and loosen it up and show you what else is available for you to think. 

If you want personal help with thinking differently so that you can know how to be as happy as you want in your life, you can sign up for a free coaching consultation any time. Now that you know how to be happy, the only thing left is to choose the thoughts that create it, and I am here to help you with that anytime you need it. 

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