WHY STRIVE FOR LESS MISERY RATHER THAN MORE HAPPINESS?
Life is messy, filled with detours and dead ends not of our making. If we are lucky, it contains more islands of happiness than misery. And if it doesn’t, the literature is filled with suggestions for how to achieve happiness ranging from the profundity of The Dali Lama’s call for compassionate actions to one psychologist’s belief we should hang out with people who smile.
Although happiness is a laudable goal, it might be easier to achieve by sneaking up on it: by reducing the misery in your life. Below are six strategies based on research and clinical practice that work.
Assume You Are Wrong Before Arguing. A few years ago, at a shopping center, I parked too close to the car next to me, making it difficult for the driver to enter his car. When I returned, he was fuming and berated my dismal parking ability, implying I was only one rung above the lowest person he knew.
Instead of defending myself, I looked at the closeness of the cars and responded, “You’re absolutely right. I should have parked further away. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” He was taken aback, assuming I would defend an indefensible position.
Many of us think we are never wrong. Always justified in what we do and say. When confronted, our instinctual reaction is to become defensive, a reaction often resulting in conflict and misery. When you are about to “hold your ground,” stop and instead say something like, “You may be right,” or “I can understand your point although I don’t agree with it.”
Apologize/ Stop Asking for an Apology. A brother and sister refused to talk to each other for ten years because of a trivial event that the brother found offensive. Neither could remember the particulars as the sister prepared to die. As a hospice volunteer, I was able to hear the regrets each had for squandering ten years of friendship because he insisted she apologize and she refused to do so.
As the one offended how often has a lack of an apology led you to a dark psychological state of mind? As the offender, did you refuse to apologize because you believed in the righteous of your position? Apologies don’t have to be about being right and wrong. They can be based on the effects of your behaviors on someone’s feelings. When realizing you said or did something unskillful, why not say “I’m sorry for hurting your feelings, that was not my intention.”
Be Less Critical. Their relationship began on an online dating service. Each found the other’s profile appealing, and the texts exchanged were promising. They met for dinner, each hoping they had finally found a partner. Even before the main course arrived, he commented negatively on everything from the food she ordered to the state of world affairs. He couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t return his phone calls.
How often have you said or thought, “If that were me, I would have…..”. Righteous indignation rarely leads to happiness. What you are saying is that your values are the ones other people should ascribe to. How often did your words lead to behavioral changes? How often did it result in frustration? To reduce your misery, become more accepting of differences.
Limit the Time Watching News. She watched news commentators endlessly discuss the state of the world. Sometimes the words were the same; always, the thoughts were repetitive. Yet, she watched for hours switching between channels to hear about events that didn’t directly affect her and ones she did not intend to do anything about. Rarely did the news make her happy.
At a workshop, Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tibetan monk, warned against spending too much time worrying about things we can’t change. His example was watching the news. Remain informed about those things you can change, but do not allow your mind to become negative by what you can’t. My suggestion is to limit your news watching to no more than one hour a day.
Stop Saying No. As a supervisor, it was her job to monitor the work of ten people. Almost every day, she made financial decisions ranging from purchasing a $20 coffee machine to approving multi-million-dollar contracts. “No” was her favorite word. She left every day from work more miserable than when she arrived that day.
How much would your life—and the behaviors of others—change if you limited or stop saying “no” and instead offered explanations for denials? There are legitimate reasons for saying no, but there are alternative ways of expressing it.
Do Three Positive Things Every Day
As a former professional athlete with chronic heart failure, he found it challenging to be sedentary. Following counseling, he understood the importance of introducing something into his life to offset the despair of his disability. Three times every day, he did something positive that did not require much energy like playing chess, offering advice on a chronic heart failure website, and playing the piano.
Sometimes our lives are shaped by negative events beyond our control. We may not be able to prevent them, but positive experiences can balance or reduce their impact.
We can’t control many aspects of our life. Cancer may develop even if your foods are organic. Partners may leave after you did everything to please them. Jobs may be lost to China despite decades of your commitment to the company.
These and numerous other situations contribute to our unhappiness. But using the six strategies can reduce the misery they cause, and maybe even allow you to sneak up on happiness. You can thrive by choosing to do something different.