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This past Christmas, as I sank deeper into the couch and ventured further into the world of Metroid Dread, I came to a pretty shocking revelation about myself:
I am not a naturally happy person.
It all started one week prior after my girlfriend tested positive for COVID-19. We canceled our holiday plans, she quarantined herself in our bedroom, and I suddenly had two weeks off work and a boatload of free time on my hands.
I spent the first week doing nothing but playing video games and watching movies (basically, my dream). However, as the week progressed, I found myself feeling oddly unhappy, frustrated, and exhausted.
Turns out, doing nothing productive all day didn’t make me happy. Therefore, I spent the second half of my staycation getting back to my normal routine as much as possible. And voila, I started being my happy-go-lucky self again.
What’s up with that?
Humans are optimized for survival, not happiness.
Happiness is a new concept in terms of human evolution.
Survival has become relatively easy in comparison to our ancestors. We’ve earned the privilege of seeking happiness in addition to merely surviving.
But happiness is not our brain’s natural programming, which means it takes effort to make ourselves happy. In the absence of striving for happiness, our default state is actually anxiety (which I can confirm thanks to my week of degenerate video gaming).
Here’s how to fix that:
1. Become aware of the problem.
When I was a junior in high school, about the time most kids start feeling the pressures of adulthood and questioning what to do with their lives, I fell into the anxiety trap. It turned out to be more like a massive pit that I’d take nearly seven years to climb out of.
I spent the first six chasing a magic pill that would eliminate my problems and make me feel normal again. Then, one night, after a session with a therapist, I had a life-changing breakdown. Instead of going to a party with my friends, I stayed home and nearly cried myself to sleep.
That was the moment I realized I was the cause of my own problems. And once I became aware of it, I could solve it.
2. Ditch the vices.
Before my moment of realization, I drank to forget and enjoy life. It seemed like the best way to find happiness while waiting for some doctor to cure me.
Little did I know, I was actually digging myself a deeper pit. Drinking with my buddies seemed like a great way to make me happy, but it was just a momentary distraction from the real work that I needed to do. Same goes for video games, which I’ve adopted in my later years as a means to “escape” the real world.
3. Learn the five pillars of a good life.
Dr. Martin Seligman is an American psychologist and one of the leading researchers in the field of positive psychology.
He invented the PERMA model — a framework for happiness based on five key elements:
- Positive emotion: feelings of pleasure, joy, warmth, and so on
- Engagement: being fully immersed in stimulating activities
- Positive Relationships: fostering relationships that are nurturing and rewarding
- Meaning: serving a purpose greater than oneself
- Accomplishment: goal-setting and the pursuit of achievement
The idea of the model was to shift humanity’s focus from existing to thriving, and it became the basis for positive psychology as we know it today. It’s meant to help us create a life worth living by defining, quantifying, and improving our well-being.
4. Focus on the real work.
Knowing how to make a good life is great, but action is better.
Based on the five pillars above, here are some actions we’ll want to focus on:
>> Build a strong body and mind through diet and exercise. You feel best when you’re healthy.
>> Practice gratitude for the things you have and the opportunity to get the things you don’t.
>> Become a problem solver; don’t just b*tch. Venting feels good, and sometimes, it’s necessary for our mental health. But solving problems eliminates their hardship on us and self-empowers.
>> Attend to yourself and others mindfully. Practice compassion and empathy instead of being critical or negative.
>> Foster quality relationships with supportive people. Also, ditch toxic relationships.
>> Savor experiences and put yourself “in the moment.” This will enhance and prolong your happiness with them. My best moment from a trip I took to London was staring out over the Thames River for 10 minutes, doing nothing but savoring the moment and the cold wind on my face.
>> Celebrate when others come to you with news of excitement.
>> Set big goals that align with your identity and smash through them.
>> Build self-confidence with smaller goals and little wins along the way.
>> Find what motivates you intrinsically and channel that instead of always doing things to please others.
>> Perform small, random acts of kindness.
>> Seek out challenges that push your comfort zone. Watch your potential grow.
>> Maintain a positive mindset. Avoid urges to complain and allow negativity to breed. Reframe your situation in a positive light.
>> Get out there and make it happen.
I’ve learned that happiness doesn’t come to those who wait. If you want to be happy, you’ve got to fight for it.