There seems to be one key difference between my happy and unhappy friends.
I’ve always considered myself a happy and optimistic person, sometimes irrationally so. There are just too many things to learn, too many problems to solve, and too many experiences to be had that I find it difficult not to be excited about what the future holds.
Yet as I’ve grown up and watched my peers develop post-college, I’ve noticed people getting increasingly happier or increasingly unhappier. Moreover, if my sample size is at all relevant, happiness seems to have almost nothing to do with wealth, job, relationship status, attractiveness, celebrity or anything people typically correlate with being happy. I love oversimplifying things with math, so I’m particularly fond of this equation from Wait But Why.
It’s usually used to describe why so many Gen Y kids are unhappy — we were told we could do anything, but “real life” turned out to be harsher than our parents told them it would be. I think this interpretation is generally half-true, because it treats reality as something that happens to us, not because of us. Reality is thought of as this static entity with limited malleability.
It is exactly this line of thinking that, in my opinion, underpins unhappiness.
The happiest people I know, myself included, are the ones who actively work to create the reality they want to live in. It doesn’t mean we’re never unhappy — it just means that if something in our life net decreases happiness, we figure out how to improve it rather than sulk. We change jobs, get out of a bad relationship, move cities, or learn skills we think will materially change our situation. Settling isn’t an option.
These actions alone, I believe, increase happiness because they validate the feeling of control over one’s own destiny. Psychologists call this attitude an “internal locus of control” — i.e, you believe what happens in your life (good or bad) is generally a result of your actions. Chronically unhappy people tend to have an external locus of control, i.e. they believe that what happens in their life is generally the result of forces beyond their control. It’s the difference between attributing your test grade (good or bad) to your study habits or how hard the professor wrote the questions.
Research backs up this hypothesis, too. Paole Verme published a great paper that links locus of control and evaluation of choice to long-term life satisfaction — “better than any other known factor such as health, employment, income, marriage or religion, across countries and within countries.” In the 1960's, Martin Seligman found that once an animal comes to believe an adverse stimulus is going to occur regardless of behavior, they don’t take actions that can prevent it even when they are clearly presented (a phenomenon known as learned helplessness). And contrary to what you might have been told about “kids these days” believing they have too much control over their own destinies, having an internal locus of control has been on the decline as a society since the 1960's. Despite the fact that we’re all being told we can do anything, in aggregate we somehow feel more and more like our lot in life is out of our control.
Society is learning helplessness.
One of my favorite classes in college was on existentialism. People often say it’s a depressing philosophy because it denies the notion of an objective meaning to life. They miss a beautiful consequence of this assumption — not that life has no meaning, but that our actions and choices define its meaning. If there is any one thing I believe creates long-term, sustainable happiness, it’s the belief that reality happens because of us rather than to us. Our choices define our reality. This in and of itself causes people to pursue more opportunities, some of which are successful, and this creates a positive feedback loop.
I don’t deny the impact of dumb luck in my life, but I always try to link instances of serendipity to some action I performed. Not because I want to build my ego, but because it ensures I continue to email the writer of a blog post that catches my interest, or start conversations with strangers on planes, or do high-leverage favors (the topic of another blog post). It drives me to continue to create, rather than wait for, the reality I want to live in.
Your optimal reality probably has nothing to do with mine. It might be building a successful company, or playing video games all day, or living on a boat. Perhaps your version has more to do with finding a significant other, or a vision for a different type of society. Whatever it may be, you should constantly ask yourself:
What am I doing to create the reality I want to be a part of?