When I was a kid, I was miserable, hated life, and didn’t think things could improve: I had a traumatic childhood and was teased by other kids for being so “angry.” I knew I couldn’t go the rest of my days with so much negativity, tension, and pain, so I committed to change. And after a decade of studying hundreds of books, journaling thousands of pages, and testing countless strategies, I was able to reinvent my life to be happier than I’ve ever been.
Yet after pouring over all that information, here’s the single biggest lesson I’ve learned during that journey: Happiness is more about subtraction than addition.
Sure, it’s easy to think that a few life hacks, breathing exercises, and affirmations are going to transform everything and make you content. But it’s far easier to be happy in life when you’re not actively engaged in making yourself unhappy. So rather than adding more things to your life, it’s far more effective and practical to eliminate what hurts our happiness in the first place.
“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” — Bruce Lee
While there are plenty of things that can affect your happiness, here are the 5 simple things I removed that made the biggest impact:
1. Remove Negative Information
Many people get accustomed to negativity, stress, and frustration whether it’s from their social circle or what they see. Here are two changes that removed my biggest offenders:
I stopped watching and reading the news.
I do make exceptions for major events of serious impact, but I generally avoid all news. First, it’s a massive stressor. From a study by the American Psychological Association:
“More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result, the survey shows. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds — which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.”
Consuming negative headline after negative headline can make you far more worried, anxious, and sad. Also, while occasionally the news is helpful, it often portrays a negative, extreme, and biased view, making it look like there’s more violence, conflict, and strife than in reality.
For example, some Westerners think poorly about regions like Africa because, frankly, the media only shows “bad” news from there. (But if they visited, they would see it’s nowhere near as bad and locals can actually be happy.)
I remember when I was living in South Korea and there were skirmishes with North Korea, my family would ask me if everything was OK. But in South Korea, people acted as if nothing happened — they were just living normally whereas, in the US, everyone was panicking because of the news.
Here’s another important reason: Most news doesn’t affect you at all. For example, a hit-and-run in another town, a drug bust, a sex scandal, someone killing themselves, etc. You only have limited mental energy each day; why waste it on negative things you have no control over?
This isn’t about ignorance; it’s about knowing that certain things just aren’t worth the impact on your mental health.
I significantly reduced social media usage.
The problem with social media is there’s a tendency to become depressed and unhappy with your own life. In a recent study, Canadian and Australian researchers stated:
The most important finding of the post hoc analyses was that increased social media and television use were associated with lower self-esteem over time. Taking into account the upward social comparison, it might be that repeated exposure to idealized images on social media and television decreases self-esteem. However, according to our results, the reinforcing spirals only applies to depressive symptoms and not self-esteem, suggesting cognitive and mood exacerbating effects of social media.
Generally, on social media, people only share the best things that happen. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, as Dr. Meg Jay wrote in The Defining Decade, people start to feel unhappy with their own lives in comparison:
“Rather than a way of catching up, Facebook can be one more way of keeping up. What’s worse is that now we feel the need to keep up not just with our closest friends and neighbors, but with hundreds of others whose manufactured updates continually remind us of how glorious life should be.”
As result, many use it as a way of “keeping up with the Joneses” and see how they’re performing by comparison:
“For many, Facebook is less about looking up friends than it is about looking at friends. Research tells us that, on average, Facebook users spend more time examining others’ pages than adding content to their own. The site’s most frequent visitors — most often females who post and share photos and who receive status updates — use the site for “social surveillance.” These social investigators usually aren’t getting in touch or staying in touch with friends as much as they are checking up on them.”
Once I started limiting social media, however, I felt a massive relief. I also had far more free time to spend on the things I love.
The average person spends 2 hours and 24 minutes every day checking social media. (This can further affect happiness because there’s an association between screen time and depression.) Yet people often wish they had more time to travel, read, exercise, learn a language, spend time with loved ones, etc. — all of which can help boost joy, fulfillment, and positivity.
Something doesn’t add up. Cut out all social media and news consumption for two weeks and see what happens. What will you do with your extra two hours each day?
2. Remove The Bottom 20% From Your Life
The 80/20 Rule suggests that 20% of causes create 80% of effects. That’s why every few months I do an 80/20 analysis and ask two questions:
- What are the 20% of things that cause 80% of my unhappiness?
- What are the 20% of things that cause 80% of my happiness?
If certain activities, commitments, or even people make me unhappy, I’ll do whatever I can to avoid them. (And if they’re boosting my happiness, I’ll do whatever I can to increase them.)
Often, just by removing 2 or 3 things I don’t like, I notice my life gets significantly (and instantly) better. Sure, it’s helpful to be calm and accept annoyances you can’t control, but there’s no need to be a masochist — if you can avoid them, why not? Be ruthless. This is your life we’re talking about.
3. Remove Negative People
Of all the self-improvement quotes, none impacted my life more than this:
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
— Jim Rohn
If you surround yourself with negative, unhappy, and unambitious people, they will bring you down to their level no matter how hard you try. You cannot out-willpower your environment so, if you want to change, you have to change your environment first.
Do not underestimate the power of your social circle. In a 75-year study from Harvard, researchers found that relationships are the strongest factor in a life of happiness and health:
“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
— Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development
That’s why I removed negative people from my life. Please note: I’m not blaming them for my unhappiness — a big reason we were friends was likely because they mirrored where I was in life. But I knew if I wanted to change, I had to change my friends.
Try using the 80/20 Rule: Which 20% of your friends or family cause 80% of your unhappiness, self-doubt, anger, etc.? Find the sources of your negativity, have honest conversations respectfully, and create boundaries to protect yourself.
“You train the world how to treat you.”
— Dr. Ben Hardy
Ultimately, I set a precedent on how I want my friendships and relationships to be and I choose what I will — and will not — tolerate. Removing toxic relationships transformed my happiness almost instantly.
4. Remove The Desire To “Prove Myself”
There’s nothing wrong with having big, ambitious goals. But I’ve noticed that many people pursue lofty goals in order to prove something to others and, more importantly, to themselves. They care so much about what people think about them, yet they also care about proving their self-worth, showing they’re at a certain level, and validating their existence.
I was chasing an imaginary standard of “perfection,” one that will never be attained because my definition of perfection will always change. Yet who I am as a person is constant. There is no level of achievement that will make me more worthy as a person.
Sure, I can improve my communication skills, be more tolerant of others, be kinder, be more patient, be less judgmental, and more, but I don’t believe personal development makes me a better person.
After all, was I “worse” of a person before I learned those skills? Or am I “better” than people who don’t do personal development? Hell no. Nowadays, I don’t pursue personal development to become a “better person,” but simply to improve certain life skills and create better results.
To eliminate the tendency to prove myself, I regularly ask:
- If I could never tell a single person about my achievements, would I still pursue them?
- If my journey of self-improvement doesn’t make me a “better” person, would I still do it?
By removing my chase for an imaginary standard of excellence, I did things purely for enjoyment and love, which made it a lot easier to be happy.
5. Remove My Attachments
Some people believe they can’t be happy until they have certain things — wealth, health, relationships, possessions, etc. But that doesn’t hold up under psychology.
When we achieve something and feel happy, we quickly adapt, and lose that happiness — we then try to achieve something else, and the cycle repeats, creating what’s called the “hedonic treadmill.”
Ultimately, if they can’t be happy without those things, then they can’t be happy with them. That’s not to say you should never try to achieve anything in life. Instead, I try to reach goals without making my happiness depend on them — in other words, without attaching my happiness to them. It creates far more freedom, ease, and peace. And if I ever happened to lose what I had, I won’t be as devastated because it was never the source of my happiness in the first place.
This also includes my attachment to life itself. Being scared of death and my mortality led me to hold onto my life with a death grip. Once I released that attachment, happiness came with it.
While some might feel that thinking about death or mortality causes sadness or “nihilism,” in reality, it can actually give people a deeper appreciation and gratitude for the joys, pleasures, and opportunities they do have.
Think about it:
- How much more will you cherish the time you have with friends and family when you know you’ll eventually pass?
- How much more will you enjoy doing the things you love when you know, someday, you can’t?
Even when there’s pain, anger, or sadness, realizing there’s only so much time left before I go makes life easier to enjoy. Because happiness is always there, right in front of me. I just need to look.
- Negative information can cause a lot of stress and depression so take action by cutting out the news and limiting social media usage.
- Use the 80/20 Rule to see which 20% of things cause 80% of your unhappiness and find ways to remove them from your life.
- Relationships are the biggest factor for your health and wellbeing. Use the 80/20 Rule again to see which 20% of your social circle is causing 80% of your unhappiness and find ways to create boundaries with them.
- Stop trying to be perfect and stop trying to prove yourself as “worthy.” Do more things for yourself and keep more announcements to yourself.
- Stop attaching your happiness to your achievements, goals, possessions, etc. and step off the hedonic treadmill.
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