4 Things Happy People Don’t Do
Give up these bad habits and your natural happiness will flourish
At the end of the day, we all just want to be happy. We want our days free of stress, our minds free of worry, and our hearts full of love. That’s it.
Most of us have already had such a life. We had it when we were kids, and we lost it as we grew up. Now, we concoct elaborate schemes around happiness when, actually, all we need is to get back to the happy life we once knew. This isn’t just a point about childhood, it’s a point about human nature:
Your natural state is to be happy, but if you add too much to it, you lose what’s already there.
Happiness isn’t some elusive end result only the enlightened achieve. It’s not a prize reserved for “winners.” Happiness is our default setting. We just have to clear away the dirt that settles on top so it can flourish.
If you want to be happy, look for the following four tendencies in your life. You may associate them with “being an adult,” but ask yourself: Aren’t they just getting in the way of my happiness? If you find they do, eliminate them. You might feel like a kid again, and your natural happiness will shine.
Here are four things happy people don’t do.
1. They don’t worry about the future
Being anxious about the future is a misplaced attempt at bending the world to our expectations.
It’s natural to want to know what’ll happen tomorrow, next month, or even five seconds from now. As a species, we’ve thrived on reducing uncertainty. Over thousands of years, we’ve continuously eliminated threats to our survival.
As a result, today, most of us live in relative safety — but we still can’t predict the future. The world is a chaotic, dynamic environment, and it always will be. We don’t control nature or other people. We don’t even fully control our own minds and bodies.
Worrying about the future is an attempt to remedy our feelings of fear and helplessness in the face of everything about life we don’t control.
We secretly hope that, if we think about it enough, the future will actually turn out the way we expect it to. Of course, that rarely happens.
Worrying is a pacifying mechanism. We often confuse it with planning and problem-solving, neither of which is a guaranteed result of thinking about something and neither of which is useful if done too excessively.
Happy people don’t perceive life’s inherent uncertainty as a threat, they see it as an opportunity.
In their minds, every day is a new chance for something good to happen — something they could never have expected. This is called optimism, and psychologists say one of its key enablers is your explanatory style.
In essence, optimists are hopeful rather than worried about the future because of how they explain whenever something bad happens.
Happy people see negative developments as temporary, specific, and external. They believe that it’ll stop raining soon, that a bad player doesn’t make a bad team, and that they couldn’t have spotted the person they bumped into in advance. These are useful ways of handling adversity.
The good news is that optimism can be learned. There are exercises you can do to transform your negative beliefs into positive ones over time.
For example, you can “record your ABCs.” When a bad event happens (an adversity), you write down your subjective opinion (your belief) about it, and then look at how it makes you feel (the consequence). If your best friend doesn’t call you back (A), and you think they must be mad at you (B), you’ll likely feel sad (C). Of course, B is just an opinion, and you might find out later they were just busy (B2) — so instead, you too could have just gone on with your day (C2). Next time, choose B2 right away, and you’ll be happier.
Since they can always explain them in a productive way, happy people aren’t afraid of bad things happening and, as such, not worried about the future. Like children, they’re so excited about the potential of something good being just around the corner that there’s simply no time to fret and overthink.
Don’t worry so much. Don’t be gullible, but hope for the best, and find excitement in the potential for whatever good might happen today.
“When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?”
— Chuck Palahniuk
2. They don’t dwell on regrets
Regrets are a shadow version of humility — a noble effort born from good intentions turned unproductive.
Learning from our past mistakes is essential and satisfies our natural desire for growth. It’s part of a meaningful human experience. Our errors present us with evidence we must sit with until we can extract the data we need.
Unfortunately, we often sit for too long — far beyond the point of useful insight. We think we’re doing the world and ourselves a service by over-analyzing our missteps, but, actually, we’re blocking the path forward.
A regret is a bad experience that lies in the past until we walk back to it, pick it up, and carry it into the present.
Humility is having the guts to admit you were wrong and deciding to change something going forward. Learning means thinking about the causes of your mistake and then picking a few behaviors you’ll alter the next time around.
Anything beyond that isn’t humble, it’s self-flagellation. When we endlessly replay our faults in our minds, we doubt all the lessons we learned before. We lose ourselves in a maze of things we want to change and end up making little to no progress at all. Regrets don’t enable learning, they keep us from it.
Happy people take life one day, one mistake, one improvement at a time because that’s how you move forward without getting overwhelmed or letting your mistakes define you.
They know that they know quite little, that they’ll never grasp more than a fraction of the world’s knowledge, and that there’ll always be more to learn. Yet, like kids, they don’t let any of this deter them from moving forward.
In a perfect world, we’d only have to learn each lesson once. But that’s not how life works. Rather than fretting about this fact, happy people see mistakes as valuable data points — the evidence they need to upgrade and improve their assumptions.
Happy people know that the only way to not waste our lives is to do our best to not waste today.
They know the present is all we have, and they don’t let past regrets get in the way of having fun, learning, and doing the best we can with what we’ve got.
The next time something goes wrong, don’t mull over it. Think about it for a little, learn a lesson, and — like my dad often does — smile as you joke: “Okay, what else can we break here?”
The person who should be most excited about everything you do in life is you. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and don’t let your regrets define you. Live forward, live boldly.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
― Søren Kierkegaard
3. They don’t complain
Complaining is regretting the present when you can still do something about it.
It’s understandable that we want to let out our frustration when things aren’t going our way, and, sometimes, the gesture in shaking your fist or yelling into a pillow might create some actual relief.
Most of the time, however, complaining is choosing victimhood in situations where we still have a chance to influence the outcome. We settle into a mode of helplessness and start regretting a result only we have deemed final — and then we worry about how it might affect our future. But it’s not even too late!
Complaining is giving up our power in advance because we are afraid we might fail if we actually tried.
Instead of asking, “What can I do differently here?” we decide to do nothing. After all, if we don’t try, we also won’t fail — or, sometimes even scarier, succeed. It’s like Marianne Williamson said: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
Take the example of a young child screaming for a certain kind of cereal in the supermarket. We tend to look at this as bad parenting, but from the kid’s perspective, she is just stating, loudly and clearly, what she wants. As long as there’s a chance to still get the cereal (i.e. they haven’t left the store), she won’t go down without a fight — screaming just happens to be the only tool she knows. As they get older, children form more clever and elaborate arguments. “If we get the cereal, I’ll clean my room!” And so on.
Happy people don’t complain about things as long as they still have a fighting chance to change them.
They don’t let out a roar of frustration until the buzzer has rang and the game is lost. Despite being afraid of their powers, they use them until they’ve tried everything. They always look for new angles and are flexible and willing to give new ideas a go.
Of course, sometimes, there really is nothing more you can do. The weather affects us all, yet none of us can influence it. We can, however, move elsewhere. We can understand why the weather is the way it is. We can learn to love the weather we have, and we can joke about it with our friends.
Happy people don’t complain about what’s truly outside their control because half of happiness is being okay with what you can’t change.
Instead of ending his thoughts with exclamation marks, James Altucher uses question marks. “This coffee sucks!” becomes “This coffee sucks?”
Try this exercise. Your brain will immediately look for reasons why your situation isn’t so bad. It’ll come up with comparisons that make you feel grateful rather than grumpy — all while you’re brainstorming ideas on how to change what’s happening.
Don’t complain before it’s too late. Don’t give up too soon, don’t judge too early, and take defeats gracefully. After all…
“For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
4. They don’t close their minds — ever
Close-mindedness is an attempt to shield your ego from the perceived embarrassment of being wrong.
This is an evolutionary remnant of a time when every mistake we made had the potential to kill us. Don’t try the berry no other caveman can vouch for — it might be your last. Today, existential threats are far less abundant. We take a picture of the berry, Google tells us what it is, and Wikipedia explains the rest. In such a world, shying away from new experiences isn’t useful.
We fear being wrong and embarrassed because of their social consequences, but most of the time, our peers don’t just won’t care, they might even reward us. Trying things — and failing — is how we learn and innovate.
Close-mindedness feels like it protects us in the moment, but in the long run, it keeps us from learning, which is what we were born to do.
“A question opens the mind. A statement closes it,” Robert Kiyosaki says. The only way to keep growing as a person is to keep asking questions — even the ones that might make us look stupid. “The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life,” Confucius said.
Curiosity works both ways: Yes, some things are exciting to learn, but you can also get excited about because something is new and unfamiliar to you.
Happy people don’t fight change — they enjoy it because they see exploration as a key part of life, and they are willing to let go of what they know in order to attain it.
In science, this is known as “integrative complexity.” It’s understanding that there are multiple ways to look at every situation and then balancing different perspectives to form a comprehensive overall view. The best way to practice it is to learn something new every day, even if it’s just watching a five-minute Youtube video about a kind of food you’ve never heard of.
Children are always learning. If you combine that with the rules above — don’t think about the past, the future, or why today might suck — a larger point about happiness emerges: The easiest way to not overthink is to not think at all. Live in the moment, have fun, keep learning, and make the most of today.
Happy people try their best to stay in the present, learn whatever they can learn, and enjoy each day as it unfolds.
Of course, there’s a balance. As adults, we must do our share of planning. But we don’t have to constantly feel weighed down by our responsibilities.
If your mind is always open, you’re always learning. If your mind is closed, nothing has a chance of sinking in.
We should be curious about all there is in life, always and forever. No matter how small, stupid, or age-inappropriate our questions might seem.
Ask a question. Watch a video. Risk looking foolish. Allow yourself to be fully engaged in what happens today. Time flies when you’re having fun.
“We didn’t realize we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun.”
— Winnie the Pooh
All You Need to Know
If you want to be happy, don’t get lost on a long journey to nowhere. The pot of gold is always with you. All you have to do is clean it. Scrape away the dust, and your natural happiness will shine.
Stop worrying about the future.
Stop regretting the past.
Stop closing your mind.
Like the bird in the tree, when we get back to our true selves, we might find:
“I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I’m singing.”
— William James