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.”
After a decade of studying hundreds of books, journaling thousands of pages, and testing countless strategies, I reinvented my life to be happier than I’ve ever been.
And although I have my moments, I’ve improved my ability to handle life’s challenges, which has been especially helpful in the first half of 2020.
There are countless things that go into “happiness” — more than can fit into one article — but I’ll share my favorite practices anyone can do right now to make a big impact immediately.
1. Reduce Negative Information
It’s easier to be happy when you’re not actively engaged in making yourself unhappy.
And whether it’s from our social circle or what we see, many people get accustomed to negativity, stress, and frustration.
Here are two changes to remove the biggest sources:
I stopped watching and reading the news.
I do make exceptions for major events of serious impact — like what’s been going on the past few months — but I generally avoid all news.
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 there really is.
This becomes your reality, yet it’s nothing close to reality.
For example, some Americans think poorly about regions like Africa because they only see “bad” news from there. Yet if they visited, they would realize things are nowhere near as bad and locals are kind, pleasant, and happy!
I remember when I was living in South Korea and there were skirmishes with North Korea, my family would regularly 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.
Generally, most news doesn’t affect you anyway.
I’m not talking about the current discussion of civil rights and social justice. I’m talking about a hit-and-run in some faraway part of town, a drug bust, a sex scandal, etc.
You have limited mental energy each day; why waste it on things you have no control over?
It’s not about ignorance; it’s about knowing that certain things just aren’t worth the impact on your peace of mind.
I limited social media.
There are several issues with it:
Chances are some people you follow only share updates that are controversial, negative, arrogant, etc.
When you see their post, it leaves you feeling worse than before you saw it.
While it’s important to help your friends when they’re feeling down, there’s a big difference between “asking for help” and spreading negativity.
If this is their habit, I recommend to mute or unfollow them ASAP.
There’s a tendency to become depressed and unhappy with your own life.
Generally, on social media, people only share the best things in life.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but as Dr. Meg Jay wrote in The Defining Decade, people start to feel unhappy with their own lives in comparison and say things like, “My life should be more like on Facebook.”
Reducing it allowed me to stay in the present moment.
Rather than being distracted while consuming media — and being distracted for hours afterward — I was able to focus on the only time that I ever had:
The “here and now.”
Life happens outside of social media.
Limiting it gave me much more free time.
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 one week and see what happens.
What will you do with your extra two hours each day?
2. “80/20” Your Happiness
The 80/20 Rule explains that 20% of “causes” create 80% of “effects.”
Every few months, I do an 80/20 analysis on my life 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.
If they’re boosting my happiness, I’ll do whatever I can to increase them.
Often, just by removing 2–3 things I don’t like, life gets significantly 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?
This is your life we’re talking about.
3. The Quote That Changed My Life Most of All
Of all the self-improvement content I’ve read, no quote 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.
Fact: You cannot out-willpower your environment. If you want to change, you have to change your environment first.
Here’s what I did:
First, 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 here: 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, and create boundaries to protect yourself.
Second, I surrounded myself with kind, supportive, and emotionally stable friends.
Find people who encourage you, spread joy, and make you feel happy.
To avoid the tendency is to attract the same people you were friends with before, pick friends who you aspire to be like.
“Surround yourself with people who remind you more of your future than your past.”— Dr. Benjamin Hardy
4. Set Better Boundaries
After my 80/20 analysis, I realized most of my unhappiness came from dealing with various people.
But it’s not because “the world is a bad place.”
The problem was I didn’t set strong boundaries.
Ultimately, it’s my responsibility to train people how to treat me: I set a precedent on how I want my friendships and relationships to be and I choose what I will — and will not — tolerate.
But remember it’s a two-way street as well.
If someone makes a respectful request to you, how will you act?
Are you going to blame them? Are you going to make excuses?
If so, how can you expect your friend to be any better?
Having friendships with healthy boundaries can make a big difference.
5. Create Positive Inputs
After removing major sources of negativity, add practices to help “facilitate” your happiness.
Here are my two favorites:
Even after over 1270 consecutive days of meditation — thanks to Headspace for counting — I didn’t “attain enlightenment” or stop getting upset, frustrated, or stressed.
But I did become more aware of my thoughts and patterns.
And I did get an opportunity to distance myself from it.
For example, if I have a negative emotion, there’s a tendency to fight it and say “I shouldn’t be angry” and “I should think positively at all times.”
But this causes more problems because now I’m blocking my emotions, which is going to make me neurotic, anxious, and stressed.
Instead, it’s far better just to accept and feel that emotion without judging.
Think of it like the sky:
Occasionally, dark clouds (i.e. negative emotions) will pass and cover it.
But you don’t attach yourself to the clouds; you attach yourself to the sky.
You watch the clouds as they pass. You don’t judge them for being there, and you certainly don’t make your happiness depend on whether or not they come and go.
You also know the clouds will eventually disappear and reveal the beautiful, radiant sky.
It helps me stay grounded to know that, beyond my emotions, there is an inner stillness; if I can attach myself to that, the result can be powerful.
Taking a daily gratitude journal has helped tremendously and its benefits are actually backed by science.
It’s a great reminder that there’s always something to be thankful for, there’s so much magic in the world, and there are so many amazing opportunities we have in life.
And even on bad days, appreciating the positive moments makes life richer and more pleasant.
It also prevents me from being at the center of the world: For all the great things I did in my life, it’s not “all me.”
People have helped. Things have gone my way. And it’s important to remember that so I don’t get a false sense of superiority.
Fortunately, taking a gratitude journal is easy:
At the end of your day, just write down 3 to 5 things you’re thankful for and why.
I try to avoid writing obvious things — being thankful for the air, water, gravity, etc. — and find things that happened during that specific day.
I’ve been journaling since 2017 and it has created so much healing in my life.
Through journaling, I dug up countless repressed memories and emotions and uncovered how they affected me (ex. repressed anger, low self-esteem, poor mental patterns, etc.).
But the key to journaling is I can’t just vent and rant.
It’s helpful for a little bit, but once I’m done venting, I need to move forward.
It’s important to ask, “How do I want to think about this memory? How do I want to act in the future?”
From there, the real “healing” can begin.
Because you don’t change your life by living in the past and “fixing” what already happened. You change your life by acting in new ways so that your future self is a different person.
I encourage you to start journaling about different traumas that may have affected you, how you felt, and how you want to feel about them moving forward.
To free me from the chains of difficult childhood memories helped tremendously with my happiness.
7. Focus on the Correct Circle
In the legendary book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey teaches the “Circle of Influence” and “Circle of Concern.”
- Your Circle of Concern is what you’re concerned about — from your daily life to worrying about other people’s lives, traffic, weather, your sports team, etc.
- Your Circle of Influence is what you can actually influence by your actions or non-actions — exercising, eating healthy, thoughts, statements, etc.
For many, their Circle of Concern is far bigger than their Circle of Influence, meaning they mostly worry about things they can’t impact, which causes unnecessary stress and anxiety.
It makes them a victim, drains their energy, and creates unhappiness.
Instead, focus on the Circle of Influence.
Taking ownership of what’s in my control creates a feeling of empowerment because there’s still so much I can do.
If I don’t know something, I can learn it. If I’m not doing something, I can do it. If I don’t have enough time, I can make time.
Sure, there are many factors and events outside my control, but everything within my control, I can take ownership of it.
And while I might struggle with something right now, with more practice and effort, I can get better, improve my life, and transform my happiness.
8. Get Off the “Treadmill”
In psychology, there’s a phenomenon known as the “hedonic treadmill.”
When we achieve something we want and feel happy because of it, we quickly adapt, make that the new baseline, and are no longer as happy.
So we try to achieve something else. The cycle continues again; thus the “treadmill.”
Some people feel they can’t be happy until they achieve certain things — wealth, health, relationships, possessions, etc.
But when they finally get it, how long does the joy last? A couple of days? Hours? Minutes?
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 your life.
Instead, simply try to achieve things without making your happiness depend on them.
That way, you can go on your journey with freedom, ease, and peace (which probably increases your odds of success).
Even better, if you ever happen to lose what you achieved, you won’t be as devastated because it was never your happiness in the first place.
By stepping off the hedonic treadmill, you can strive to achieve things purely for enjoyment and love, which makes it a lot easier to stumble upon happiness.
9. Two Latin Words to Put Everything in Perspective
One of the core phrases in the ancient philosophy of Roman Stoicism is Memento mori, which translates to, “Remember you’ll die.”
It has been invaluable in recognizing the transience of life, staying present, and savoring every moment I have.
While some might feel that remembering your mortality causes sadness and “nihilism,” in reality, it can actually give you a deeper appreciation and gratitude for all the joys, pleasures, and opportunities you 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 what you love when you know, someday, you can’t?
Even when there’s pain, anger, and sadness, realizing there’s only so much time left makes it easier to enjoy life.
Regularly find ways to remind yourself of the impermanence of life.
Memento mori reminds me that happiness is right in front of me.
I just need to look.
If you want to enhance your happiness and avoid common pitfalls, get your free bonus and Memento mori chart here.