Here’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned over a decade of studying hundreds of books, testing countless strategies, and reinventing my life:
Happiness is more about subtraction than addition.
“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”
— Bruce Lee
Rather than doing more things to try to feel happier, it’s far more effective and practical to eliminate what hurts our happiness in the first place. Here are the 5 things I removed that made the biggest difference.
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:
1. I stopped watching and reading the news.
I do make exceptions for major events of serious impact — like what’s been going on this year — but I generally avoid all news. Here’s why:
1) 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 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.
2) 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, 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.
2. I reduced social media usage.
Here are several important reasons why:
1) 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. (I recommend you mute or unfollow these people ASAP.)
2) There’s a tendency to become depressed and unhappy with your own life. Generally, on social media, people only share the best things that happen. 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.”
3) 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.
4) 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. 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, 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?
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.
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’ve been guilty of this too. But it only took me further away from happiness.
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?
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.
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