Thai Nguyen, Huffington Post
September 2014

I got pick-pocketed in Cusco recently. That’s one way to make a grown man cry. The pain of robbery always goes beyond the loss of material possessions. It’s that sense of violation. When our joy, peace and happiness is yanked away and replaced with a profound bitterness.

My intuition was screaming something wasn’t right. An old lady dropped a newspaper in front of me, that’s when her accomplice slipped my wallet.

Hindsight always haunts us: I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve.

Indeed, when our loss of joy and happiness is preventable, the wounds take that little bit longer to heal. Here’s to prevention being better than cure, and uncovering 10 culprits robbing your happiness.

1. The Cart Before the Horse.

“I’ll be happy as soon as I ________________.”

That’s typically how we view happiness — on the other side of achievement. We put the cart before the horse and then attempt to drag them both along.

Happiness expert Shawn Achor affirms we’ve got it back-to-front. He evaluated work performances of professionals throughout the day. Achor found those given morning gratitude exercises to bring about a state of happiness, scored much higher in overall performance, productivity, and job satisfaction than those who began at a neutral level — without any gratitude exercise.

It’s the dopamine. When we’re in a positive state, it’s release not only makes us happier, but sparks up the learning centres in the brain. Why finish in that state when you can start there?

There’s no denying happiness does come with achievement–people always celebrate hitting the finish line. But Achor’s research uncovers where we cut happiness short.

Happiness shows up at the engagement party, but we tell it to wait till the honeymoon. We impose crippling conditions on our happiness.

Here’s Achor’s gratitude/happiness routine for the start of your day:

  • Journal one positive experience you’d have in the last 24 hours.
  • Adopt a form of exercise.
  • A time of meditation.
  • An act of kindness: writing a positive email to a friend.

2. When Belief Head-Butts Behavior.

You commit adultery against your own soul. Indeed, being called a hypocrite is jolting and nasty–it’s worse when it’s true.

Happiness goes hand-in-hand with inner congruence. Ghandi says, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

How do we create inner-congruence and harmony? Consider this ancient quote from the Upanishads:

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Now let’s reverse-engineer.

Our habits are formed from actions, actions from words, words from thoughts. Do your thoughts align with your words? Do your words align with your actions? Impose a self-system of “checks and balances” between the three.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. We’re human and flawed. There’s yet to be an elixir for lying; no panacea for human perfection. But the possibility of failure shouldn’t prevent the pursuit of success.

The key is accountability.

Being your own disciplinary can be tough, we easily turn a blind eye to our misbehaviours. Bring in some back-up and have a close friend keep you accountable and support you as you align your words, actions, and habits.

3. Instant Gratification.

We give birth to frustration when we expect things out of order. The more we attempt to cut into the line of happiness, the further away it becomes. “To everything, there is a season,” wise words from King Solomon (and the Byrds).

We’re all caught in the reality of progress — technological, biological, intellectual. The funny thing with progress is that our arrival at one destination immediately makes it the starting point for another. New goals are always being set. And in striving for that future scenario, we create contempt with our present scenario. It’s that human drive for immediate gratification, trying to turn that marathon into a sprint.

We’ve all been stung by that guilt that follows instant gratification. The three days of healthy eating undone with chocolate cake.

Rather than negatively focusing on what we can’t have, the key to overcoming temptations of instant gratification is positively thinking what we can have. A mango and banana instead of the candy bar. Restrictive thinking only creates frustration. Remember your end goal and the long term benefits, think possibilities, not restraints.

We’re robbed of happiness when we choose the instant gratification over the long term benefits.

4. Sitting in the Passenger Seat.

Things happening beyond our control is inevitable. Chuck Swindoll said, “Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we respond.” As big or small as that percentage may be, the last thing we want is to put it in the hands of others.

While there are no advantages in absolute self-reliance and isolation from other’s help, you want the ball in your court when making important life-decisions. A broken relationship on top of a terrible decision only saps more happiness.

There’s a sense of comfort in being able to look in the mirror at the end of failure, and saying, “I tried my best.” Passivity and outsourcing life-decisions is fertile breeding ground for playing the blame game and being unhappy.

5. The Message Stuck in a Bottle.

CEOs are told a key to happy employees lies in having the opportunity to express their opinions.

That truth goes beyond the workplace.

You have a will, a voice, an opinion. It’s difficult for a human being to be anything, let alone human, without the freedom and liberty to express these.

The words almost sing from the Declaration of Independence, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” I suspect Jefferson knew a thing or two about happiness.

Indeed, liberty stands central between life and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the midwife that brings happiness out of life. The removal or denial rips away the bridge and creates a canyon between the two.

When opportunities arise, and you choose not to cross that bridge–not to freely express your voice, your will, your opinion–you’ve forfeited your liberty, and let fear and judgement snatch happiness out of your back-pocket.

6. On-Board the “Yes” Train.

The desire to love and be loved, to make others happy and be happy, is woven into our DNA. Nobody’s life-goal is to be a jerk (unless you are frankly, just a jerk).

But we all struggle with people-pleasing to some extent. Far too often, we sacrifice our own well-being while accommodating the needs of others.

As the ancient scripture says, “Love your neighbor as thyself.” A healthy love for others has to flow out of a healthy love for ourselves. When making others happy only happens at the expense of our own happiness, we need to pull in the reigns to remind ourselves what love and happiness feels like.

As painful as it is to endure airline safety procedures, you can’t miss the wisdom in putting on your own mask before helping another person. You’re not much help if you’re not breathing.

Saying “No” at times will resuscitate the happiness you’ve been busy giving to others before giving to yourself.

7. Living Without Flow.

When was the last time you were so focused and immersed in an activity that you completely let go of time and ego?

Sounds blissful right? It’s called “Flow.”

Painters, sculptors, musicians, and athletes often describe being in flow states: when every stroke of the brush kisses the canvas in exactly the right spot; when the rock or clay is effortlessly shaped away; when the skier dances down the face of the mountain.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer in the scientific study of happiness came across flow states as he recorded individual’s thoughts and feelings throughout the day. While there was much negative and unhappy feedback, it was during times when the individual had their energy focused on a creative task that brought happiness.

There’s a specific zone where flow happens: the activity you’re engaging in needs to be challenging enough to stretch you beyond your current abilities, but not too challenging that you fall into what’s called “arousal,” essentially frustration.

It’s all about taking big bites of the elephant — more than you can chew, but still able to swallow.

To experience the bliss of being in flow, you must find a creative activity of interest. The myth of creativity being reserved for few divinely selected souls is tragically erroneous. Creativity is happiness manifested through a medium. You just need to find that medium, and stop comparing yourself to Picasso.

The absence of creative and artistically challenging work in your life is also the robbery of happiness.

8. Pretending it Never Happened.

We sweep negative experiences under the carpet pretending it never happened because we think the only solution is Groundhog Day — having to relive the pain over and over again. But in refusing to work through an issue, happiness gets swept underneath with the mess. The pain only builds in pressure; the ‘peace’ in ignorance is as soothing as living next to an active volcano.

Entrepreneur and social media influencer Lewis Howes recently made a decision to publicly share his childhood sexual abuse. Having bottled it up for most of his life, it always found a way to manifest in rage, loneliness, confusion and suicidal thoughts.

Lewis says taking responsibility for what happened in no way means you blame yourself, rather you assume responsibility for how you’ll respond — acknowledging the brokenness, shedding light on the issue, begins the process of freeing yourself from its shackles.

Of course, the solution isn’t to unload your baggage on Facebook, but to connect with someone you truly respect or a professional counsellor/therapist. Anything but pretend it never happened, letting it rot your soul, and eat away your happiness.

9. Trapped in the “Fixed Mindset.”

As opposed to living the “growth mindset.” The fixed mind believes intelligence is static, that a leopard can’t change it’s spots. The growth mind believes intelligence is fluid, that an old dog can learn new tricks.

Your beliefs and the mind you adopt has huge implications on success and happiness. We know success and achievement has more to do with grit than with talent; the growth mindset sees opportunity in obstacles, and lessons in failure — a process orientated approach to problems. The fixed mindset sees the obstacle as a dead end, and failures as confirmations — a goal orientated approach.

It’s being trapped in a box versus swimming in an ocean.

Happiness goes hand in hand with having a growth mindset. The fixed mindset is marked with judgment and evaluation; the growth mindset is marked with curiosity and love for learning.

Start to focus on the benefits and growth in the process, rather than being overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy to meet your goal. Happiness is found in learning, not only mastering.

10. The Balance of Being and Doing.

We humans love living in dichotomies. Against the grain of balance. It’s always the workaholic versus the couch-potato; the attention-deficit extrovert against the socially awkward introvert.

Happiness abides in neither extremes.

So what do we do when we have Alan Watt’s message on the importance of simply being alive instead of rushing around trying to accomplish something, and Lincoln’s words, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”

We take both.

Why make enemies out of friends? Happiness lives more in the both/and, rather than the either/or.

A man’s dogma is his greatest weakness. Be willing to explore your own prejudices and extremes. Consider the implications and possibility of incorporating the other end of the spectrum into your lifestyle. Balance your outspoken nature out with periods of silence; an extravagant social life with a simple sleepover; the city with the country.

You’ll be happier.