Of all the many prescriptions for happiness that populate the media these days, the most popular one is also the stupidest. I’m talking about the idea that you can defeat depression by “paying attention to yourself.”
The truth is that paying attention to yourself doesn’t make you happy at all. In fact, the more attention you give yourself, the less happy you are likely to be. Focusing inward can perpetuate your feelings of hopelessness.
60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace defined depression this way: “Sunshine means nothing to you. The seasons, friends, or good food mean nothing. All you do is focus on yourself and how badly you feel.”
Think of the least-happy people you know. What are they always talking about? Their accomplishments. Their troubles. Their hopes. Their worries. Their this. Their that. In short, themselves.
I have a friend. Let’s call her Shelly. Shelly is a smart, good-looking woman but she can’t maintain long-term relationships. She has no idea why this is true. “People are always disappointing me,” she says. And she has stories.
We have lunch together two or three times a year. And at every meeting, Shelly talks non-stop about all the people who have failed her. She complains about her boss. She bitches about her husband. She does it with a certain sense of humor – but it is all “Wah! Wah! Wah! What about me?”
I’ve suggested to Shelly that she would be happier if she did some volunteer work or took on a hobby. Perhaps get a pet. But she doesn’t listen.
To the outside observer, Shelly has nothing to complain about. She has perfect health. She has a healthy family. And she is financially independent – putting her among the luckiest people on earth. Yet from her perspective – from the inside – she sees nothing but negatives.
You probably have a Shelly in your life. Maybe more than one.
The trouble with the Shellys of the world is that they spend too much of their valuable time thinking and talking about themselves. Their lives never get any better. And they can’t figure out why. They believe the solution lies in getting other people to feel sorry for them. They don’t understand that seeking attention is a big part of their problem.
I have a theory about why this is so.
There are essentially two impulses in the universe: contraction and relaxation. Everything – every animate and inanimate thing – is, literally, becoming more or less dense at any given moment. The ultimate denseness is a black hole, which sucks in light but gives out none.
As psychological creatures, our consciousness is always in flux between the contraction and the dissolution of the ego. Our egocentric impulses are the source of much of the work we do and the art we create, but they are also the source of tension, sickness, and despair. Our dissolution impulses are the source of our loving relationships. They relax us and prepare us to accept the ultimate dissolution of the ego, which is death.
Contraction gives us the egoistic pleasure of being loved – being acknowledged and appreciated. Relaxation gives us the exocentric pleasure of doing the loving – of our work, our lives, and the people who inhabit them.
Both contraction and relaxation can deliver pleasure, but the pleasure of contraction (the pleasure of the ego) is temporary, whereas the pleasure of relaxation is the enduring pleasure of the soul.
It feels good to have people pay attention to you. But even at its most intense (imagine being a movie star), the pleasure dissipates almost as soon as the attention shifts away. And when the pleasure of the ego leaves, a vacuum of sadness takes its place.
It’s like taking drugs. The effect is temporary. It’s addictive. It leaves you wanting more. And each time you get more, it is not enough. Eventually, it kills you.
“Enough of all this deep thinking,” you say. “What does this have to do with me?”
Just this: The next time you are feeling sad or angry, recognize that there is a way to become happy again: Relax your ego.
1. Accept the fact that it is perfectly normal to feel crummy sometimes.
Despite your core strengths and your many accomplishments, you will occasionally find yourself down in the dumps. It’s natural for ambitious people (which means you – you are reading ETR, aren’t you?) to feel that way. As productivity expert Tim Ferriss says, “The occasional bouts of self-doubt and sadness are an integral part of building anything remarkable.”
2. If you are upset because of something you did to yourself, forgive yourself.
It’s okay. You screwed up. What matters is what you do next, not what you just did.
I sometimes get angry when I feel pressured by work obligations. But when I examine the reason for all the work, it’s usually because I volunteered to take it on in the first place. When I recognize that my mood is being affected by my own prior actions, I remind myself that I’m lucky. “It’s okay that you are angry. But you don’t have to be. You can get through today. And you can have better discipline tomorrow.” That’s what I tell myself, and it helps me feel better instantly.
3. If you are upset because of something someone else did to you, take a chill pill.
Count to 10. Recognize that you can’t control the behavior of other people. The only thing you can control is your response to their behavior. Nobody can take that away from you.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space,” said Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning.”In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
I used to get upset when my family, friends, or colleagues made a mistake. I realize now how stupid that was. It didn’t do me any good. And it made me unproductive, unhappy, and unpleasant to be around. I changed by learning to turn the other cheek. The moment I stopped resenting others for their shortcomings, I began to feel better about myself.
It’s amazing how well this works.
Somebody bumps into you on the street and you sprain your ankle. You have a choice. You can be angry at that person. You can be upset with yourself for not being more aware of your surroundings. Or you can forgive the person and yourself and change the way you think about your injury. Rather than rue the inconvenience of being laid up for a week or two, see the recuperation period as a gift – the chance to start a new project or catch up on your reading.
4. Don’t allow unrealistic expectations to interfere with your relationships.
(This is a sub-category of not allowing the behavior of other people to upset you.)
Instead of being upset by your spouse’s habit of (fill in the blank), resolve to accept the fact that she won’t be changing and find a way to forgive her and even love her for her frailty. Instead of being angry that your child is a slob, find a way to love him for his strengths while gently teaching him (by showing, not telling) the advantages of being orderly. Instead of being angry at your business partner because she didn’t perform as well as you expected her to, learn to appreciate what she brings to the table and negotiate a new deal with her out of love, not anger.
Accepting people for who they are does not mean allowing them to make your life miserable. On the contrary, it means being realistic – realizing that 90 percent of the time a person’s fundamental characteristics cannot be changed. If you find a certain behavior unacceptable, you change the way you deal with it (something you can do) instead of trying to change the person (which you can’t do).
5. If you are upset because of circumstances beyond your control, take a double dose of chill pill.
As Alex Green, Investment Director of the Oxford Club and Chairman of Investment U, said in his article “The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” you can deal with your troubles more effectively if you define them as “problems” (which can be solved) or “predicaments” (which can be coped with).
Getting caught in a storm or catching a cold is not a reason to get mad at yourself. Neither, by the way, is being caught in a worldwide economic collapse.
6. If you are unhappy at work, find a way to care about what you’re doing.
As Albert Camus said, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?” You won’t experience happiness if you work at a job you hate or if you do poor work on a project you like. But if you learn to care about the work you do, you will find that your energy will improve and you will start to enjoy it.
7. Engage in some sport or challenging exercise – something that is so demanding you can’t do it while thinking.
Walking, stretching, and yoga are great forms of exercise. If you do them with a tranquil mind, they will make you healthy and happy too. But if you do them when you are sad and feeling sorry for yourself, they will give you no relief. You will forget about the exercise and focus on your negative thoughts. That will make things worse.
8. Recognize that the health of your body has a great deal to do with your mood.
If you are feeling bad much of the time, you probably need to make a few lifestyle changes. To wit:
• Eat healthy. Eating too many carbohydrates will make you crazy, cranky, and tired. To have consistent energy all day, use food like fuel. Eat six smallish meals a day, avoiding junk food and favoring organics, lean meats, and plenty of protein.
• Sleep and rest adequately. For me, adequate sleep is a major contributor to feeling good. Studies show that people who get seven good hours of sleep a night live longer, suffer from fewer illnesses, and achieve more because they have more energy.
• Get the advice of a good doctor about antidepressants. I’m generally against putting chemicals in my body. I much prefer natural cures. But antidepressants have helped some people close to me, and may help you too.
9. Take positive steps to focus “outward” instead of “inward” – to pay less attention to yourself and more attention to others.
A few examples:
• Make your friends happy. Smile when you see them. Listen to their stories. Give them the advice they want and shut up when they don’t want any. Become the person they turn to when the chips are down. Learn to love their peccadilloes and encourage them to overcome their faults. Above all, be loyal.
• Be a reliable and steady resource for your business colleagues. Help them achieve their goals – not because you want them to reciprocate in some way but simply because you care about them and want them to succeed.
• Do something for someone you don’t know – a stranger you come upon, a foster child, or a sick or poor person who can benefit from your help. Spend time and money.
Make this outward focus a natural part of your daily life. Do it purposefully and deliberately until it becomes second nature. You will know when that happens because you’ll be feeling happy most of the time – and when you become sad or angry, you’ll be able to get over it quickly and easily.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]