How To Feel Happy With the Life You Have

How To Feel Happy With the Life You Have

You know who I feel sorry for? Millionaires. I just read an article and it seems that a lot of them are unhappy. The reason is that they just don’t have enough money.

Seriously. This is a thing now. Call it millionaire envy. They make it big. They move onto Millionaire Row. They look at their neighbours. And they feel poor in comparison.

Not just millionaires. Billionaires too. I heard of one guy who is worth two billion. Can you imagine that? Two billion dollars – all for him.

But he’s not happy. Larry Page of Google has billions more. It’s breaking his heart.

It’s easy to mock. Fun too. But are we so different?

I’m sat here in front of a computer screen, with a roof over my head. I have a TV downstairs and a comfortable bed in the room next door. I have clean running water coming from my tap, and food in my cupboard.

Am I in a state of bliss? Not really. I notice instead that I have a low income, so I feel angst.

In reality, I only have a low income when I compare myself to people living in my country. I am like the disgruntled millionaires looking at their neighbours. I am only “poor” if I take a skewed dataset.

When compared to the whole planet, I’m an overstuffed King. How many people across the world don’t have the things I listed above? Food, shelter, clean water, access to medicines.

Meanwhile, my computer crashes and I switch onto my smartphone device to whinge about it on Facebook.

Humans are social creatures. We compare ourselves to others in our group. Unequal societies are more violent than poorer ones which are more egalitarian.

The way we make comparisons is often damaging. Make the wrong type of comparison and we can become miserable.

It’s like that old cartoon joke. A kid puts a coin into a bubblegum machine and, to his delight, gets two bubblegum in return. Happy, he runs off to tell his friend. “Really?” says his friend. “It must be broken. It’s supposed to give you three.”

The happy kid transforms into a disgruntled kid. He still had the same amount of bubblegum. Only the thing he compared it to had changed.

Psychologists have known this for a while. Would you rather earn $50,000 or $100,000? Easy enough question you’d think.

How about earning $50,000 while everyone else earns $25,000? Or earning $100k while everyone else gets twice that? People prefer the first option, even though they get less money. Twice the cash makes us more miserable. We compare ourselves with everybody else and feel inferior. Just like those millionaires.

The problem isn’t only that some comparisons make us feel dissatisfied. Worse still, we often strive to overcome the dissatisfaction.

If you’re not satisfied with your friends, your finances, your lover, your environment, or whatever – your focus switches outwards.

This isn’t always a bad thing of course. Sometimes things do need to change.

But how many people with $10 million have gone broke because they tried to reach $11 million? Plenty!

How often do we feel miserable when, with a different benchmark, we would be more than satisfied?

When external rewards motivate us, our happiness suffers. We lose touch with what excites us. We stop doing the things we love, in pursuit of the things we think we should have. Our lives become about what might soothe us tomorrow, rather than what we would enjoy right now. We pursue the idea that everything is not okay. So we strive.

Alfie Kohn writes that people with extrinsic motivations are more prone to depression. People who do things just because they enjoy them are happier.

I can relate. When I strive for money, I start doing tasks I hate in the hope of getting rewards later. When I strive for approval, I can compromise my authenticity in the hope of acceptance. When we don’t achieve the end goal, as is often the case, we suffer a double loss. We failed to get what we strived for, and we lost something of ourselves trying to get it.

Who wants to live each moment believing that everything is not okay? Who wants to sacrifice what we love in the gamble that we might win something else in the process? Who wants to experience life wedded to the belief that we are somehow lacking?

Whenever we say “I want”, we mean “I lack.” Look in the dictionary if you don’t believe me. Check the definition. When someone says “he was found wanting”, it is another way of saying “he was found lacking.” After all, why would you want something that you already have? The more we say “I want”, the more we tell ourselves “my life is incomplete.”

We routinely make unhelpful comparisons. Rate our happiness and we’ll rate it out of ten. If I say that today I’m six out of ten, I can’t help but think how far away I am from ten.

When I have four hours sleep, I always think of the gap to the eight hours I am supposed to have.

We manipulate ourselves into believing that we are always falling short. Maybe we need different comparisons.

Here’s something I’ve been saying of late. It’s weird but it has helped. I compare everything to zero.

How happy am I today? Six more than zero!

How many hours did I sleep? Four more than zero!

Someone complained about the grey weather. I almost joined in. Instead I said: “Yeah but look how many hours of light we are getting instead of darkness!”

The opposite to what we have is not having more. It is having nothing.

I sometimes get frustrated with my old computer. I’ve had it for about 9 years. I tend to think that the alternative to this computer is a better, faster, newer one.

But another alternative is to not have one at all, as many don’t. When I think of it this way, I feel grateful to have this clunky old machine. I feel grateful too for all that it makes possible.

There have been many studies of human happiness. Gratitude is the feature of happy people that researchers keep on finding. By tapping into our own gratitude we can become happier. Just switch comparisons from having more to having nothing.

Here’s an experiment to try together. For the next few days, add the words “more than zero” to evaluations of your life. That may be the cash you earn, the friends you have, the time you spend with them, the me time you get, or even how happy you feel.

For everything that you can’t score with a number, compare what you have to not having it at all.

Maybe the life that we think we need to upgrade is just fine as it is, if only we think of it differently. That’s a lot of miserable striving we no longer have to suffer through.

Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice

6 thoughts on “How To Feel Happy With the Life You Have”

  1. Such a powerful insight, Alan.

    We are conditioned to feel that we’re not good enough, that we must keep working harder to not fall short. But the only people we should compare ourselves with, is ourselves yesterday. Money isn’t the end, it’s a means to an end. So, depending upon what we want to achieve in the end, we can decide how much money we need and be content with our loves.

    Great post, once again.

    1. Hi Vishal

      Thanks so much for your reply. It’s great to hear from you. I always enjoy it when I get feedback on my posts. I recently realised that I don’t enjoy living to external goals. I can’t completely get rid of them if I’m honest, because I have drives and desires too. But I try my best to focus on enjoying the now, and trust that the future will, somehow, take care of itself. The analogy I often use to myself is that, as an adult, exercising is boring. As a child, I would play football in the street for hours and hours, all the while getting exercise. Likewise, I find it better to have an enjoyable now that may bring the goal as a by product. And to drop some goals altogether.

      All the best


  2. Reminds me of that classic British way of thinking, ‘it’s not much, but it’s better than nothing’, and Bill Bryson’s wonderful description of British people liking their pleasures small in ‘Notes from a Small Island’.

  3. Hi Alun.
    Thank you so much for sharing this article. I relate to it and have always felt that our lives have some similarities especially the busking and music.
    I too would consider myself on a low income, compared to the £25k average or whatever it is nowadays but I can honestly whilst I do sometimes get fed up with not being able to afford a nice holiday or being able to buy my daughter a new wardrobe or have a car (i tend to hire them when I get gigs) I am generally better off now than I was when I was earning nearly £30k per year, as I was overweight and in debt at that time, now earning a lot less I have almost no debt and have little pots of savings for different things like, fun, food, holidays, my daughters things, etc and feel much more fulfilled.
    I think if I continue to count my many blessings and realise that my life right now is pretty awesome ( I am a professional Musician, I have a beautiful, bright , healthy, daughter, I live in a nice little house with good, friendly neighbours, I have a wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, creative girlfriend, I am healthy, relatively young at 43, friends I can trust and some knowledge of my self then I can see that even without comparing myself to others I am doing alright!
    Thankyou for your continuing support and inspiration, don’t stop because people are being helped by you even though they don’t respond or interact.

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