Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Happiness Series: 5 - You Are Unhappy Because You Aren't Doing What You Should

A lot of your unhappiness stems from the fact that, deep down, you know what you SHOULD do to fix your problems. You just don’t want to do it. Some of your reasons for not wanting to do it are valid, but that doesn’t change the fact that, despite all your complaining, you know the solution to your problems.

And that knowing, but pretending you don’t know, or it won’t work, is causing you cognitive dissonance.

You Can’t Really Lie To Yourself

I spoke in an earlier post about cognitive dissonance and how the brain can’t tolerate it, so when faced with proof that our beliefs are false, we are forced to come up with a new belief.

I gave them example of believing that good students do well at university, and believing that we are a good student.

But if we get a terrible grade, we have to change one of those beliefs. Either we have to say we are a bad student, or we have to change our belief that good students do well, instead believing the system is flawed and that the teacher showed favoritism or just doesn’t like us.

Lets say we went with the latter, but really it was the former. We didn’t study, we half-assed the assignment, doing it all the night before, and we haven’t been attending classes. But pride kept us from admitting that, and instead we are blaming the teacher for our low score.

Its easy to convince other people that you believe the teacher is corrupt. Its much more difficult to convince yourself. Even if you manage to make yourself really, truly believe it, you’ll always feel tension on this subject.

Because part of you knows its a lie. Part of you knows you didn’t work as hard as you should. Part of you knows, deep down, you are a bad student and your got the grade you deserved.

A Lie Is Clenching, A Truth Is Relaxing

There are several very popular self help books around that boil down to ‘tell the truth to yourself and everyone else and you will be happy’. I think this is at least partly true.

You never have to remember anything if you’re always honest. Being honest takes a lot less emotional energy.

Most people who know me—particularly in person—know I am a very honest person. I never hesitate to tell the truth. That’s not to say I go around offering it unsolicited and then pat myself on the back for being a jerk.

I am truthful for two reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, it is because when I was in my 20s, I decided to stop lying. I decided I wanted to be the sort of person who was always honest and if someone pressed me for information I didn’t want to give them, I would just say: ‘I don’t want to tell you’.

And my second reason is, because I am excellent at both spotting lies in other people, and in lying myself. I prefer to think of myself as a pathological story-teller, as apposed to a pathological liar. However as a small child I spent an ungodly amount of time convincing people of things that weren’t true.

Once, when I was four, my mother and I took a train. I was wandering up and down the carriage talking to people and my mother started to notice everyone in the carriage was looking for something. I had convinced a train carriage full of people that I had lost a live frog and they were all searching for it. Later in the same trip, she went to the bathroom on the station and came out to find the baggage handler searching the station for the same imaginary frog.

Even people who knew me well as a child, still came to my mother asking her if she was really keeping a pony on our small suburban block, or what we were going to do with the live emu chick I found and so on and so forth.

Being both extremely good at reading people, extremely good at coming up with narrative and (at the time) having an eidetic memory, made lying as easy for me as speaking. And, for the most part, it still is.

Furthermore, being able to read body language as well as I can, I always know when other people are lying. I almost never call people on it, unless it is going to inconvenience me in some very direct way. 

Being able to tell when people lie is not actually very nice. I saw a documentary last week where a man claimed he didn’t know who raped and murdered his daughter, but he had nothing to do with it. All lies. Now I am going to live with that for the rest of my life, knowing the case is closed and he is free. Knowing when people’s excuses not to see me, or compliments, are fake is annoying too.

But take it from an expert liar. Being 100% honest about everything is lighter. Its freeing. And its much more comfortable. The fears we have about people reacting badly to the truth are mostly unfounded.

However This Post Is About Self Truth

Being honest with yourself is one of the most relieving things you will ever do. Admitting the truth hurts. Sometimes when we are finally honest about things to ourselves, it comes with a lot of pain. You may cry or be angry or completely lose your shit about certain things. However remember you are only confessing things you already know and all those bad feelings are just bottled up inside you right now. Festering.

Once you let it out, you can begin the process of healing. Just like any abscess, it won’t heal right away. There may be weeks, even months, maybe years, of leaking pus and bad feelings. However you can’t heal until you lance that boil.

You can’t start taking the right steps to fixing a problem, if you won’t admit what the problem is.

You Probably Know What You SHOULD Do

The truth we so rarely admit is, we usually know what we SHOULD do to fix our problems, we just don’t want to. Maybe we don’t love our partner and we don’t see a future with them, but we don’t want to go through the trauma of a break up. So we keep trying to find other solutions. Even though we know its a problem we can’t fix with romantic dates and taking a dance class together. Worse, the person we’re dating may see all these things as a sign the relationship is going well. We know the only solution is to end the relationship, to let both people move on and find someone who feels a mutual passion. But still we make excuses. We delay. We try other things that we know won’t work.

Maybe you want to save up for something, but instead of putting X amount aside for two years, you think: “Two years is way too long, I’ll just do X and get the money I need in a lump sum.” But it never pans out. And two years pass, and because you never started putting money aside every week, you don’t have it. You still can’t buy that car or holiday. You’re still trying to find a ‘quick fix’ when you know, deep inside, the best and, realistically, ONLY way to get what you need is to save up a small amount every week for a few years. Its sensible, its reliable, and if you had started two years ago, you would have it by now.

Maybe you want a date, but you always cancel plans for events where you would be meeting new people.

Maybe you want a new job, but you haven’t even updated your resume or submitted it anywhere.

Maybe you want to write a novel, but you never actually do any writing in the three hours a week you set aside as writing time.

I don’t know what thing you aren’t doing that you know you should. However I know there is a thing. Probably several things. Maybe everything you have ever wanted in your life has been lost because you didn’t want to do the things you knew you had to.

That’s a painful thing to be honest to yourself about.

So Here Is A Little Exercise:

Think about one of the problems in your life that you are having. Now imagine someone else is having them. Someone who is different to you. In this case, the more different, the better. I would suggest thinking of someone you find it a little difficult to empathize with. Someone of another race and gender, perhaps. If you dislike Christians, imagine it is a fundamentalist. Maybe even write down their characteristics so this person is clear in your head.

The reason you are making them someone you wouldn’t like, is so you are as objective as possible. Imagine they have the same problem as you and have the same resources. Detach your emotions entirely from the problem and work out the most obvious, logical solution.

Work through these questions in order:

- What should someone else in your situation do? Be objective.
- What are all the reasons you don’t want to do that?
- What are the solutions to those excuses?

Moving Forward

The worst is over now. This was the last of the ‘reasons you are unhappy’ posts. You have learned about the basic biological function of all life to avoid pain and seek pleasure, you have accepted you would rather be right than happy, and that if you want to be both you have to change your beliefs, you have realized you can’t be unhappy unless you have something to compare your situation to and now you have confronted the fact that you are probably choosing to ignore the obvious solutions to your problems.

The hard parts are done and hopefully your life has improved vastly from these realizations alone.

Starting next week, we are going to look at how to actually be happier. Things you can do and change that will increase your sense of pleasure and purpose over time, according to science.

Jake, In Summary:

Taking responsibility can suck. Though, to be honest, I tend to go too far the other way, trying to take responsibility for problems that were well out of my control. Blame the weather on me and I will probably accept the guilt.

This is probably because 1) I am pretty narcissistic and 2) I have a hero complex that causes me and endless parade of problems. At the start of 2017 I made a lot of painful choices, cutting off some relationships that had become dangerously unhealthy. I had made friends who too many people who needed saving, who were only too happy to blame their problems on me. Some of those friendships recovered and are now fantastic, and some of those people are unlikely to become a part of my life again.

I saw one of them recently, and even though they showed the same needy ‘save me’ behaviors that drew me to them in the first place, I didn’t feel compelled to intervene. If that’s not personal growth, nothing is.

That said, I still love helping people who are willing to help themselves. Tell me you need me, and I am yours. I don’t think I will ever be able to cure that urge completely. However I am no longer going to let it tie me to people who don’t appreciate my help, and don’t want to take responsibility for their situation.

I still miss those people. I regularly think of them, and hope they will find what they need so we can be friends again, in a healthy way. But I am proud of my growth and I an definitely happier without those toxic elements. The important thing is, I know I created those toxic elements, not them. We had to both go seeking, and both contribute, to those toxic behaviors. It never would have happened if I hadn’t been complicit.

It was painful to admit, it was painful to cut those people off, but it has been worth it. I hope it will be worth it for you too.

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