The complexities and struggles of life often cause us to make excuses for ourselves or form a narrative to cushion reality. As a result many of us wrongfully search for short-term fixes or distractions to our problems, or convince ourselves that something will somehow make us happy or fulfil us. More than that many of us rely on these volatile and fleeting things to motivate or push us, but time erodes the emotions that come with them and we soon sink back into old habits.

How exactly do we change if we’re such poor victims of our own programming?

We build narratives in our head that we have writer’s block as an excuse for why we can’t write. We convince ourselves that making more money or getting that fancy car will make us happy. We rely on temporary emotions like motivation to empower us to do something, rather than making ourselves get out of that slump and do it.

Some time ago I wrote a piece on achieving through commitment rather than motivation, because the latter is temporary and fleeting. Expanding on that it’s important to understand that happiness itself is fleeting, and not the objective you should be chasing after through things that aren’t meaningful.

Science blog Science Alert has written an excellent cover of recent research into happiness and how to obtain it. How much of it are we actually in control of? While psychologists can’t conclusively say what makes people happy and what doesn’t, there’s so much literature on this now that we can identify recurring patterns and themes.

The bad news is that not all of our happiness is in our hands. This is not an excuse, because I’m going to get to the massive part of it that is in our hands. But several studies done over the last ten years (links are all available on Science Alert) have shown that anywhere between 30-80 percent of our happiness is actually genetic.

Depending on who you are, you could have a predisposition to depression or the lows. Happiness may not come so easily for you. But make no mistake. That’s no cause to throw in the towel and accept your fate. There’s a dawn at the end of this dark night.

Other studies suggest that anywhere from 10-60 percent of our happiness actually depends on our attitudes and outlook on life. And the most significant fact is here for the taking: only around 10 percent of our happiness comes from external factors like changing our careers, relationships or income.

The problem isn’t that we want the happiness that comes from fleeting joy. That nice car, or that promotion or a hot date. That’s okay. We’re human. We like our pleasures. The problem is that we rely on the boosts these things gave us because they’re strong and lift us up, but don’t accept that all too soon they fade and we’re once again back to that zone we were in before.

This unfortunate cycle is referred to in psychology as the ‘hedonic treadmill’, which suggests that we all have a base level of happiness that we revert back to after the initial boost from some positive external factor. You have a great night with friends? Awesome. But after a while it will fade, and you’ll go back to being content, grumpy, sullen or whatever state you usually are in. This goes some way in explaining why people so irrationally and feverishly chase after more and more money for no particular reason, because the boost in happiness is so short-lived. It’s a solid foundation for addiction.

How then do we fight our own natures? If you’ve been listening (or reading in that case), potentially a huge portion of our happiness is down to attitudes, and the way we identify what will make us happy in our minds. We convince ourselves that we’ll only be happy if we obtain this, or tell ourselves repeatedly that we can’t do that, or put ourselves down before we’ve had a chance to even make the attempt.

Bollocks, as the British would say.

There are some practical techniques to improve wellbeing. Psychology interestingly identifies meditation (man I do a lot of that), going outside (I don’t do a lot of this!), getting involved in cultural activities or volunteer work and spending money on others as deeply satisfying activities that increase people’s happiness in a meaningful way. Perhaps none of those appeal to you, you don’t have money to spend on others or you’re not exactly the most social person. Perhaps you feel it’s a cop out to spend on others to feel good about yourself.

That’s okay, because attitude is everything.

You can’t wake up in the morning and face that day, overcome that obstacle or fight through demotivation to do what you want to do if you are the biggest barrier to yourself. In high school I was prone to being complacent and making excuses for myself to justify my underwhelming performance, but it was my brother who told me to man up and accept reality for what it was because the world will keep spinning. It was my fiancé who encouraged me and told me I’m capable of much better and shouldn’t put myself down. It was my mother who told me that intellectually, despite my brother’s fantastic achievements, we are equals and I’m a barrier to myself. She wasn’t expecting flying colours, just me not disappointing myself.

My father always had a great saying that goes like this: if you’re unhappy about something, do something about it. If you can’t do something about it, change your attitude towards it. There’s a wisdom in that, and what do you know it actually is backed by science, psychology and research.

Despite my difficulties in life I was always fortunate to have amazing people close to me. Maybe you don’t have that support. I feel that’s a big reason why I write this blog. If anything I say on here can even help one person, then that’s all I need. It took me years to learn that the world will keep spinning regardless of you, and that you need to be in charge of every controllable part of your happiness as you possibly can be. That means doing something about it and changing your attitude now, and not linking your happiness to some uncertain future event.

You’ll find that not many people care enough to truly ask you about you. To get past the superficial and ask how you’re really doing. The following questions may help you on some level, and you don’t even have to answer them to anyone but yourself.

  • What do you want?
  • What are you doing to achieve what you want?
  • What is stopping you from doing what you want?
  • Can you be truly honest with yourself about reality?
  • How much of your happiness is controlled by you?
  • How much of your happiness is linked to things or people beyond yourself?
  • Have you tried to change your attitude?
  • Have you considered professional help if nothing is working?

Consider the above as a mental exercise that should by no means be rushed. It will require careful meditation and self-reflection if you wish to be truly honest with yourself, but trust me when I say that asking these questions can really make you see things you were previously blind to.

Think twice the next time you look at someone with lots of money, or a hot partner or a nice car and think that person has it all and is truly happy. They may be totally the opposite, but relying on those short boosts of happiness to stay afloat. So make the difference between you and them denial, and how much of it you’re willing to let in as a barrier to reality.

In the end attitude really is everything. And attitude is a choice.

For some meditation purposes I’ll leave you with these wonderful lyrics from a song I adore: The Rose by Bette Midler, later covered by Conway Twitty.

It’s the heart, afraid of breaking that never learns to dance
It’s the dream, afraid of waking that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken who cannot seem to give
And the soul, afraid of dying that never learns to live

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