Building a Happier Life

March 25th, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

Lately I’ve been on a happiness kick. I’ve been going over various projects, activities, and aspects of my lifestyle and asking myself, Does this really make me happy?

Many people say that happiness comes from within, and while that’s true in the long run, there’s also an experiential side of happiness. I’m sure you’ll agree that some experiences put a smile on your face more than others. It may be a learned response in most cases, but there’s still an effect.

Even money can contribute to happiness to an extent. You’d probably be happier receiving an unexpected financial gift as opposed to an unexpected bill.

So I’ve been looking at some recurring activities in my life and asking myself if they’re positively contributing to my long-term happiness. As I’ve been going through this process, I’ve been making a lot of changes, and they’re really beginning to add up. My daily rhythms changed quite a bit in the past six months or so.

Identifying and Eliminating Dead Weight

One of the easiest places to begin was to start identifying and eliminating dead weight. These are activities that aren’t really too debatable — I’m pretty clear that they aren’t doing much to increase my long-term happiness. They may generate some momentary pleasure, but in the long run, the gains are probably neutral or negative. Or they might be only marginally positive, such that it’s easy to see that there are better ways to spend my time.

Here are some of the bigger dead weight items I’ve identified and have dealt with so far:

Email – I used to spend a lot of time processing email, but when I asked myself if it was contributing to my happiness, that was an easy no. While I haven’t eliminated it entirely, I have reduced my email volume by at least 95% during the past year. Now I typically receive less than 10 emails per day, and most of it is personal and comes from just a handful of people I’m close to. I wouldn’t say this change did much to increase my happiness directly, but it did give me a sense of relief. I experience less stress and overwhelm as a result of not feeling that communication obligations are piling up 24/7. It may not be a perfect solution, but it’s significantly better than what I had before. Some days I’m able to process all my email in less than a minute. Other times I can go a day or two and not process email at all. That is a REALLY nice feeling.

Social Networking – I enjoy some aspects of social networking, but to really get good value from it, it can take a serious time investment. Your mileage may vary of course, but that’s been my experience. Keep in mind that if you do one hour of social networking per day, that’s the equivalent of working a full-time job (40 hours per week) for over 2 months — every year. You can easily start a profitable web business in less time than that. So I scaled back by quitting sites like Facebook and Linkedin, and I’ve been happier as a result. I still participate in the forums here, but this community doesn’t have the same kinds of admin problems I had to deal with on Facebook.

Cable TV – I used to have cable TV, but I didn’t watch it much, so it was an easy decision to drop that too. Later I dropped a streaming video subscription I had with Netflix. Partly I used it to watch educational documentaries, but I can’t say it made me any happier, so I decided to let it go. I can always go and rent a one-off documentary if I want, but I decided it was best not to have the streaming service because I don’t want to get into the habit of watching documentaries regularly. They may have educational value, but overall this isn’t an activity that increases my long-term happiness. I’d rather read more books instead.

Possessions – I gradually purged some possessions that I accumulated over time, mostly by giving them away. If a possession doesn’t increase my happiness, what’s the point in keeping it?

I made these changes one at a time for the most part. This gave me time to adjust and to see if I wanted to maintain the change. In each case I did.

I would say that overall, just dropping the dead weight didn’t increase my happiness per se. It simply cleared some space, thereby giving me more opportunities to invest my time differently.

Making Big Changes

Dead weight is fairly easy to identify and slightly harder to eliminate, but it’s a good place to begin. However, you also have to tackle some bigger items. For me the biggest item I had to face within the past two years was my marriage.

When I first got married, it did increase my happiness, but over time as Erin and I grew in different directions, I had to admit that I’d probably be happier letting go of the marriage. It took years to have enough certainty about that decision, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier to see that it was the right choice. As many people conclude who’ve gone down a similar road, it was hard but it was worth it.

It wasn’t Erin’s fault that the marriage was making me unhappy. I chose to be married, and I had to awaken to new possibilities. I see the experience as a test of sorts. Was I willing to choose happiness?

Another change I had to make was my lifestyle. I wanted to travel a lot more, but that was going to require some adjustments. Last year I traveled about 3 months out of the year. This year I’d like to exceed that.

And yet another change I’m currently undertaking involves remaking my social life. Due to the popularity of my blog and my pre-existing local friends, I’ve had the opportunity to be socially lazy and still enjoy a rich and abundant social life. Invitations would come my way no matter what, so all I’d have to do was filter and respond to them. Although this might seem like a good situation, and I enjoyed it for many years, I reached the point of wanting to head in a different direction.

My old social life was too easy, and so I wasn’t getting much growth out of it. Another issue was that because I had so many friends in different cities, I ended up spending more time online maintaining those connections. I also ended up with a lot of friends I’d only see once or twice a year.

I realized that while this certainly wasn’t a bad situation, ultimately it wasn’t increasing my long-term happiness. It was only maintaining my existing comfort zone.

To be happy and fulfilled, I need more of a challenge. I also need to focus more on local friends that I can hang out with face to face instead of people spread all over the world, where I’ll have to use technology to keep in touch with them. Let me backtrack by saying that I still like having non-local friends, but since I run an Internet business, I need my social life to be more weighted in the offline direction to balance things out. Otherwise I feel like I’m spending way too much time on my computer or cell phone.

My old social life was probably 80% non-local and 20% local. This year I’m working on rebuilding it with the opposite percentages. For example, I went to a local vegetarian meetup this week, a group that I’d never been to before. I’m also pushing myself to start up more conversations with people when I run errands, partly to remind myself to think locally when it comes to my social life — as opposed to talking on my cell phone or texting someone while I’m in a city filled with potential friends.

This shift is turning out to be a challenge, not because I have anxiety about it but because the non-local mindset is so ingrained in me from 16 years of doing business online. I almost don’t know how to think locally. It’s so much easier for me to think globally. Thinking locally is almost an alien concept for me. Sometimes I feel like I’m connected to the Internet at all times. So grasping the right mindset is a tough challenge for me. As strange as it may sound, sometimes the Internet and various online communities feel more solid to me than the city of Las Vegas. Or perhaps that won’t sound so strange if you’ve been to Vegas. :)

It’s pretty obvious to me that face to face socializing increases my happiness more than online socializing. Even the best online social experiences just can’t compare to a game of disc golf… or a massage… or a night of dancing.

I’m enjoying this challenge, but sometimes it’s hard to get a handle on it. Since my social life is so different now than it was a year ago, I often feel ungrounded in this new place. It’s going to take some time to get used to it.

If you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t seeing your long-term happiness increasing, then perhaps your path to greater happiness lies in a different direction.

You can be happy. You definitely have the power to create that. It’s just a question of whether or not you’re willing to step up and claim that happiness. The alternative is to project your unhappiness onto others and blame or resent them for contributing to your unhappiness.

If you’re unhappy in any situation, it’s up to you to step away from it. Don’t blame the situation or the people within it because they won’t bend over backwards for you. You may be making them just as unhappy, so while you’re blaming them, they’re also blaming you.

Big changes can be very difficult to undertake. You may need to deal with many consequences, which can be unpleasant in the short term. I understand all of that. It may not be easy. Transitions of this nature can be pretty tough. You may shed some tears along the way. But in the end, you’ll emerge in a much brighter place. Escaping a cocoon isn’t supposed to be easy — it’s the process of struggling to get out that makes you stronger for what lies ahead.

Interacting Complexities

One thing that stunned me — much to my delight — was that as I began eliminating some non-contributing items, I discovered all the different ways they interacted with each other, creating a webby quagmire of stuckness.

For example, interacting on social networking sites increased the volume of email I received. This meant even more time in front of the computer, which made me more tired in the evenings, so at the end of the day, I might want to veg out and watch a movie instead of doing something more fun and interesting.

Also, when I canceled some services I didn’t need, it meant fewer bills to pay and more money saved. Financially this wasn’t particularly impactful, but over time it adds up. Why spend money on things that don’t make you happy?

Each time I let go of something that wasn’t making me happy, another part of the surrounding web gave way. I didn’t have to deal with everything all at once. I just tackled one little piece at a time, usually focusing on the most obvious next item to handle.

You probably have some ambiguous activities in your life, where you aren’t sure if they’re contributing to your happiness or not. Don’t worry about those just yet. Start with the most obvious changes — the ones you’re fairly certain about.

After you deal with the obvious items, the ambiguous ones will tend to reveal their true nature. For example, at first I wasn’t sure if watching documentaries or not was increasing my happiness. But when I freed up more time for other activities — and when I felt I’d watched enough documentaries that I was beginning to feel like I was watching re-runs — I realized that they weren’t really increasing my happiness. I’d rather learn about the world through travel, direct experience, and reading.

When you run out of obvious items, then deal with the more ambiguous ones. These are the items where you keep saying to yourself, “I wonder if I should quit/cancel/leave/drop X.” Yes, you should!

Remember — you can always drop activities temporarily to see how the change plays out. Try it for 30 days. If you don’t like the result, you can always go back. You can even shift back and forth a few times to get a better sense of the contrast between life with the activity and life without it.

This is fairly easy in practice. Just start paying attention to the stuff in your life and the activities that consume your time. Stop and ask now and then, “Will this increase my long-term happiness if I keep doing it?” If the answer is no, then let go of that one thing, whatever it may be.

Enjoying the Silence

When you drop some of the noncontributing clutter from your life, it creates more space. Life becomes simpler and less noisy.

You can certainly fill that space with something else, and you probably will in time, but there’s no rush. It’s nice to just enjoy the silence at first. Don’t feel that you need to rush to replace one activity with another. Allow yourself some do-nothing space.

With less unhappy clutter in your life, your sense of well being can increase, and your stress can decrease. Let this happen and notice it. Notice how good it feels not to have to deal with things that weren’t making you happy anyway. Give yourself some time to adjust to their absence.

Then take some time to consciously decide what activities are worth adding to this newly created space. You might choose not to add anything. Or you might add a new hobby that makes you happy, like learning to play the guitar or reading all the best books from your favorite authors. Or you might add a new goal like starting an Internet business on the side.

After making so many cuts, I now feel likeĀ I’m swimming in an abundance of time and space. I feel less pressured from the outside-in. Now I’m feeling more pressure from the inside-out as I ponder what new activities to add. I feel the urge to branch out and explore and experiment.

Adding Happy Activities

When you’ve cleared enough space and you’re ready to add some new activities, I would caution you to take your time. There’s no rush to get everything perfect on the first try.

Start with the most obvious items. If you know you get a lot of enjoyment from a certain activity, add it to your life. Then watch your happiness increase.

As the weather started to warm up, I added disc golf back to my life. I barely played at all last year — maybe once or twice during the whole year. But I have a fun time every time I go out and play, and a game usually takes less than 2 hours with 4-5 players in a group. It’s a social activity as well, and I like being outdoors in the sunshine. So I decided to get back into it about a month ago. I contacted some friends and set up a game, and we played. Now I’m playing on a regular basis again. It’s a fun thing to look forward to each week. This was an easy item to add to my plate, and it creates value for others as well. We always have fun no matter how badly we play.

The tricky part is not forcing it. When your life is overflowing with extra time, there’s a temptation to fill it with something ASAP. But you have to be careful about doing that because whatever you fill it with could easily turn into a long-term habit… perhaps even an addiction. So you don’t want to fill it up with things like watching more TV if that isn’t increasing your long-term happiness.

As I ponder what other activities to add, I’ve been mostly sticking to safe, familiar activities like reading and meditation. They’re “safe” in the sense that they don’t create major long-term commitments. I can always choose to spend less time on them when I discover a better option.

Right now I feel like I’m in that funky space between intention and manifestation. I’m intending a much richer LOCAL social life, but it hasn’t shown up physically yet. I’m getting a better sense of what it feels like, but I’m still working on getting the right vibe for it. Partly that’s because I haven’t yet created a clear enough vision of what it might look like.

One thing I’ve been considering is creating and/or hosting some kind of regular meetup or social group in Vegas, perhaps a weekly gathering for locals who are into personal growth. I found some meetup groups along those lines on meetup.com, but nothing that looks all that exciting yet. Many of the listed groups look dead… or they focus on very limited topics… or they were obviously created as a marketing outlet for someone. I’m not interested in doing this as a professional thing. I’m simply considering it as a way to bring like-minded people together to have fun experiences.

Maybe we could even do some cool group activities together like hiking in Red Rock Canyon (only a 10-minute drive from my house)… or do a Free Hugs event on the Strip… or do a group tour of the Grand Canyon. One local friend has been reminding me that I agreed to go skydiving with him, so there’s another option for those who like facing death. :)

I have the time to do this sort of thing now — and I must admit it sounds a lot more fun than emailing and Facebooking. At this point I’m only musing out loud, but if there are any locals interested in this sort of thing, feel free to share some feedback in the forums about it.

Although there’s this feeling of being a bit up in the air when you’re between an intention and its manifestation, it can be exhilarating too, especially if you love surprises. You never know when another synchronicity or unexpected event is going to smack you upside the head… like yesterday when I had the strong urge to go work on my laptop at a local coffee shop, and when I get there I see Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman there too, doing his Coffee with the Mayor thing that morning. I didn’t feel any desire talk to him, but his presence gave me a ridiculously easy opening to chat with other locals hanging around. :)

This is still an ongoing process for me, but I figured I’d share what I’ve learned thus far. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve discovered is that pursuing happiness is a happiness-increasing activity itself. If you start taking deliberate steps to increase your happiness, you can feel happier just by doing that, and your outlook for better long-term happiness improves as well. There may be some emotional rollercoastering along the way, but it’s worth it for the long-term benefits.

Is Happiness Selfish?

I know some people think it’s selfish to pursue your own happiness.

Unfriend them. ;)


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