This is one of my favourites! Simply because it is one I realised a while ago I have excelled at – limiting my own happiness. I was the master of it. I’m a worrier, that doesn’t help. I tend to ruminate on my problems and if I am honest everybody else’s too; and I get frustrated if I can’t make things right. So when I first put this list together, unlike my ‘What Makes Me Happy’ list (Happynesshub Hint Two) that I found hard, this one flowed with ease. Many of the ways I limited my own happiness were about thoughts I would continually have. I’m not good enough. I’m too fat. Fear that my Mum would never be well again, or that my Dad might drop dead. Then there was the need for everything to be perfect: my work, my behaviour, my house, my life. Which led to pushing myself too far, sleeping too little and general self-neglect. It was never-ending, and I hadn’t realised just how often I was making myself unhappy.
A raft of evidence shows that obsessive dwelling or overthinking is a huge obstacle to happiness, making us feel more depressed, pessimistic and out of control. Research from Prof Elaine Fox at Oxford University (author of one of my favourite books, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain) shows that when we think negatively all the time, this strengthens the negative pathways in our brain. The negative messages get reinforced and embedded in our brain and this perpetuates unhappiness.
Also, we have evolved to naturally pay more attention to negative events – for a good reason. From the dawn of human history, our survival depended on our skill at dodging danger, so the brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to recognise threats and respond. But today, this bias causes us to place too much emphasis on negativity for no good reason. The good news: this negativity bias can be trumped by having a greater frequency of positive things in our lives. According to Dr Barbara Fredrickson, we should aim to ensure that for every negative we have at least three or more positive experiences (sometimes easier said than done!).
It wasn’t easy to put a mirror up to myself and take full responsibility for the part I was playing in my own unhappiness. Furthermore, when I became aware of this, it was even harder to stop the thoughts. So how to do it? I’ve tried distraction. Sometimes phoning a friend helped, but for me it rarely worked, my mind was too hooked! More recently, I’ve started having chats with myself and actually saying, ‘STOP’. That has had better results! Sometimes, even writing the thought down can be useful. But as with many of the mind’s exercises in our 21 Day toolkit, (for me) it’s practice that has led to change.
Whatever approaches may help, being aware of the way you limit your happiness is the first step worth taking. Then being accountable (to some degree) for your happiness (or lack of). So today, look at your list and try to stop doing the things that make you unhappy. This alone could make a genuine difference to your life. It has for me!
Please click here for further research on Limiting Happiness.