Changing your situation won’t change your state
The biggest misconception about happiness is that is it the result of our situation. If you have money, a nice house, a relationship, healthy kids and a job that befits your talents you will be happy. If you lose that job or your child gets sick or your relationship breaks down you won’t be happy.
We know this isn’t true. The evidence is everywhere. Are the richest people in the world the happiest? Are people in a relationship the happiest? Of course not. But somehow we believe that they are just ungrateful. If we had what they had we would be happy.
I don’t want to get into a whole debate at this point about “happiness” and whether it’s really the right term. You can call it “fulfilled” or “at peace” or “in alignment” or “balanced” or whatever state of mind you are seeking.
But the principle remains. We operate from an “If only…” perspective and focus our attention on changing the hygiene factors in our lives - the jobs we do, the place we live, the holidays we go on, the throw cushions we just have to have that will make us feel so much better every time we walk in to the living room.
I thought that selling our house and setting off around Europe for a year in a motorhome would free me up from the worries of my former life. What would I have to worry about? I have money to last the year, I have my daughter and dogs with me. We go where we please and live with few belongings so there is very little to do - hardly any time spent tidying up or looking for lost things. Yes, I still work and sometimes I have deadlines or places I need to be but compared with life before my diary is hugely flexible and I spend a lot more time at the beach. Surely I should feel free as a bird.
Yet, once the first few weeks of honeymoon were over, where every new mountain range filled me with awe and every sunset reminded me how right my decision had been, I found myself back to being stressed and grumpy and busy and distracted. Just as I had been before.
Changing Your Situation Reveals The State You’re In
I’ve had many hours to contemplate why this might be. And this is what I realise:
Changing your situation doesn’t change your state. Not for long anyway. If you were worried about money when you had none you will worry about money if you suddenly become a multi-millionaire. If you felt insecure when you were single you’ll feel insecure when you’re with a partner. If running a household stressed you out, running a motorhome will stress you out.
We take ourselves with us.
But this is not an argument for tolerating a bad job, an ugly house and an empty bank account.
What change does is that it shines a spotlight on the habits, beliefs and fears that you’ve become immune to due to familiarity. It proves that these habits, beliefs and fears were never due to your situation. How can I blame my situation when I’ve consciously designed it to be as stress-free as possible? I cannot.
If anything the stress is GREATER because I consciously took actions I thought would kick it to the kerb and here it still is! It’s OK to feel stressed when you work a 14 hour day and commute for another 3 hours and don’t see your kids and you can say to yourself “It’s not me. It’s not my state of mind. It’s my lifestyle”. I such a way you can avoid facing up to the part you play in the way you feel.
But the very act of changing the external situation in the hope that it will fix the internal state exposes the lie for what it is. It was never the job or the relationship or the house. It can’t have been because you changed those things and here you are, still.
And then what?
Then it’s your responsibility to work on the habits, beliefs and fears that follow you everywhere.
As you spot them - you can’t help it, they’re right there bugging you every day that you’re lying on the beach thinking “I’m sure I should be enjoying this but instead I just feel guilty/fat/lonely/judged/judgemental” - you have to address them.
And how do you do this?
Through a conscious effort to change your thoughts. And I’ve found three ways that work when you practice. But you have to practice!
Talk to the hand - When one of these unhelpful old thoughts comes to you, and you notice it, you simply push it away. Don’t let it take hold. Imagine yourself putting your palm up and dismissing the thought. I’ve discovered that I care very much what people are thinking about me. So when I notice the thought “They think x, y, z about what I’ve just said or done” I imagine myself putting up my palm and pushing the thought away. I bring myself back to the moment, judgement free. I may do this 20 or 30 times in a day. But it’s still less time than the time I lose when I entertain the negative thought.
Start the day right - Getting into a positive frame of mind at the start of the day sets you up for the day. Don’t open the email before your eyes are open. Don’t start planning how you’ll fit everything into the hours ahead. Don’t start on at the kids or your partner or get annoyed with the dog yet. Practices like Daily Pages, a Gratitude Diary, meditation, inspirational podcasts or a chunk of chocolate and a big cup of tea with Netflix is a better way to set yourself up. Think about what morning routine would get you off to a good start.
Stop in the middle - This is a new practice for me but it works brilliantly. As you find yourself forcing, pushing, struggling, being resentful or stressing about a task, stop the task. Many of us have a built-in habit of “what I’ve started I must finish before I can take a break”. So we struggle and force and feel the anger and frustration and stress building but we just won’t let up until it’s done. Instead, stop. Make yourself a cuppa. Look at nature. File your nails. Read another chapter of your book. This does a number of things. It stops the increase in cortisol, the stress hormone. It diverts your attention away from the task which can allow an “Ah-ha” moment (you can read more here). And it improves the quality of your life because you’re doing something that gives you pleasure rather than something that’s causing you anxiety. You’ll get back on with the task (unless you have an a-ha that shows you it was a waste of time in any case) once you’ve calmed down. But you’ll return to the task in a different state.
By all means, follow your dreams
Set off on that world tour. Start your own business. Get married. Invest wisely so you’ll have financial security in the future. Just don’t expect this alone to bring you happiness or fulfilment or a mind at peace with itself. It doesn’t work like that.
If this article resonated with you or you'd like to learn more about making a conscious effort to change your thoughts and to work on the habits, beliefs and fears that follow you everywhere, connect with me on Linkedin or drop me a line! And please, share this article with your network - the buttons below make it super easy!