Sam Holstein

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The First Step to Finding Happiness Is Being Willing to Change Yourself

All of us want to be happy. Every single one of us.

But for some reason, we don’t let ourselves admit it. Instead of saying we want to be happy, we say we want to “be content.” We say we’re pursuing “meaning” instead of “happiness.” When someone does say they want to be happy, we quickly chastise them for chasing the wrong things. The whole thing reeks of puritanism.

But why do we pursue contentedness and meaning? Because we think in the long run, these things will make us happy!

It’s OK to admit you want to be happy.

But you know what you want more than happiness? You want to not change.

What we get out of life is a result of what we put into life. Our thoughts and actions are what we put into life, and the quality of our lives is the output.

If we want to change something about our lives — for instance, if we want to be happier — we have to change something about what we think and do.

If you want something to change, you have to change something.

©Megan Holstein

Most people with even rudimentary emotional maturity grasp this. But the problem is, we don’t always have control over our actions.

I’m going against the grain by saying this. Most self-help writers, psychology books, therapists, mindfulness instructors, and world-leading researchers will all tell you the only thing you can control is your actions. But we humans aren’t pillars of willpower. Sometimes our destructive impulses get the better of us. Anyone who’s ever given in to temptation — the temptation to yell at someone, the temptation to drink, the temptation to spend all day wallowing in self-pity — knows we aren’t always 100% in control of what we do.

What has more say than willpower in our actions is our habits. The vast majority of everything we do in life is a habit. If we have healthy habits, we have a better life, and if we have unhealthy habits, a worse one. We can override our habitual responses with a huge dose of willpower, but this kind of one-time effort rarely ever leads to permanent change.

Environmental factors also affect our actions a great deal. You’re more likely to give in to temptation if you’re hungry, tired, or in a bad mood. Emotionally mature people aren’t immune to these things. They prevent emotional outbursts from happening by paying attention to their body and their needs. Happy people don’t let themselves get overwrought in the first place.

So your actions in a given moment aren’t a result of your choices. They’re a result of your choice at the present moment plus hundreds of choices you made in the past that brought you here.

©Megan Holstein

What does this have to do with being happy?

If you want to change your life so you’re happier, it’s not enough to make a different choice today. You have to keep making different choices every day until it’s a habit.

Why Making Different Choices Forces You to Change

You have made the choices you have in your life because of who you are. You think what you think, you feel what you feel, and those thoughts and feelings are uniquely you.

But making different choices changes those thoughts and feelings.

  1. Sometimes you start by choosing to think different thoughts, and then you have different feelings and make different choices as a result.
  2. Sometimes you choose to act differently, and your different actions change your thoughts and feelings.

These changes are small and gradual, but they fundamentally alter who you are as a person.

This notion raises people’s hackles. The internet is full of people ready to tell you that you are perfect just the way you are. So are the people around you. So are self-help books, therapists, so on and so forth. But if everything about your life was working for you, you wouldn’t be here, reading an article about how to build a happier life by changing who you are.

You don’t need to be perfect to be worth it. You are still worthy of life, freedom, and happiness, even if you’ve made stupid choices or done bad things. There is nothing you can do that can separate you from the dignity of being alive. But let’s not pretend there’s nothing about yourself you wouldn’t benefit from changing.

Why should this be such a controversial thing to say in the first place? We all have broken people in our lives who we know would be better off if they took some time to work on themselves. Why should the same not be true of us?

There are infinitely many ways to approach our reactions to our thoughts and feelings. It makes sense that some would lead to happiness and others to misery. In fact, it makes sense that only a handful would lead to happiness while the vast majority lead to unhappiness.

Why Changing Yourself Is So Hard

You may intellectually accept this. Many people do. But even if you intellectually accept it, you psychologically don’t want to change. No one does. We evolved to be fiercely protective of our current sense of self. To intentionally change even a small part of yourself requires a psychological death, and one hundred thousand years of evolution has bred into humanity an intense fear of psychological death.

This is a funny instinct, given your sense of “self” is merely a narrative your mind constructs moment-to-moment to help your organism make sense of the environment it finds itself in.

“The precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been. That feels like the most unexpected result, but it is also the most well documented.”

― David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as your “self.” There is only the story you tell yourself about yourself.

If you told yourself a different story about yourself — one that would lead you to make choices that lead to happiness — you would be a happier person.

So the only real obstacle between you and a happier life isn’t money, a romantic partner, career opportunities, or something outside you. It’s your own unwillingness to change something about your approach to life.

In simpler terms:

If you’re not happy with your life right now, there’s something you’re doing to get in the way of your own happiness, probably right now.

Even as you read this article, there is something you’re doing that’s so foolish that you will look back on it years from now and think “Man, I was such a fucking dumbass.”

This thought pops into my head on a daily basis. Driving down the highway, I think “I wonder what I will look back on ten years from now and wish I wasn’t doing.” When a friend asks me a difficult question, I think “If only I had the wisdom to know what to say.” Knowing there are right answers to these questions, but not knowing what they are, weighs on me every day.

How to Change Yourself

Self-change is not a mysterious process. Research psychologists have studied the self-change process closely. They’ve constructed a model we can use to guide ourselves through the process. It’s pretty straightforward:

  1. Identify a habitual action you want to change.
  2. Identify the thoughts and attitudes that drive your habit.
  3. Replace the unhelpful attitudes with helpful attitudes that support your new values. Practice these attitudes in your head over and over. Bonus points if you journal them, say them to a mirror, or otherwise make them real.
  4. Stay mindful as doubts, excuses, and justifications cross your mind. Practice your new attitudes on these thoughts too.

Easier said than done. If you’re attempting a big change, you need triple-level metacognitive mindfulness skills to catch yourself in justifications, which you will use hundreds of times a day. But eventually, that passes, and you’re better off for it.

In Conclusion

All of us want to be happy. You may call it contentedness or meaning instead, but a rose by any other name is still what we’re all looking for.

We are as happy in life as our choices make us. If we do things that lead to happiness, we experience more of it. If we do things that lead to unhappiness… well, we get more of that, too. This means we can make our lives happier by consistently learning to make better choices.

But it’s hard to make better choices because we don’t want to change. Our choices are the product of a complex subconscious soup of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about life. To reliably make better choices, we need to change something about that soup, which is something we evolved to avoid at all costs.

If you’re unhappy with your life and you want a life you’re happy with, the first step is to accept that you will need to change who you are, that it will be hard, and that it will suck, but it will be worth it.