Changing these 4 beliefs will make you surprisingly happy

Getting over these four commonly held irrational beliefs will make you much happier.

Traffic upsets you. People upset you. Your job upsets you… Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Actually, none of those things upset you. Your beliefs about them do. That’s what the ancient Stoic philosophers believed.

From The Daily Stoic:

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.” – Epictetus

Let’s say you expect something to cost $90. Turns out it costs $80. You’re thrilled. But if you expect it to cost $30 and it costs $80, you want to murder someone. Price didn’t change. Your belief did. And that determined your reaction.

Oh, and science agrees with the Stoics here. Big time. Albert Ellis was a psychologist and he took the ideas of the Stoics and weaponized them into some of the most effective therapies that professionals use today.

How big a deal was Albert? According to a survey of psychologists he was the 2nd most influential psychotherapist ever. Sigmund Freud came in third. Here’s what Wikipedia says about his system:

In general REBT is arguably one of the most investigated theories in the field of psychotherapy and a large amount of clinical experience and a substantial body of modern psychological research have validated and substantiated many of REBTs theoretical assumptions on personality and psychotherapy.

And Albert says your beliefs are what cause the majority of unhappiness, anger, and anxiety you experience. Problem is, some of these beliefs are sneaky.

You don’t even realize they’re there. If I told you that you believed them, you’d deny it. But they’re often dictating your reactions — and making you miserable in the process.

So what are some of the most common problematic beliefs Albert identified – and how do we fix them?

Let’s get to it…

No. 1: “This shouldn’t be happening!”

This is the big one. Here’s how Albert describes the #1 irrational belief we all too often hold:

“People and things should always turn out the way I want them to and if they don’t, it’s awful, terrible, and horrible, and that’s not fair.”

Sounds ridiculous. You would never say that, right? Problem is, you often believe it without realizing it.

Say I tell you this toaster over here almost never works. You try to use the toaster. It doesn’t work. Do you get furious and throw the toaster at me? No. Reality met expectations. No surprises. No emotional outburst. Now let’s apply that same logic in a different scenario.

You know the world is not always a fair place, right? But then something unfair happens and… you go ballistic. Does that make sense? Nope.

If you really believed the world wasn’t always fair and the world promptly delivered some unfairness, you wouldn’t get all bent out of shape. Reality met expectations. But what you really believe is the world shouldn’t be unfair to you. And that, my dear friend, is crazy talk.

Here’s Albert:

We know the world is not fair, yet we still get overly upset when it’s unfair to us. We start thinking, very early on, that the world should be fair to us in particular… The “upsetness” doesn’t make the problem go away or solve anything (as a matter of fact, you probably make poorer decisions, and deal with others less effectively), but you don’t question your reaction because it seems so natural.

So how do you stop getting angry when life (which you acknowledge is unfair) does exactly what you said it would (and acts unfairly)? You need to change that underlying belief — the one you didn’t know you had.

Next time you find yourself getting upset, notice it. Pause. And then:

  • Identify the underlying belief: “Uh-oh. I’m believing that this unfair life must treat me fairly, aren’t I?”
  • Dispute that belief: “Is this belief rational?” No. Uh-uh. No way, no how.
  • Replace the belief: So what’s a more reasonable stance? “I would prefer to be treated fairly, but I know things aren’t always going to be to my liking. I’m not surprised and I’m not going to lose my cool.”

(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Okay, so outside events aren’t always gonna go your way and holding an underlying belief that is aligned with that can make life’s ups and downs much easier to manage.

But what beliefs about your own behavior does Ellis say regularly cause you problems?

No. 2: “I Must Be Perfect.”

Here’s how Albert describes it:

“I must not fail at important tasks and if I do it’s terrible and I can’t stand it.”

Again, you don’t always realize this is your underlying belief. If I asked, “Are you human and prone to error?” You’d say yeah. But then you make a mistake and totally freak out. Does not compute.

If you really believed you were prone to error, you might be a little disappointed. You’d prefer to always get the A+. But you wouldn’t be surprised and get overly emotional. Remember, you don’t get angry when broken toasters act like broken toasters. You get angry when you expect broken toasters to act like working toasters.

And getting rid of your perfectionist beliefs doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to become a slacker who half-asses everything. You can still be persistent. You just don’t have to hold silly beliefs that drive you nuts. Here’s Albert:

Searching for perfect solutions often will lead to stagnation and frustration. Perseverance, tolerance for less than perfection (but striving for it), the pursuit of improvement, and commitment to doing the very best you can, all are healthy, and most likely to yield the best results. Eliminating unreasonable demands for perfect solutions in no way reduces your commitment to doing or being the very best you can do or be.

And if that’s not enough, research says perfectionism can kill you:

Consistent with our hypotheses, findings demonstrated that risk of death was significantly greater for high scorers in perfectionism and neuroticism, compared to low scorers at the time of base line.

So how do you deal with that pesky need to always be the best? Again, you have to dispute the underlying belief. Next time you’re aiming for 110% and getting worked up, take notice.

Ask yourself if the belief is rational (nope) and replace it with something more realistic: “I’m going to work on the project for the next three hours and do my best. The amount of effort I expend is under my control but people’s reaction to it isn’t.”

(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

Okay, you’re disputing and replacing irrational beliefs. Maybe you’re not doing it perfectly at first — but we don’t have to be perfect, now do we?

So what about when that irrational belief is like a song stuck in your head? And you just cannot make it stop?

No. 3: “I Should Worry About This.”

Here’s Albert:

“If I worry obsessively about some up-coming event or how someone really feels about me things will actually turn out better.”

Ridiculous, right? But sometimes that’s the belief we’re really holding. We worry and worry and worry some more. And if we stop worrying, we beat ourselves up for not worrying enough. It’s like we think anxiety is a magic spell that, if chanted constantly, will actually prevent the dreaded thing from happening.

For the record, it won’t. And you already knew that. But if you believed it deep down, you wouldn’t be biting your nails so much. Broken toaster theory all over again.

So how do you make the worry song stop playing in your head? You know the answer here: dispute and replace the belief. But with anxiety, it can be trickier because worry seems to operate on autopilot in the background. Time to bring out the big guns…

What is worrying? It’s your brain’s way of reminding you that something is a threat and needs to be dealt with. So what do you do if “dispute and replace” isn’t cutting it in the short term? Let your brain know you’re taking its reminders seriously.

Schedule your worrying. Seriously. Make a “worrying appointment.” This works:

For those concerned with shedding some of their anxieties, it seems planning a certain time every day to worry may help stop the stress-out cycle. When people with adjustment disorders, burnout or severe work problems used techniques to confine their worrying to a single, scheduled 30- minute period each day, they were better able to cope with their problems, a new study by researchers in the Netherlands finds.

Please make sure to tell co-workers, “I’d love to go to that meeting but 4PM is when I get all my worrying done for the day.”

And don’t just worry during the appointment  — dispute and replace. With practice, the worries will subside. Behavioral therapies like this are the most scientifically proven treatments for anxiety.

(To learn 6 rituals from ancient wisdom that will make you happy, click here.)

So you can finally get that worry song to stop playing in your head. But how do we deal with those beliefs about our past that have shaped us? The beliefs that we feel make us who we are?

No. 4: “It’s because of my past.”

Albert explains the belief like this:

“It was my past and all the awful things that happened to me when I was a child or in my last relationship or in my last job that causes me to feel and act this way now.”

We make mistakes — often the same ones over and over — and we say it’s due to bad parenting. Or because we were teased in high school. Or because we dated the wrong people.

Yes, Albert acknowledged some traumas do leave lasting issues. But many, many people willingly accept more minor past problems as part of their identity and don’t really try to correct them. Here’s Albert:

There is no question that our past experiences have the potential to influence greatly our present behavior, if we let them… Past events won’t become any less real or valid; we can’t change the tapes of those events. We can, however, vigorously change how we think about them.

In most cases it’s not that the past event caused irrevocable damage; it’s that you are presently carrying an irrational belief about yourself that you took away from the event.

“I was bullied in school because I was weaker than the other kids. So I am a weak person.” And decades later you’re still running that buggy old code like it was the latest software update. Yeah, you may have had moments of weakness in the 4th grade. Does that mean you’re a weak person at 32?

Even though we’ve changed and our environment has changed, we cling to that outdated belief and it affects how we feel. Then confirmation bias kicks in and we stop noticing evidence to the contrary — while maintaining a keen eye for everything that validates that irrational belief.

“I got nervous during that presentation today. It’s because I’m a weak person. Yeah, I killed 37 ninjas with my bare hands on the way from the parking lot to the office this morning, but that was just dumb luck. I’ve always been weak and I’ll always be weak.”

From The CBT Toolbox: A Workbook for Clients and Clinicians:

Because of how our filters (beliefs) are set up, we often notice instances that support the unhealthy beliefs more than we notice those that may support our opposite, healthy beliefs; however, that “evidence” almost always exists as well.

So how do we fix this? Of course, dispute and replace. But this one can be tricky because of confirmation bias. We’re only noticing and remembering the times when the irrational belief seems to be true (nervous during presentation) and not the times when it’s proven false (single-handedly defeating hordes of expertly trained martial arts masters.) So you’re gonna need some help with this disputing process.

Sit down with an old friend and a piece of paper. Make your case. Write down all the events that happened over the years that prove your irrational belief true. “I am weak because…”

When you’re done, list all the events that contradict the belief. “I am not weak because…” And your friend gets to add to this list. You don’t get veto power over their contributions. Remember, you’re biased.

From The CBT Toolbox: A Workbook for Clients and Clinicians:

One valuable tool involves forcing ourselves to look back over those very same periods of life purposefully looking to see the evidence that supports our healthy beliefs. You may want to rely on family members or friends who were around during each period of life to help you “notice” such evidence. Even if they share things they see as “counting” that you don’t think “should count” write them down anyway…

If there is anything on the second list, then you are not cursed by your past forever — you’re cursed by an outdated belief that you still hold. Dispute and replace.

Are you weak at times? Probably. But that’s true of everyone. You’re human. Welcome to the party.

(To see the schedule that very successful people follow every day, click here.)

Okay, I now hold the underlying belief we’ve learned a lot about beliefs. Let’s round it all up — and learn the two words that signal you have some more disputin’ and replacin’ to do…

Sum up

Here are the 4 irrational beliefs that cause you a lot of problems:

  • “This shouldn’t be happening!”: Do you really expect to always get what you want? No. But if you really believed that you wouldn’t be shouting.
  • “I must be perfect.”: Not possible. And it’ll kill you. You can control effort, not outcome. “I will do my best” is rational. “I must be the best” is not.
  • “I should worry about this.”: Set a time to worry, to dispute, and to replace. This lets your brain know it doesn’t need to be reminding you 24/7.
  • “It’s because of my past.”: If that’s really the case, then you should be in therapy. But your problems are rarely due to dire past traumas, they’re usually due to some outdated, irrational belief you still hold. Get a friend to help you dispute and replace.

You may have noticed two words that came up again and again: “should” and “must.” Albert Ellis hated those words. He felt they were at the core of so much of our emotional suffering.

Both imply that the universe needs to bend to your will. And that’s not going to happen. “Prefer” all you like, but “should” and “must” are like shaking your fist at the sky when you don’t like the weather. It “should” be sunny? Well, it’s not.

When you align your expectations with reality, you stay cool like Fonzie. And then you’re able to dosomething that might help you get what you “prefer.”

Whenever you hear yourself saying “should” or “must”, it’s a sign you might be working off an irrational belief. Time to dispute and replace — unless you like being unnecessarily stressed and angry. I don’t.

So out of supreme respect for Albert, I’m not going to say you “should” or “must” obey the above advice…

But doing so will make you much happier. That’s my underlying — and very rational — belief.

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Eric Barker|is the author of "Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong." He is also the author of the website by the same name.