Recently, I’ve had two eye-opening realizations about life. Spoiler alert: They’re actually not all that groundbreaking. But they’ve helped me feel happier when things aren’t going as planned, and I can almost guarantee they’ll do the same for you.
Truth #1: Everyone, at any given time, is feeling sad, stressed, or bummed out about something
No one’s life is as perfect as it seems. Now, this might seem incredibly obvious. But with our highly filtered social media feeds, it’s easy to think that everyone’s real lives are just as happy and sunny as their Instagrams filled with sunsets, smoothie bowls, and dinners with friends.
Whether it’s a major obstacle — a sick loved one, a failed marriage — or a more “minor” setback — a delayed flight, fallout with a friend, pressure from their boss — every single person you know is dealing with some situation that’s sorta shitty.
I don’t mean to be a bummer; I just want us to get real for a second. Because I’m completely guilty of it too. I pretty much only post photos of vacations, fun workouts, gorgeous dinners, or career achievements.
I don’t post about the times when my anxiety makes me stay in bed all day on a Sunday, or when I wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life, or why I’m not as “successful” or “happy” as others seem to be. As my mom reminded me once, if someone looked at my life on social media feeds, they’d be impressed, and maybe even a little bit jealous.
Another example: I was recently talking to an old friend about her new relationship. She now lives halfway across the world in Australia, so clearly I don’t know too many details about her life. All I know is that she and her boyfriend always look incredibly joyful on social media (as most do). In fact, she is happier than ever with her new partner. But she reminded that even being in a relationship isn’t always easy. It takes effort, it takes personal development work, it takes check-ins with each other. They fight. They go through hard times. It’s not all sunshine and cozy Sunday-night dinners, although that’s what we see on Instagram.
Point being, people aren’t always 100% happy. And if you’re going through something difficult, you’re far from alone.
Now for the tough love.
Truth #2: Feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to help you feel happier
Don’t get me wrong—I fully believe it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to feel anxious or depressed. It’s okay to be angry or disappointed in someone. We live in a time when mental health is being talked about more openly, and that’s amazing. Talk about how you feel. Go see a therapist if you want. Allow yourself to feel bad.
In fact, one way to get happier is to acknowledge your negative thoughts, rather than try to stop them. As this excellent New York Times article puts it, own your worries.
When you are stuck in a negative cycle, acknowledge it. Think to yourself: “I’m worrying about work,” or “I’m obsessing about my ex.” Then, challenge those thoughts, or rewrite them. Instead of thinking, “I’m a failure,” think instead: “I’ve had a setback at work, but I’m going to learn from it and move in.” (Yep, this is a simplistic description of what it means to practice “mindfulness,” that happiness buzzword you see everywhere.)
Dwelling on the past and ruminating over what happened — what that person did wrong, what you did wrong — keeps you parked there, in the past. And continuing to focus narrowly in on yourself, your fears, your worries isn’t the way to help yourself feel better.
So here’s another game-changing way to stop feeling sorry for yourself: Take the focus away from yourself, and put it on bringing value to others. Isn’t that what the world needs more of, rather than rumination and negative thinking?
I don’t mean you have to go sign up for the Peace Corps or even have a steady volunteer gig. (Although you should if you have the time!) But here are a few little to help others, and in effect, help yourself, feel better.
Talk to a stranger. Strike up a conversation with someone after your yoga class, at the grocery store, or in the coffee shop. There’s literally no drawback, and major potential upsides.
Write. Some research suggests that writing in a journal for 15 minutes a day can lead to a boost in overall happiness and well-being. Then, share it! If you’re reading this, you probably know how great it feels to know someone else is going through the same stuff you are.
Provide something to someone in need. Offer a protein bar or a bottle of water to a homeless person. Donate clothes or bedding to Goodwill. Give your sister that shirt she’d always steal from you.
Send a long email to an old friend. Fill them in on your life, and ask about theirs.
Call your grandparents. Or your parents. Thank them for everything they do for you. If you’re lucky enough to live nearby, go see them in person.
Obviously, these ideas aren’t guaranteed to make you jump with joy, and some issues run much deeper than quick fixes. But take it from me: They might just make those tough times a little easier, which is all we can really want, right?