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Staying Happy When You Don’t Want To

What is happiness? Is it money, cars, women, men, liquor, a sick tattoo? People have been asking what happiness is for as long as there has been room for such a question. It always seems like it’s fleeting, like something that you only get for a short period of time and then it’s gone. We typically just associate happiness with a feeling, something that happens to us. Usually, we’re so…well, happy, that we feel happy that we rarely stop to ask why we feel happy.

It seems weird–I mean, why look a gift horse in the mouth?–but you should be asking yourself why you’re happy. If you don’t know what it is that actually triggers the feelings of joy and contentment that you feel when you’re, “happy,” then how are you supposed to know what to do when you don’t feel happy?

“I don’t know, I came here for answers, not to be asked questions. Is asking why I’m happy really going to help?” Yes. Yes it is. Society tells you that you should just feel happy, right? How exactly do you do that, though? “Just feel better” isn’t really advice that you can follow through on. What you need is real guidance.

Life is full of challenges, heartache, and suffering. A lot of bad things happen on a daily basis, all over the world, every second of every day. When you’re in the throes of depression, you can find yourself wondering how anyone can ever feel anything but discouragement and despair. How could anyone feel happy?!

Philosophers have been asking that question for eons. They’ve been asking why people are happy. You can find your own favorite–most seek to answer that question in one way or another–but I’m partial to Stoicism, so I’ll be sharing their answer to why with you. A lot of people think that Stoicism means simply burying your feelings and not reacting to anything. That’s not true at all.

Stoicism is actually largely concerned with knowing what to give a f*ck about and what is undeserving of your limited f*cks. I’ll be going deeper into this in another article, but a central tenant of Stoic thought is “knowing what you can control and what you can’t.” I find it oddly comforting to know that I can’t control much. In fact, the only thing that I can really, truly control is my own mind.

You can’t control much more than that yourself. You can’t control the weather. You can’t control who is going to come into the restaurant. Hell, you can’t control whether or not you’re going to have running water today. You can look at that and be filled with despair, anxiety and grief, cursing the world for kicking you when you’re down, or you can say, “Well, shit. Hopefully it comes back on later. Guess I’ll have to figure something else out.”

There is no real difference between the two thoughts. Neither one is going to make the water come back on. Both are within your control, you get to choose which one you want to allow to exist within your mind. Both allow you to feel justified in why you’re miserable or just kind of “meh” about the whole thing. The only difference is how you feel about the water being off. However small that difference looks on the surface, it makes all of the difference when you apply it to all of the things in your life that you can’t control.

You’re right, sometimes it can feel like you aren’t in control of how you feel, or what you think. There are times when you need something a little more proactive than just thinking your way out of a bad mood. For those times, you should make your bed.

If you haven’t seen the video, you should see it. Admiral William McRaven was giving a commencement speech at the University of Texas in 2014 when he mentioned the necessity of making your bed. Really, you should watch it, but to break it down, he says that you need to make your bed because your first task of the day is done. Now you can move on to the next task knowing that you did something already. You can feel good about that. If that’s the only thing you were able to do and feel good about in the whole day, well at least when you get home your bed is made and waiting for you.

Now, it doesn’t necessarily have to be your bed, but you can (consciously) do something that you can immediately be proud of to boost your mood. It truly doesn’t matter how small it is, it could even be finding the will to open your eyes. When you do something that you didn’t think you had the will to do, or that you didn’t want to do, praise yourself and stash it in your, “mental cookie jar,” as Navy SEAL David Goggins says. Draw on the memory of those victories, “get a cookie from the jar,” when things are threatening to bring you down.

When you store those little victories up and refuse to let things you can’t control harsh your vibe, you will find that your entire life is suddenly more tranquil. It’s going to take a lot to bring your mood down and even when it does, you’ll bounce back faster than you ever have before.

If all else fails, listen to this guided meditation. It’ll be the best two and a half minutes of your life, but take it seriously and listen to it in a quiet place. You’ll thank me, I promise.

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