In If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, psychological researcher and happiness coach Raj Raghunathan argues that happiness is our natural state. Several aspects of socialisation can lead us astray, but Raghunathan aims to remedy this by identifying the “seven deadly happiness sins” and resolving each of them with a corresponding habit of the highly happy.
Here’s the second half of our easy-to-read distillation of the book’s key arguments – check out Part One first if you haven’t read it yet!
Happiness sin #4: Being overly controlling
Raghunathan concedes that randomness and unpredictability are unavoidable elements of life, making it essential that we learn to live with and accept uncertainty. However, because of looming unpredictability, we feel urged to arrange our lives in a way that limits feelings of powerlessness. There’s nothing wrong with organisation, but trying to entirely eliminate uncertainty will lead to rife dissatisfaction when things go awry.
Happiness habit #4: Gaining internal control
Raghunathan emphasises the need to take responsibility for our happiness, which means not blaming external events or other people when things take an unexpected turn. Doing so necessitates taking ownership of the content of our thoughts and thereby gaining firmer control of our feelings.
He names “situation selection” and “emotion labelling” as key habits that’ll bring us closer to internal control. Situation selection means limiting exposure to situations that are known to evoke unwanted emotions. Naming emotions as you feel them (for example ‘angry’, ‘frustrated’, ‘let down’) sounds basic, but it’s reported to significantly lower the intensity of the feelings.
Gaining internal control isn’t simply achieved – don’t abandon hope just because you’re unable to immediately cheer yourself up after losing your purse – but gradually building up self-confidence and emotional understanding will prove greatly beneficial in the long run.
Happiness sin #5: Distrusting others
It can feel as though we live in a society built on suspicion. Reality TV, for example, often portrays contestants as conniving backstabbers who’ll do whatever necessary to be crowned the best strudel chef in all of West Dorset. Meanwhile, the flagrant corruption of global leaders doesn’t instil a great deal of faith in humans’ essential trustworthiness.
Happiness habit #5: Smart trust
Honesty is a most noble and laudable characteristic, but it doesn’t always prevail. What Raghunathan underlines, however, is that people are far more trustworthy than many of us recognise. He endorses “smart trust” as an effective way of generating mutual trust, which will lead to more significant interpersonal communication.
It’s important not to dwell on occasions when we were ripped off or left in the lurch. Instead, direct your attention towards times when your trust has been positively rewarded and use this as motivation to place trust in others more frequently.
Raghunathan insists that proactively trusting other people – i.e. assuming they’re trustworthy from the outset – will in turn engender a greater level of trustworthiness.
Sin #6: Passionate pursuit of passion
The passionate pursuit of passion causes us to label successful outcomes as “good” and off-target outcomes as “bad”. However, we can never sculpt the outcomes that affect us – be it via our jobs, artistic endeavours, football teams or otherwise – exactly to our liking. The more complex the situation, the less control we have, and fervent fixation on goal attainment inevitably leads to hollow disappointment when the projected outcome doesn’t transpire.
Happiness habit #6: Dispassionate pursuit of passion
Identifying how time has altered our feelings towards negative experiences will help to initiate a dispassionate pursuit of passion. Raghunathan asks the reader to think of a significant negative event from the past and note down the negativity felt at the time. Next, he asks the reader to compare their former feeling with how they feel about the event now. Chances are the feeling has not only become less negative, but meaning has also since been ascribed to the event.
Fierce determination to achieve any specified outcome – best flower display in Waltham Forest; enduring marital harmony beyond the wedding day – leaves us ill-equipped to deal with less than ideal results. A dispassionate pursuit, meanwhile, transfers the focus from the outcome to the process. It’s about knowing full well you’ve put in the required effort to achieve your ideal outcome, but not becoming disconsolate when it doesn’t work out.
Happiness sin #7: Mind addiction
From a young age we’re taught that, when it comes to making important decisions, rationality and sober deliberation trumps gut instinct and emotion. While this is certainly true in some cases, Raghunathan believes the customary loyalty to rationality means our decision-making can be detached from happiness.
After all, our feelings and emotions aren’t entirely unintelligent – they form an integral part of who we are.
Happiness habit #7: Mindfulness
Mindfulness sharpens our ability to pay attention to stimulus as well as what’s happening inside our body and mind. Getting there requires discipline and persistence, but as long as you’re regularly letting your attention zero in on something (focusing on your breath is seen as the best entry point), then you’re making progress.
Mindfulness is difficult to swiftly summarise, but in the long-term, it improves self-understanding by providing the means to observe the complexity within and not judging it or reflexively suppressing “unsavoury” thoughts and feelings.
Raghunathan’s profound conclusion is that tenacious mindfulness practice – supplemented by the six other habits of the highly happy – vindicates the notion that happiness is our natural state.
See Raghunathan’s HappySmarts Project website for activity-based happiness exercises.