7 Things Holding You Back from Your Happiest Self

By Suruchi Avasthi

When the final assignment in a class is to have groups of students perform random acts of kindness, you know there’s something special going on. Dr. Raj Raghunathan is a marketing professor at The University of Texas at Austin where he has spent much of his time researching the topic of happiness. While many business classes ask students to focus on how to increase company profits and analyze case data, Dr. Raj’s class asks students to look at themselves and figure out how they can increase their levels of happiness in life.

I’ve been lucky enough to be a fly on the wall in Dr. Raj’s class over the past few months (while also interning at Camille Styles), so I was thrilled when he agreed to sit down and discuss the “7 Sins of Happiness” he covers in his lectures and in his new book out today called If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? Click through the slides to discover a few ways you might be holding yourself back from being your happiest self.

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1. Devaluing happiness

Why do people tend to devalue happiness? Isn’t it something we all want in life?

There are at least three reasons why people do this. Firstly, we don’t have a concrete idea of what happiness is, and if you don’t know what you’re after, you can’t get it. Secondly, a lot of people harbor negative beliefs about what it would mean to be happy, that if they are happy it will make them selfish or will make them work less. The last reason relates to medium maximization, which says that over time learn that physical things lead to happiness. Like if we have more money we can do more things that make us happy. But overtime we confuse the medium for the end goal and up fixating on things like making more money rather than doing the things that make us happy. There is an example of the genie question, where if a genie asked you to make three wishes, what would you wish for? Hardly 6% of people ask for happiness and it’s related to the reasons above.

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2. Chasing superiority

Why does chasing superiority affect our happiness negatively? Wouldn’t being superior make you happier?

This is one of those things where it’s understandable why people chase being the prettiest or smartest person, it’s almost hardwired in us to chase superiority and be the best. Society reinforces that idea too: the valedictorian gets to give a speech, the best singer gets the biggest contract, etc. You’ve got to be good at something in life of course, but often times you end up comparing yourself on extrinsic levels rather than focusing on the progress towards mastery. You end up tethering your happiness to these extrinsic yardsticks and when you become used to that, you also surround yourself with people of that nature which can further deflate your happiness levels. While chasing superiority might give you the initial impetus towards your goal, it distracts you from finding flow, which is where you can actually find enjoyment in the activities you love to do.

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3. Desperation for love

What drives our need for connection and why can that actually hold us back from happiness?

The desire to connect with other people is of course a very biological and functional need, but is also a manifestation of the fact that as humans, we are very dependent on the people around us for survival from a young age all the way up to being a young adult. Even after that, we are still dependent on companionship and it becomes very easy to base our sense of self worth off of the companions we keep around us. We are so dependent on relationships (fun fact: meaningful relationships are actually the #1 determinant of happiness levels!) for happiness, that the mistake we often make is that the more we love, the more attention we will get, which leads to desperation for love. It’s important to recognize that chasing love is not a good idea. To operate ideally means to not be afraid of intimacy but also not be desperate for it, understanding that while it is nice to have someone with you, you can also feel your self worth in the world without that relationship too.

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4. Being overly controlling

I’ve always thought that feeling more control would make you happier, is that not true?

When you’re so highly control seeking, you believe you have more control over the environment around you then you actually do. The desire for control is actually a manifestation of not being in control of yourself or your own life. Another way to look at this subject is that when you are so control-seeking, you surround yourself with people who you can control, and doing this doesn’t actually contribute to your growth as a person. In fact, it does quite the opposite. This is where internal control comes in. The more internal control you can gain over your mind and thoughts, the less feverish your external desire for control will be.

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5. Distrusting others

Before reading this chapter, my thoughts were basically that if you don’t trust others, you’re holding yourself back from a lot of opportunities. Is that right?

As humans, we are hardwired to distrust. The cost of losing trust can be catastrophic, but trusting and getting good we view as just being okay. We have this propensity for distrust and it builds up over time because of society and how much we value the negative news headlines and gossip that constantly surround us. While in the long run, distrust can increase our chances of survival, it can actually lower our happiness levels and suck out joy from the little moments in life, like choosing to not give information to colleagues because you think they will use it against you. We’re constantly putting safeguards up against people who we should trust and therefore against the opportunities that can result from trusting someone.

What you should be doing is practicing smart trust. For most of us, smart trust involves swinging the “pendulum of trust” more to the trust side rather than distrust side. Obviously you need to be smart about things and you don’t want to be foolish in how much you trust others, but to elicit better trust, try a tactic that I call small wins. For example, share minor insecurities with someone and see how they react. If they reciprocate, you know that you can trust them. Another simple tactic is to just be more interested in what other people say and share commonalities, this is an easy way to boost mutual trust.

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6. Passionate/indifferent pursuit of passion

I originally thought that this had to do with how much passion we have for things. Can you clarify what exactly this means for our readers?

The concept of pursuit of passion has nothing to do with how much passion you have for something, rather the pursuit of passion has to do with the idea of how you view outcomes. Our tendency is to see things as either good or bad. But when you think about events, a lot of the downstream consequences of an event can be both positive or negative. Outcomes themselves can trigger waves of other consequences, and tethering your happiness to these outcomes is bad because if an event takes a turn for the worse, you are attached to that outcome and you feel bad. The passionate people think about just the outcome, the indifferent people recognize what outcomes they want, but once the outcome occurs they don’t judge whether it’s a good or bad outcome. When you are able to be indifferent, you spend less time wallowing in that bad feeling and your optimism and attitude towards even a bad outcome becomes healthier and you just think about the experience itself as good regardless of the outcome.

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7. Mind-addiction

What exactly is mind-addiction and how do we turn it into mindfulness?

Mind addiction stems from beliefs that no matter the problem, you can arrive to a better solution if you consciously think of the problem and how to solve it. That belief leads you to become reliant on your mind for any situation when in reality, there are many situations where that level of thinking actually interferes with your ability to make decisions. There are broad examples to help understand this such as choosing to date someone. If you come up with a list of qualities for someone who you want to date, giving scores to different people based on those categories, you’re going to interfere with the actual feelings you have for a person. Of course there are situations in which being dependent on your mind for thoughtful deliberation is important and you shouldn’t treat it frivolously, but it’s important to trust your emotions and gut feelings. This is where mindfulness comes in. The idea is to slow down and focus on your original thoughts rather than thinking too many steps ahead.

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Thanks so much to Dr. Raj for the great insight on improving our happiness levels!

You can grab yourself a copy of Dr. Raj’s new book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, for more information about the seven sins of happiness and for exercises to practice greater happiness. Dr. Raj also has an e-course on Coursera called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment that goes over the determinants of living a happy and fulfilling life!