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Anti-Unhappiness: The Counterintuitive Way to Live a Happier Life

What’s the key to happiness? People have been trying to answer this question forever, yet the answer remains elusive.

While you could spend your life searching for what will make you happy, what if you flipped the question around and focused on eliminating the things that make you unhappy?

We call this idea “anti-unhappiness.” It’s a powerful force that’s helped us improve our lives and make difficult decisions such as where to live, what job to pursue, and more.

If you’re looking to lead a happier life (or, at least, a less unhappy one), then you’ll find this guide useful. Below, we explore why much of our conventional thinking about happiness is wrong, as well as how you can lead a happier life through elimination rather than addition.

The Hedonic Treadmill: Why “More” Rarely Makes Us Happier

If I asked you whether or not a raise would make you happier, you’d probably say yes. After all, more money is better, right? Just think of all the things you could buy with it, from a new car to a custom set of golf discs.

The reality, however, isn’t as straightforward. Sure, getting a raise will make you feel happier in the short-term. But if you use that raise to upgrade your lifestyle, you’ll soon become accustomed to your new standard of living. Before long, any happiness you felt due to your increased earnings has faded.

Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, and it shows that we often chase happiness in the wrong places. This is usually in the form of money, though it also applies to any luxuries or material comforts we think will make us happier.

Furthermore, we’re also pretty terrible at predicting how good or bad something will make us feel in the future (and how long that good or bad feeling will persist). The psychological term for this is “miswanting.”

One of the most compelling examples of miswanting comes from a 1978 study on the happiness of lottery winners. You would assume that winning the lottery would make you dramatically happier than the average person. What the study found, however, was that lottery winners did not rate their happiness levels as significantly higher than a control group of non-winners.

So where does that leave us? If winning the lottery won’t make you happier, then what will? One compelling answer is to remove things that make you unhappy, which we’ll discuss next.

Anti-Unhappiness: The Power of Eliminating or Avoiding Negatives

Now that we’ve established that more money won’t increase your happiness, and that we’re generally bad about predicting what will make us happy, what are we to do?

One of the most powerful tools we’ve found for tackling this problem is to invert the question. Instead of focusing on what we can add to our lives to increase our happiness, we’ve turned our attention to what we can remove from our lives to reduce our unhappiness.

This isn’t to say that adding things to your life will never increase your happiness. More money, for instance, can dramatically boost your happiness if you’re currently struggling to cover your basic living expenses.

In general, however, we’ve found that eliminating or avoiding sources of unhappiness is more effective than constantly chasing sources of happiness (which can be fleeting).

But what does this all look like in practice? How do you decide what to eliminate? Keep reading to find out.

5 Practical Ways to Be Less Unhappy

Only you can know what will make you unhappy. But simply telling you that isn’t very helpful.

Therefore, we’ve put together the following list of  ways you can apply the anti-unhappiness principle to your life. This list is far from exhaustive, but it should help you get started.

Consider the Long-Term Negatives

It may sound morose, but considering the long-term negatives can be a powerful tool for making better decisions.

For instance, let’s say you’re trying to decide if you should move to a new city. Your natural inclination is likely to focus on all the fun, cool parts of living in a new place. In other words, the things that you think will make you happy.

Instead of focusing on that, however, we recommend considering what you might dislike about living in a city, particularly over the long-term. This is because the fun, cool things are unlikely to be a daily part of your life. In contrast, less sexy factors such as climate and ease of getting around the city are more likely to influence your day-to-day experience.

Take Denver, for example. Many people move here because of the easy access to the mountains. While this is a wonderful part of living here, it’s unlikely to be a part of your daily life when living and working in the city.

However, the dry climate will influence your daily life immensely. And if you can’t handle living in a dry climate (as many people who move here discover), then the unhappiness that generates could well outweigh the positives of being close to the mountains.

And that’s just one example. Whenever you’re making a big life decision, be sure to consider the potential negatives that decision could create.

Eliminate Sources of Stress and Anxiety

Anti-unhappiness isn’t just a useful principle for making big life decisions such as moving to a new city. You can also use it to improve aspects of your daily life right now.

In particular, you can increase your happiness by eliminating daily things that cause you stress or anxiety.

For instance, let’s say you’re splitting chores with your partner or roommates. Your natural inclination is likely to split them according to some sort of schedule. While this approach is “fair” on paper, it could leave people with chores they hate doing (and are thus less likely to do).

As an alternative, consider splitting the chores based on which each person dislikes the least. This way, the chores still get done, but everybody’s daily life has improved just a tad.

To take things further, you could also outsource tasks that cause you stress or anxiety. For instance, you could pay someone to mow your lawn or clean your house.

Many people will push back against this idea because it seems like a waste of money.

But consider how you’re currently spending your money. Is there a discretionary expense you could eliminate to free up the extra cash needed to outsource an unpleasant task? If so, it could be worth it to reduce the stress in your life (and thus boost your happiness).

Turn Negatives Into Positives

Eliminating sources of unhappiness is a great way to improve your life. However, some sources of unhappiness are difficult to remove entirely. In these cases, we recommend modifying the activity to make it less stressful.

A classic example of this is your daily commute. While it might be ideal to remove your commute entirely, that isn’t always practical. However, there are ways you could make the commute less stressful, such as biking instead of driving. You’re still getting to work each day, but you’ve removed the unpleasant parts of it.

Make an “Anti-Todo List”

A todo list is a powerful way to ensure you complete essential tasks each day. But when it comes to living a happier life, it can be useful to make an “anti-todo list,” a list of things to avoid doing.

The act of making an anti-todo list is a great way to identify what’s making you unhappy in the first place. It seems like sources of unhappiness would be obvious, but often we come to accept them as an inevitable part of daily life. Consciously listing the things that make you unhappy can open up avenues for change that you might not have considered otherwise.

To create your anti-todo list, follow these steps:

  • Make a list of everything you do on a typical day.
  • Then, highlight the items that are sources of unhappiness.
  • Finally, put those items on your anti-todo list and review the list regularly (ideally every day, at least at first). Through this process, your overall quality of life should improve.

To show you what this looks like in practice, here’s an anti-todo list I came up with for my life. Remember, these are things not to do:

  • Checking my phone when I wake up
  • Watching TV or YouTube after midnight
  • Sitting in traffic
  • Reading the news more than once per day
  • Checking email before I start work

Don’t Confuse Challenge with Unhappiness

So far, I’ve encouraged you to remove as many sources of unhappiness from your life as possible. However, it’s important not to take this idea too far. In particular, you shouldn’t confuse things that are difficult or challenging with things that make you chronically unhappy.

Challenges may feel unpleasant in the moment, but they’re also a crucial part of living a fulfilling life. If you focus on eliminating everything challenging, making life as easy as possible, you’re bound to get bored. Plus, you’re likely to stagnate in your career and personal development, which can end up being a great source of unhappiness.

Furthermore, there are situations when it’s worth putting up with sources of unhappiness in the short- or medium-term if they serve your long-term goals. For instance, if you’re changing careers, you might have to endure a few years of low-paid, entry-level work before you can progress to the exciting, well-paid work.

Start Practicing Anti-Unhappiness Today

Though it may seem counterintuitive at first, I hope you now see the power of increasing your happiness through anti-unhappiness. It’s often one of the biggest improvements you can make to your quality of life.

Looking for other ways to improve your life? Check out this collection of posts on essential life skills.

Image Credits: man in hammock