Every now and then, I catch a glimpse of what my life could’ve been like if I hadn’t started making changes. This happens whenever I accommodate someone’s childish behavior, indulge the whims of my bosses, or spend all afternoon in my overheated sardine tin of an office — instead of doing something I find meaningful.
The biggest reminder comes anytime I eat one of the tortilla-wrapped puddles of fat my campus cafeteria generously calls a burrito. I can literally feel my blood pressure go up with every bite.
All of these mistakes have one thing in common: I’m giving control of my time, mind, or body to someone else.
Whenever you do this, you lose.
Those are the days I feel truly miserable and unproductive. Fortunately, they’re few and far between now.
The bad news is that if you live in the U.S., you’re constantly pressured to conform to a lifestyle that makes you poor and unhappy, while slowly killing you. The good news is that we’re starting to realize the stakes, and how to change the game. So much of life hinges not just on making good decisions and healthy micro-shifts, but also eliminating poor choices — and removing yourself from toxic environments.
So if you’re unhappy, how did you get here? I have a few ideas, based on a few years of being miserable myself.
You gave up on something you’re good at
At some point rejection and tepid support finally wore you down. Every little success you enjoyed brought on a string of crushing failures. Everyone said you were talented, but they didn’t care enough to show up for your play, your performance, your game, or your book signing.
Unfortunately, that’s life.
Quitting something is healthy if you’re bad at it, or just average. Sometimes you have to lean away from things you enjoy so you can focus your time and energy on your strengths.
It doesn’t mean you have to get rich and famous. You just have to find the intersection between what you enjoy, and what you can actually make a living at. That calls on a little self-honesty. You have to assess your own skills, and step around the snares of grandiose delusion.
You think too much
There’s two kinds of thought — active, and idle. Active thought happens when you apply your mind to concrete problems.
That’s the good kind of thinking.
A pinch of idle thought can be great for us. We daydream. We wander. We reminisce. We brainstorm.
You’re human, which means you’ll never escape your cortex. So you have to point it at different things. When you find yourself sitting and doing nothing, that’s when you start to overthink. The toxic side of you comes out, with all its anxiety and self-doubt.
That’s why you need an outlet. Meditation doesn’t work for everyone. You can try music, long walks, or a hobby. Do whatever it takes to minimize the time you spend in toxic idle thought.
You attend too many pointless meetings
Meetings evolved out of the 40-hour work week, to fill up time. This is where people go to feel important and/or less lonely. They announce ambitious projects they have no real desire to complete. We use meetings to make us feel productive, when we could actually be doing things. Some meetings are mandatory, but most aren’t. We’ve just tricked ourselves into thinking so. We worry that if we skip meetings, we’ll look lazy. Stop worrying about what you might look like to other people.
You give away your time
Someone’s always got a mouth loaded with nonsense and the craving for a captive audience. There’s nothing wrong with telling someone you’re busy. You’re the one who gets to decide what to do with your day — or at least parts of it. Don’t turn manners into shackles. You know what’s rude? Dropping in on someone unannounced and blowing up their focus.
You play victim with yourself
Bad things happen to good people all the time. A police report lists you as a “victim,” but that’s a legal term. Victims wait for justice to happen, and they wish for their lives to get back to normal. Survivors demand justice. They tell their stories. They work on their recovery. They get counseling. They know their lives won’t ever be the same, and they know that sometimes wrongdoers get off easier than they should. They don’t forgive or forget or “move on,” but they do build a new life for themselves.
You eat like crap
This isn’t really your fault. Fast food chains and junk food juggernauts set us up for failure. They don’t care about your health, just your money. And it really shows. They want to sell you as many cheap, over-processed, worthless hamburgers as possible.
We’re not talking about how these foods make you look. We’re talking about how they make you feel.
Junk food makes you feel like junk.
These days, I might eat fast or frozen food a few times a year. It literally makes me feel like I’m going to die. This is how a lot of Americans feel all the time. They’ve just gotten used to it, like I did for a while.
The companies that make these foods are semi-evil. Sometimes they even lie about the nutritional value of what you’re buying. There’s one simple fix for this: Stop listening to the Dr. Oz’s of the world and start doing what has always made sense:
Learn to cook for yourself.
Eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Consume lean meats. Stop filling your freezer with TV dinners and pouring salt over everything. Use actual seasonings on your food to give them flavor.
You don’t exercise
This one’s also not entirely on you. American suburbs used to have sidewalks. Now, lots of them don’t. Not everyone has access to nice, quiet parks where they feel safe — even in broad daylight.
Not everyone can afford a Fitbit.
Gym memberships cost money. So does equipment.
All you have to do is move your body somehow. Stretch and do jumping jacks in your bedroom if you have to. A couple hours of chores is equivalent to a 30-minute jog. It’s a start.
You don’t get good sleep
And who can blame you? We’ve lit the night so bright you can’t even see stars anymore. We’re conditioned to check our email “one last time” for any important updates from work.
You’re scared you won’t be able to pay rent next month. Most of us are one medical emergency away from poverty.
Almost all of us are in debt.
So we’ve got plenty of things to keep us up at night, things our parents didn’t have to worry about. But sacrificing your sleep is unacceptable. Buy a sleep mask and some earplugs. Get a white noise machine. Try melatonin, or see a sleep specialist. Experiment with nighttime relaxation routines. Sleep is the foundation of a healthy mind.
You let your leaders off the hook
It’s harder to be happy than ever. For most of us, almost half our paycheck goes toward student loans and credit cards. The idea of owning a house sounds like a fairy tale to the average millennial. We barely climb out of one recession before we start worrying about the next one. Everywhere we turn, some corporate giant wants to profit off our hardships.
Some of us need prescription medications and CPAP machines to solve our problems, but we can’t afford them.
Our commander-in-chief spends his days sucking down diet cokes and yelling at people in person and online. He willfully inhales 2,500 calories of fast food every night, right before he falls asleep with his phone in hand. He lives in a sham marriage, and never spends time with his own son.
Not to get political, but this matters…
A good life won’t be possible in the world our current leaders are creating. They’re going to take everything we’ve worked hard to earn for ourselves, and leave us standing in an empty Costco with our gratitude jars and self-awareness journals.
We won’t even look up to appreciate the irony.
Research has documented a disturbing trend. When we face staggering limitations on our own agency, we double down on self-determination. We’re more likely than ever to blame each other and ourselves for our failures when we feel the least amount of control.
Self-care needs to get political
If you really want to take care yourself, snap out of it. Part of the reason you’re unhappy is because your leaders are terrible. Most of them don’t care about our happiness. They’re undermining it for their own benefit. They want what’s left of your disposable income, so they can continue wolfing down Big Macs and yelling at people online.
Our politicians don’t practice self-care. They’re woefully out of touch with what constitutes a healthy lifestyle.
Meanwhile, sane people are stockpiling food and medicine in their homes, anticipating a deadly coronavirus outbreak. The CDC is staring down the barrel of a 16 percent budget cut. We rely less and less on the institutions we pay taxes for to protect us.
Honestly, no wonder we’re struggling with happiness.
A lot of self-help out there has now started telling us to stop watching the news. But after a certain point, the bliss that comes from ignorance is temporary, and dangerous.
Maybe we shouldn’t be that happy.
We’re in trouble.
If we want more and better, we have to demand it. We need to inject some political awareness and social action into our self-care. If we want real happiness, then we can’t keep up this charade that positive thinking and morning routines are enough. Because they’re not.