10 Things That Won't Actually Make You Happier (And 10 That Will)

Photo: Olesya Kuprina | Shutterstock
10 Things That Won't Make You Happier (And 10 That Will)

Everyone is on a search for more happiness. And if they don't call it "happiness," they call it love, peace, or success. The desire to evolve is embedded in the human condition, but in a world where our basic needs are no longer variable, we're left to try to manage our Stone Age minds in a modern, material world. Oftentimes, they collide.

We're told that we can choose happiness, but we aren't told why it feels like we can't (or why we don't). We're told that a good life is found in love and family and a good job and a stable income, yet not why many people with all of this and more are still profoundly dissatisfied. (The fate of many celebrities, who are often perceived to be some of the most "successful" and privileged people around, illustrate this well.)

The truth is that we don't know ourselves as well as we need to, and a lot of it's influenced by the common ideas of what makes for a "good life." The things we chase are, ultimately, the things we become, so we need to set the record straight on what will actually make you happy and what won't.

Here are 10 things that won't actually make you happier, and 10 that will:

1. Work

What won't make you happier: Working less
What will: Working more efficiently

We say we want to work less, but when given the opportunity to take some downtime, we're often left stir-crazy and eager to return to the office. Working less isn't the issue — it's learning to work better. It's being routine, disciplined, and very focused, three things that people usually don't develop.

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2. Friendships

What won't make you happier: Having more friends
What will: Cherishing and deepening the relationships that you already have

When we imagine our "happy lives," we see ourselves surrounded by friends and loved ones. Certainly, there's something to be said for feeling as though you belong to a tribe. But when it comes to the idea that having more people in your life will make you feel better, that's usually an illusion. What matters more is developing deeper, more intimate connections with a few important people.

3. Life challenges

What won't make you happier: Having fewer problems
What will: Having confidence that you can manage the inevitable challenges that arise in life

Most of the problems that cause us stress and anxiety aren't the problems themselves; rather, they're how we think about the problems. We worry because we think doing so will prepare us in case something goes wrong. Anxiety is a major motivator for many people. Yet, this is also a misperception. It isn't having fewer problems that make you feel better but having the ability to problem-solve and adapt.

4. Success

What won't make you happier: Feeling superior to other people
What will: Feeling connected to them

Though the word "success" once meant to succeed someone — to follow them — today, it usually alludes to someone who's superior to others. That superiority is usually a defining trait of what we perceive our best lives to consist of, and it's usually something we crave only when we feel disconnected from those around us. (It's the indirect route to receiving love.)

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5. Body image

What won't make you happier: Changing your body (losing weight)
What will: Learning to love your body even when you don't like it

Weight loss is such a huge issue for many people. Aside from being a legitimate medical concern, it's a very common anxiety. Weight is a means of safety. It's how our bodies physically manifest the need to feel secure (does it make sense why people go to war with themselves over it?).

Regardless, losing it (or adapting to a more ideal image of yourself) will not make you feel better about yourself, as that kind of self-love is conditional. What will make you feel better is learning to love who you are regardless of how you look, then adjusting your appearance if so you choose.

Real love, which isn't just skin deep, must come first. Loss and gain are inevitable. Our bodies aren't getting better with age, so it's whether or not you're able to live with yourself that counts.

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6. Confronting our inner turmoil

What won't make you happier: Uprooting your life and taking off to start over
What will: Finding the root of the issues that keep arising.

It's normal to wonder whether or not giving up would be easier than confronting the demons that are keeping the deepest parts of us locked up. Everyone reaches their saturation point, it's a matter of whether or not it prompts you to "fight" or "flight."

The work of delving even deeper into ourselves is what we try to avoid, and yet, it's usually what we must do. Otherwise, we just end up just repeating old patterns and ending up right where we started in the first place.

7. Stress

What won't make you happier: Feeling less stressed
What will: Using stress to your advantage

Studies show that some stress is actually good for us, but only when we're able to interpret it well. In other words, when we see it as something to utilize, it can energize us; when we see it as something scary, it can paralyze us.

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8. Addiction to technology

What won't make you happier: Disconnecting, spending less time on your phone
What will: Addressing the compulsion to "anxiety scroll" in the first place.

Sure, a tech-free life can seem luxurious, but if you feel the need to disconnect, you're probably already heavily reliant on technology in the first place. Simply putting the phone down or making less time for social media will not make you feel better, but addressing the fear or social anxiety that leads you to constantly "check-in" on things definitely will.

9. Money troubles

What won't make you happier: Having a lot more money
What will: Having fewer bills, a better budget, and controlling the impulse to consume

Most people function within something called a "percentage bias." If they're used to spending 30 percent of their income on dinners and drinks, they will likely continue to do so even if they get a raise at work. Our habits are our habits, no matter what external circumstances crop up.

If we feel the need to overspend, we'll always be in debt. It's (usually) not about making more money, but addressing the emotional issues tied to the money you do have. That's when you'll actually feel the impact of some extra income.

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10. Pain

What won't make you happier: Feeling less pain
What will: Not being afraid of pain

We worry about preparing ourselves for pain. It's a form of self-conditioning. We think that if we can imagine and embrace the pain of a hypothetical situation, it won't really affect us if it actually comes to pass. This mindset is ludicrous and is the reason we experience pain in the first place.

It's not feeling less pain, but not being afraid to feel pain in the first place. No, it's not pleasant, but you won't really live until you're not making every choice with the intention of just taking the "easiest way out." It's in trying to insulate ourselves from the pain that we create pain.

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​Brianna Wiest is a writer, poet, and bestselling author of 101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think.