How not to be unhappy

The famous opening sentence of Anna Karenina is

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”

My own version of this is as follows

“Unhappy individuals are alike; every happy individual is happy in his or her own way”.

This does assume that the basic needs of a human being – food, shelter and security have been met.

From my experience, there is no simple answer to what makes one happy – it could be career, money, fame, family, adventure or something else entirely. Unhappiness on the other hand tends to stem from a few identifiable sources.

This leads me to be believe that if we are able to identify these sources of unhappiness and remedy them, we have a great chance of being happy. Rather than chase happiness, resist the habits and impulses that make you unhappy.

As Charlie Munger says “Invert, always invert”.

I think the roots of unhappiness can be boiled down to the following

  1. An unhealthy body and an unhealthy mind
  2. Focusing on things you cannot control
  3. Comparing yourself to others

Addressing these are simple but simple things are often very hard to do.

The first of the three is perhaps the easiest. Regular exercise, mindfulness meditation and keeping a gratitude journal can help immensely in this regard. Therapy seems to work wonders for some people. Prioritizing physical and mental health is the biggest favor you can do to our future self.

The second is harder. You need to build a filter for your thoughts – a debugger of sorts. When a thought pops into your head, ask yourself - is this something I can do anything about? if yes – act; if not, ignore it. I do this for issues ranging from politics to the fluctuating fortunes of my favorite sports team. This is the central principle of stoicism.

Any thought can pop into your head, you need to train your mind so that you run this thought through a filter next rather than letting it grow and morph into a runaway train. I have a long way to go to master this but I have made enough progress to know this is possible.

The third is perhaps the hardest. We have been brought up in a system where success seems to be a zero-sum game. It takes some effort to unlearn these habits and come to the realization that life is a single player game. Your success does not preclude mine.

We all have our own clocks and yard sticks to measure ourselves. Life is not a race where you get a prize for being better than someone. The goal is to become the best we can be, not to outdo others.

What has helped me here is writing down some of these principles that I aspire to live by. I read them everyday and this helps me internalize these ideas better. I do fall off the wagon once in a while, but reading these lets me reaffirm the values I care about and helps me get back on track.

There is still a long way to go but I am taking baby steps every day towards becoming a better, more content person.

Govind G Nair
Govind G Nair
Senior Product Manager