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Happiness Is Not Your Mind's Job (But You Can Be Happy Anyway)

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Michael met Cleo at the gym several weeks ago, and he has wanted to ask her on a date ever since. He is just waiting for one thing: a little more confidence. He believes that his chances will improve if he can eliminate his anxiety.

Perhaps you have experienced that kind of hesitance. I have. The truth is, Michael was me at an earlier time in my life. I was waiting for the right feeling to come along as life passed me by.

It's a common thing, that sort of ambivalence. It's wired into us. We want to pursue happiness while our minds -- those worry machines that never stop talking -- erect roadblocks designed to insulate us from pain. Anxiety is one of the most basic safety mechanisms. Our minds give us these jolts of distress in order to make us behave cautiously.

In my experience as a psychologist, I've noticed that our biggest obstacles are often the thoughts and feelings inside our own heads. I'm not referring to the figurative old trope about self-confidence. What I mean is that we treat thoughts and feelings almost as if they were physical objects. They can seem to coalesce into a wall that stands between us and happiness.

I meet people every day who feel they must eliminate sadness before they can do things that bring joy, or eradicate anger before they can behave graciously, or even that they should prevent optimism in order to avoid disappointment.

It's natural to think that way because that's how we handle obstructions in the real world. We clear trees before building a house, and fix flat tires before driving. But that strategy fails when we apply it to thoughts and feelings. They are not objects that we can manipulate. Even if we could throw them away, the mind would just give us more.

The real downside to this mindset is that it makes us behave in a backward fashion. By giving thoughts and feelings so much weight, we're likely to believe that we cannot act until we feel like we can act. That's like waiting until we lose weight before going on a diet.

If we want to pursue happiness, action must sometimes precede feelings. That means thinking of happiness as a set of behaviors that we can initiate rather than a set of feelings that we must wait for. Back in my days of waiting for the right feeling to come along, I was like a lost tourist at a deserted bus stop. Sometimes the right feeling never showed up. So there I was, standing in the rain and going nowhere.

Things changed when I eventually began to realize that actions are more important than feelings.

For one thing, I began to notice what matters to me. As my values came into focus, feelings became less important. I became more concerned with what I was doing than how I was feeling. And I discovered that the world outside my mind is much more interesting than the world inside.

I also became more resolute. With practice, I became increasingly skilled at disobeying my own mind. I learned how to feel nervous and approach that girl at the gym. I'm going to do what's important, and my mind can go jump in a lake if it disapproves.

Finally, I began to think of happiness differently. By moving my focus from pleasant feelings to meaningful action, I eventually ended up much happier. But even if the happy feelings hadn't arrived I would possess the joy of living meaningfully. In other words, there's no way to lose when we treat happiness as behaviors rather than feelings.

These days, I like to judge the quality of my life by what I do rather than how I feel. I don't want to have this written on my tombstone: Here lies a guy who spent his life waiting for the right feeling to arrive. I'd rather thank my mind for trying to keep me safe and forge ahead anyway. As odd as it may seem, sometimes emotions simply don't matter very much in the pursuit of happiness.

Shawn T. Smith, PsyD is a psychologist in private practice who has formerly worked for the Colorado Department of Corrections and the International Commission on Missing Persons in Bosnia. He is the author of "The User's Guide to the Human Mind: Why Our Brains Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic and What We Can Do about It" (New Harbinger, 2011).

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