Dozens of books and websites — indeed all of consumer culture — are devoted to promoting the belief that we need to line up certain conditions to feel happiness, joy, confidence, success, and other desired feelings.
This is a myth. We are searching for something that already exists within us. But we can’t access it when we are stuck in resistance to our current experience.
When we resist our current experience we block ourselves from feeling happiness and other desired emotions. (For clarity, in this article I’ll refer to happiness. But you can read it as any emotional state you desire.)
There are many limiting beliefs, or “mindset traps,” that can trap us in resistance to our current experience and block happiness.
Here are 3 common patterns.
(1) Happiness is On the Other Side of Something Else
We get trapped by the belief that peace, joy, happiness, and other desired feelings are on the “other side” of whatever obstacle we perceive to be in our path.
I call this forward-looking resistance because it takes the form of “there’s something I have to do to feel happiness in the future.” It often sounds like this:
When I …. then I will …
- When I finish this project, then I’ll be able to relax.
- When I make partner, then I’ll be successful.
- When I make $X, then I’ll feel secure enough to take on that project.
I see this often in my real estate and coaching practices: the belief that happiness, joy, peace, and success are on the other side of a new home, a promotion, the next relationship, vacation, child.
Related to this is the belief that
Everything you want is on the other side of fear.
It makes it sound like fear is a big rock in the middle of the road, and that once you get past it, it’s smooth sailing. That’s not quite how it works. On the other side of the current fear there are more fears, and deeper levels of fear.
Why It’s a Trap
Forward-looking resistance, the belief that we must do something to unlock the magic door to happiness, is a trap because:
(a) The goal posts always shift. There’s always a next project, a new level, more money.
(b) It’s based on an assumption that we know what will make us happy in the future. And research shows we are very poor predictors of our own happiness.
(c) It sets us up to chase something that is already within us, like looking for your glasses when you’re wearing them. (This also makes it an inefficient use of our energy.)
(2) Happiness is Unavailable to Us Based on Our Past Behavior
We get trapped by the belief that something we did — or didn’t do — in the past created a situation in the present where we cannot feel happiness or joy.
This backward-looking resistance traps us in the energy drain of regret. It sounds like:
If only I had …. then I could …
- If only I had finished my work, then I could relax.
- If only I had been more proactive, then I would have scored that big deal.
- If only I had known this information, then I would have made a different decision.
Why It’s a Trap
Backward-looking resistance is a trap because
(a) It assumes that our current life conditions would be different if we had acted differently in the past. The truth is that we don’t know whether anything would be different, or how it would be different.
(b) It creates a victim mindset by keeping our focus on something that you cannot control or change. Unless we suddenly have access to a time machine, we cannot change what happened in the past.
(c) It sets us up to go looking for something that we believe we lost. We waste energy trying to plug mythical holes instead of focusing on the present.
(3) Happiness is Incompatible with Our Current Life Conditions
We get trapped by the belief that the external conditions of our current experience prevent us from feeling what we desire. In this case, I’m talking about things that our outside of your personal actions.
This current-experience resistance sounds like:
If only X were different, then I would feel complete/happy/joyful …
X might be anything that we cannot personally control or influence, including: the weather, other people’s actions, other people’s presence, technology.
- This would be a great picnic if it weren’t raining.
- I’d feel at peace if that baby weren’t crying.
- This place would be amazing if it weren’t so crowded.
- I’d be so productive if I had faster wifi.
Why It’s a Trap
Current-experience resistance happens when our experience doesn’t match our expectations. This is a trap because
(a) It assumes that those conditions that we are resisting impact our happiness.
(b) It creates a victim mindset by keeping our focus on something we cannot control or influence.
(c) It creates a victim mindset by cultivating a secondary belief that our happiness was taken from us by others.
How to Free Yourself From the Trap
The short answer is to practice mindfulness and cultivate presence.
Mindfulness is about recognizing that we can find joy, happiness, peace, and any other desired emotion in any moment. The first step to this is to cultivate presence.
What It Means to Be Present
Being present requires letting go of anything not in the here and now:
- what we need to do in the future
- what happened in the past
- anything that is outside the place where your physical body is.
When you are present, your mind and body are in the same place.
Presence also requires us to release our expectations for what we believe our current experience should be.
What’s NOT Presence
You likely know that when you’re scrolling through your social media news feeds you aren’t present. But presence requires more than putting away your phone. If you’re lost in thought about your project, or mentally planning your schedule for next week, you’re not present.
The Simple Act to Cultivate Presence
When you stop, happiness starts to be possible. — Thich Nhat Hanh
To be present only requires that we stop, breathe, and let go of thinking, planning, and expectations about what should be.
Just to be clear: this is one of those things that is “simple,” but not easy. 😉