January 11

6 Common Habits That Limit Happiness

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The ancient Stoic philosophers believed that we are responsible for our own feelings. Going by their logic, as people, we can either increase or limit any emotional state in our lives. Helpful or unhelpful. How we choose to see things play a huge role in what we end up feeling about what we’re looking at. We can, therefore, choose to limit happiness in life or create more of it. In this post, we look at six common habits that typically limit happiness which you want to avoid if you want a more fulfilling and happy life.

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Now, even though we are looking at six common habits that can (potentially) limit happiness, in this post, it’s important to mention a few other important factors regarding HAPPINESS.

Even though I want to give you a couple of practical things to consider that might be limiting happiness in your life, we need to be responsible and at least consider a couple of important things researchers have already discovered about HAPPINESS.

Firstly, in order to either increase happiness or deal with certain things, like habits, that limit happiness, we need to also have a clear definition of what HAPPINESS is.

What is it that we’re aiming for?

And why is this important?

Because the definition we decide to go with ultimately impacts our strategy to obtain it.

So, having a starting point that is slightly off, can cause us to completely miss the mark over time.

Let’s look at the following two competing definitions of HAPPINESS:

  1. Happiness is all about minimising pain and maximising pleasure.

Or

  1. Happiness is satisfaction with life as a whole.

Which one do you relate to most?

The first one is a definition that is most often associated with hedonism, and one that is commonly implicitly accepted by most people. Or something to that extent.

However, the second definition is perhaps a better one as it provides room for the idea that we give meaning to things that we do – as the Stoic philosophers argued.

One definition can become quite overwhelming and even disappointing when you discover that minimising pain and maximising pleasure is quite difficult to achieve in the world that seems to be filled with more chaos than order.

Using this definition for HAPPINESS can ultimately become counter-productive and perhaps even create the opposite effect in your life, rather than increase positive feelings.

Conversely, however, when you have an implicit definition that HAPPINESS is about finding meaning in the simplicities, challenges, and necessities of daily life, you are potentially setting yourself up much better for experiencing more frequent and higher levels of HAPPINESS.

Simply because one is more tied to external, uncontrollable realities, whereas the other has to do with your own internal workings, focus, and the meaning you give things – all of which is within your own control.

Now, the fact that we ourselves play a huge role in determining our emotional state, can be good news for some but bad news for others.

It can be good news for some because if it’s true, then that means YOU are responsible for the limitations in your life and YOU can remove them whenever you choose to!

Conversely, however, it can be bad news for others because if it’s true that we are in control of our levels of happiness (for instance), that means that you can no longer give away your power or put the blame on something or someone else for how you feel.

And the sad reality, in my experience, is that many people don’t take gladly to this reality.

You would think otherwise, but not so.

I’ve come across people who very much find power and being and staying the victim.

So, this can still be a challenging fact to contend with, in our pursuit of HAPPINESS.

Another reality to consider when it comes to HAPPINESS or dealing with things, like habits, that can limit happiness, is CULTURE.

In a recent study (2019), it was found that CULTURE plays an important role in how we think about happiness.

The research found that putting too much value on being happy, paradoxically makes that happiness more difficult to achieve.

The results showed that, for example, people in the US and the UK who valued happiness more (due to cultural influence) found it harder to focus on and savour positive experiences, all of which impeded happiness.

And then there is the factor of GENETICS.

This is perhaps the more challenging reality when thinking about HAPPINESS.

According to psychologists, we have essentially no control over 50% of our happiness levels because HAPPINESS, like many of our other attributes, is partially set by our genes.

But what about the other 50%?

That is made up out of the overall circumstances of our lives, or our “demographics.”

This includes things like:

  • how much money we have,
  • our education level,
  • whether we live in rich or poor countries,
  • how old we are,
  • whether we are married or not and
  • whether we are religious.

Now, even though these things do play a role, some psychologists estimate it at only 10%.

And some of these only seem to play a role over a long time.

So, even though we can technically change our life circumstances, it doesn’t necessarily yield a big return instantly or all that high.

Which begs the question, what does?

What can we do (or avoid) on a day-to-day basis that can help us create sustainable HAPPINESS?

Well, the answer seems to lie in what is called INTENTIONAL ACTIVITY[i].

That means what we actually DO every day, specifically the activities we take part in within the set range determined by our genetics and our life circumstances.

These activities, however, are also ‘victim’ to what the researchers call, HEDONISTIC ADAPTIONnew experiences tickle our pleasure centres and we feel good, but when presented with that very same stimulus repeatedly we soon become used to it.

Consequently, in the long run, our levels of satisfaction diminish when doing the same thing over and over again.

So, how we keep variety and growth alive in our lives becomes an important consideration, as we cannot rely on once effective activities to keep making us happy at the same levels as they did initially.

Simply because we get used to things.

But, enough of that.

Before we look at 6 habits that can limit happiness, what does all of the above means for us and happiness?

What should we take from it?

Well, so far, we know that:

  1. Your culturally influenced expectations of what happiness is, play a role.
  2. All of us have a 50% genetic component, that is essentially an immovable, which determines your pre-set happiness level – and is very little we can do about it.
  3. This leaves us with the fact that our sustainable levels of happiness come down to 1) our life circumstances and 2) our everyday activities.
  4. But our everyday activities are four times (4X) more important than our life circumstances (10%), in regard to happiness levels – even though we think the opposite AND our behaviours and activities reflect that. We tend to pursue the big house, successful business, more money, sports car, next promotion and someone more than quality time with loved ones. Even though studies on happiness are clear that meaningful, daily activities are four times more important than a bigger house (for example).

So, coming back to the topic of this blog post and looking at habits that (potentially) limit happiness, what I want you to seriously understand is that:

The choices you make each day can either increase or decrease your potential to experience happiness.

That’s taking everything into account we’ve discussed above.

There are things you cannot control which play a huge role in terms of your pre-set happiness levels, we accept that.

But there is also another (40%) part that also plays a role in increasing or decreasing your potential to experience happiness, and you DO have control over that – i.e. meaningful, daily activities.

And that’s what I want to focus on now.

A lot of our daily activities are habits, in other words, things we do repeatedly and on autopilot.

We don’t even think about them. We just do them.

The problem, however, with habits, is that they are not created equally.

Not all of them render the results you want in life.

Some habits actually limit your potential, outcomes, results, and dreams.

Some habits can definitely limit happiness.

Now, we’re not going to go into a study of habits here, but I need you to at least understand that every habit in your life impacts the rest of it – good and bad.

Habits have no bias or opinion.

There are simply automated and unconscious behaviours that create certain results in your life.

In regard to happiness, one thing is for sure, the wrong habits can make happiness far less likely to be part of your experience.

And actively removing these happiness limiting habits can definitely increase greater levels of happiness (and other positive emotions).

So, in the next part of this blog post, I want to quickly give you six habits that can limit happiness which I would urge you to avoid as much as possible.

Some of these habits can be turned around and be turned into positive habits that I WOULD encourage you to make part of your life, but I would leave that up to you.

For now, however, I would simply encourage you to pay attention to the following …

Habits that can limit happiness and drive it from your life:

  • A lack of goals.

One of the most important components of happiness is making progress toward a goal.

But if you don’t have goals, you can’t make progress toward them, and that limits your happiness.

So, if you want to increase your chances of experiencing more happiness in your life, at the very least have a goal for the day, the week, and something long-term.

Because a little progress each day can really lift your spirits in a big way.

Now, I would argue that not any daily goal would suffice.

From what we know, it seems that meaningful activities, and therefore goals, are better.

Therefore, rather than setting banal or meaningless daily goals, rather aim for something you truly value, are interested in, or have a vested interest in.

It’s important to know that not having any meaningful goals which encourage meaningful activities, you’re potentially setting yourself up for increased levels of unhappiness.

Especially in light of the 50% genetic component and 10% circumstances factor.

If those are all leaning towards a more decreased level of happiness, AND you lack meaningful goals and activities in your life, you might struggle in the end.

  • Low standards.

Many people don’t want to talk about this factor, but the standards we allow and accept in our lives, play a huge role in terms of our overall experience.

I truly believe that if you’re in the habit of setting low standards in your life, in all areas, you’re most likely to experience much more difficult than when you have higher standards.

Now, it’s important to understand that low standards can have both positive and negative consequences.

With low standards, you’re easily satisfied and you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

That could be a positive thing for some people.

However, you’re also unlikely to ever accomplish much.

Because in order to accomplish more, higher standards are often required.

With lower standards, you’re definitely more likely to have low-quality relationships.

I’ve seen that play out frequently with many couples I’ve worked with, in the past.

The truth is that underachieving never feels good. 

Yes, some people shrugged or laugh it off, but the truth is never that simple.

We know when things could be better and when we don’t experience what we truly desire to experience.

We might not acknowledge it to anyone else, but it’s hard to deceive the person in the mirror.

I would rather that you have the habit of having higher standards in your life.

Truly.

I think it will serve you better.

Now, there is also the chance of having too high standards that also have negative consequences.

But I’m not talking about too high standards.

I’m talking about not having low standards.

So, raise your standards, and chances are your life will be(come) happier.

Part of the reason some people make millions of dollars a year is because the idea of making less is unacceptable to them.

Those with a six-pack refuse to settle for less.

Yes, we might laugh at them or judge them, but secretly we do admire them as well.

Because it takes a lot of hard work and dedication and discipline to create and sustain an incredible physique.

That doesn’t mean we should all look like superheroes, but it also doesn’t mean we should settle for being overweight and unhealthy.

I simply don’t agree with that narrative that’s becoming more and more popular.

Just because everyone saying something, doesn’t make it true, right, or good.

Ask yourself:

    • What are your standards?
    • Which ones are too low?
    • What can you do about that? 
  • Trying to live as a lone wolf.

Another habit that can potentially limit happiness in your life is trying to go about life solo.

Now, look, I’d be the first one to admit that it can seem very tempting to shut yourself off from the world and just do your own thing.

But very few people are really built to be happy with that type of lifestyle.

Most of us seem to be hardwired to be part of a tribe.

We find purpose and meaning in belonging to a larger community, even when just by choice and not necessarily preselected.

Again, I understand why someone would choose a path of loneliness.

Just recently, I’ve watched the based on real-life events, special series on Netflix, Unbelievable, which is about women who were the target of a serial rapist.

This guy pried on vulnerable women and really ripped their lives apart.

One of his first victims was a young girl with a very troubled past.

And even though she was trying to pick up the pieces and put life back together again, it impacted how the authorities dealt with her case.

Now, if you haven’t seen it, I won’t say much more than that, but there is this very interesting narrative flowing throughout the series of trusting people (and be disappointed) or going about it alone and only trusting yourself.

This movie points out very clearly why someone would come to believe that a path of loneliness and self-reliance is much better than trusting or relying on others.

Especially because it’s often those who are supposed to protect us that mess us up.

Listen, 

Being alone can be a temporary relief and means of survival, but it’s not a long-term solution to experience happiness in life.

Now that doesn’t mean that you have to become a social bunny or extrovert.

It simply means that you need to be a lot more picky with the quality of your relationships and people you choose to spend time with.

Perhaps getting into the habit of having high standards for the relationships you engage in, is what you need.

Not necessarily more people but higher quality people.

Or, better people for you.

Whatever that means.

So, if you’re a bit of a loner, it just means your relationships need to be very high in quality to be worthy of your time.

Keep looking for high-quality friendships and avoid wasting your time on anything less.

Many people do quite well with relatively little human contact.

But, that’s not the same as no human contact.

Everyone needs a friend or two.

Not everyone needs 15 friends, though.

  • Unreasonable timelines.

You can accomplish just about anything if you give yourself enough time.

But if you’re in the habit of trying to accomplish too much, too quickly, it will most likely lead to increased levels of disappointment rather than happiness. 

Being too hard on yourself by imposing unrealistic timelines on yourself is not a very effective way to make yourself happy.

In fact, quite the opposite.

World-renowned life coach, Tony Robbins, once said:

Most people overestimate what they can do in a year and they underestimate what they can do in two or three decades.

I believe it is quite important to be realistic with the things you’re trying to achieve.

I, myself, have caught myself stepping into the same trap.

In fact, I sometimes still do (complete transparency).

But when we set unrealistic timeframes to obtain meaningful goals, for example, even those meaningful goals will have the opposite effect on our mental state.

Instead of increasing our levels of happiness, it can actually limit happiness.

Or even diminish it.

So, if you’re in the habit of putting too much pressure on yourself, even when trying to achieve meaningful stuff, please be more cautious.

This is not a habit that will serve your life.

Chances are it will do the exact opposite.

  • Being a poor loser.

Being a poor loser almost always has to do with your EGO.

Trust me, I’ve been a poor loser many a time.

And the issue was never really the losing, but almost always what you believe it means for YOU.

In other words, what you believe people will think of you.

People win and lose, all the time.

It’s perfectly fine and normal.

However, when you attach your worth to your performance you always run the risk of feeling crap about yourself.

And when this is a habit in your life, you’re really setting yourself up for far more disappointment than happiness.

Being a poor or sore loser will limit happiness.

There is no doubt in my mind.

Again, not because of the actual loss but because of what it represents in your mind.

The mental gymnastics you end up doing after you’ve lost is what messes you up.

It impacts how you feel about yourself.

And when we feel bad about ourselves, it becomes very difficult to be happy.

A better way to deal with failing or losing is to learn from it. 

However, if you’re not taking full advantage of your failings, you’re not going to be happy.

Because as long as losing represents failure rather than wisdom, you will either fear, avoid, or hate it.

And that sets you up for a lot of unhappiness because you’re going to lose in life – at some point, it will happen.

Rather get in the habit of always looking for the best lesson(s) you can take from a loss.

They will help you not just increase your chances to win next time but also reduce how much you limit happiness because of a loss.

  • Poor diet and exercise.

Having a poor diet and limited or no exercise can limit happiness for sure.

It’s just not a recipe for happiness.

Firstly, when you’re eating poorly and do limited exercising, chances are you don’t look good to yourself and therefore don’t feel good about yourself.

So, what starts out as a health habit (or lack thereof) ends up becoming a psychological issue that can potentially limit your happiness.

Secondly, we also know that a lack of adequate sleep, movement, and poor nutrition (especially for breakfast) can impact serotonin levels which can potentially increase levels of depression.

In other words, lacking good health habits (like good nutrition and exercise) is more than just about weight loss and looking good in the mirror.

Lacking good health habits can actually severely impact your psychological state and mental health.

Conversely, having a healthy diet and regular exercise can add to your health, happiness, and general well-being in the long run.

And on this point, I would urge you to start thinking about your mental well-being in relation to your physiological well-being.

Often, we separate body and mind, but that’s not necessarily helpful or even accurate.

There is a psychological-physiological interconnectedness in us which we need to at least appreciate rather than just outright ignore.

It’s not one or the other but both.

Last Thoughts

I’ve always been a big proponent of the idea that it’s not just about adding new things to your life to improve it, but often it’s also about either avoiding something or cutting it out completely.

So, as there are many things you can do to feel happiness more consistently in your life, there are also many things you can do to decrease the likelihood of feeling happy.

By entertaining certain things in your life, or not having them as part of your life at all, can severely limit happiness in your life.

And yes, there are certain things outside of our control.

But those things should not occupy all of our focus or attention.

Instead, before you do, say, or think anything, just ask yourself,

“How will this impact my happiness?”

Or,

“By not having certain habits in place in my life, how could that (potentially) impact my happiness?”   

Understand that your thoughts, words, and actions have an impact on how you feel.

The Stoics have argued this centuries ago.

So, consider that impact before following through on your decisions or keeping certain things in place.

Because, ultimately, a large part of your happiness is under your control.

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[i] Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131

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habits, happiness


About the author
Gideon Hanekom

Gideon Hanekom is a relationship coach and the creator of The Relationship Guy – a Top Marriage Coaching and Relationship Advice Blog that helps married couples create healthier relationships. He is a trained professional counsellor and one of New Zealand’s top relationship bloggers and coaches. He’s been happily married for over fourteen years and is a dad of two.​ He also holds Bachelor and Master degrees in the field of Theology and is currently studying post-graduate Psychology at Massey University.

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