Calm Down! – A series on useless advice (#2 – “Rules of Happiness)

Calm Down! – A series on useless advice (#2 – “Rules of Happiness)

Welcome to the 2nd edition of “Calm Down!” where we talk about advice that no one needs to hear and , in some cases, may do more harm than good. In today’s episode – “5 Rules of Happiness”


This is a series where we are looking at “advice” or “solutions” that get flung about on the Internet, hopefully with good intentions, but tend to over-simplify the complex issues that people struggling with mental health issues are facing. You can read the rest of the series here.

Today’s useless advice is:

Oh, THESE are the rules?

There is an awful lot to unpack here, but I do want to start off by invoking Hanlon’s Razor – a rule of thumb which simply states “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.”

…Ok, I’ll concede that Hanlon used “stupidity” – but I prefer “ignorance” since ignorance implies that it can be rectified. The point is, I believe a lot of this so-called advice comes from a good place – most people are not trying to be hurtful, they just want to help but they don’t understand the extent of the problem.

Ok, back to the “5 Rules of Happiness” – let’s unpack each one of these starting with the only one I actually agree with.

DON’T HATE

This is GREAT advice, but it’s nowhere near as simple as the post implies. I talk a lot about hate in “Hate This Post” so head over there to get a more in-depth look and get some ideas for being okay in a hateful world. The bottom line is that hate is like a nuclear bomb – devastation is always worse at ground zero. When hate comes from you, you are ground zero and hate is going to eat you alive.

NO MORE OVERTHINKING

As a professional overthinker, if I tell myself to stop overthinking then I’m just going to spend the next 62.7 hours overthinking about overthinking while obsessing about why I’m overthinking. Overthinking doesn’t necessarily serve us, but it’s not a completely terrible thing either – I’ve saved my own ass financially and professionally more than once because I’ve “overthought” situations and, when an unexpected issue arose, I was prepared to deal with it.

Look, if you’re like me, you’re going to overthink – it’s probably how your brain works. The tricky bit is not letting overthinking get out of control. How? Think of overthinking like quicksand – the harder you fight it the faster it’s going to suffocate you. If you find yourself overthinking say to your brain, “Brain, we’re going to spend some time on this issue, run down every possibility we can think of, and then we’re done with it.” Then do it – get out a sheet of paper, open a word doc, whatever and just let your brain do its thing…get it all out. In my non-expert opinion, overthinking happens when your conscious mind doesn’t want to think about something anymore but your unconscious isn’t done with it.

So, let’s modify this advice in the “5 Rules of Happiness” a little bit from “No More Overthinking” to “Take Control of Overthinking and Make it Serve You.” Maybe not as snappy, but far more realistic and useful.

LIVE SIMPLE

Again, not completely horrible advice but it assumes that living simply is what you actually want. I never actually know what people mean when they say this, probably because it has drastically different meanings to everyone. Are we talking about fewer material possessions? A smaller friend group? More traditional family values?

This isn’t bad advice because it’s not a good idea to live simply, it’s bad advice because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a platitude designed to make you think that you can’t be happy if your life is complex, therefore you have to simplify…something.

Here’s the reality – life is complex. ANYTHING involving two or more humans has a high potential for complexity and, unless you’re willing to go live alone on a mountain (if so, you do you!), simplicity is likely going to be hard to achieve. Going back to the quicksand analogy, the more you fight the complexity of life the faster you’re going to drown.

That being said, I think you can set some simple rules for yourself which can help you deal with life’s complexity in a simple way. You can simply accept people for who they are (as long as they’re not hurting anyone). You can simply focus on kindness. You can simply love without reservation. Let’s change “Live Simply” to “Simply Live” – as in live a life of kindness, compassion, and love.

EXPECT LESS

Expect less? I’m just going to reject this outright. Lowering your standards will not lead to happiness. I’m all for setting reasonable expectations, but you should NEVER expect less. Instead, consider the idea of being content with whatever phase of your life you happen to be in at the moment. Contentment doesn’t mean that you’re not going to stop trying to improve or be better, it just means that you’re acknowledging the value of the now.

Don’t expect less – accept more. Someone or something doesn’t meet your standards? That sucks, but ask yourself if it’s better than it was last time. Maybe your boss doesn’t fully appreciate your contribution to the office but, if you continue to meet your high standards, they will either notice…or their boss will…or the better job at a better company will. Accept that you’re on a journey – that journey is taking place on a trail, not on stepping stones across a lake. A slightly shorter step on the trail still moves you toward your destination – shorten your steps on the lake and you’re done.

DON’T WORRY

Right, got it. Just don’t worry.

Ever met anyone that worried by choice? Someone who worries as a hobby? Me either.

Worry actually does have a cognitive purpose, by the way. You buckle your seatbelt because you’re worried about getting seriously injured in an accident. You wear a band-aid on your finger when you get a cut because you’re worried about an infection. Worrying is one of the reasons humans have survived – it give us the capacity to avoid things that are harmful.

Excessive worry is also a recognized medical condition – we call it “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” People who are consumed by worry aren’t doing it on purpose – they literally can’t help it. Saying “Don’t Worry” is like saying “Don’t Cancer” – like, I’m not trying to do it.

Don’t worry about worrying. It’s totally normal and it serves an invaluable function in self-preservation. However, if your worry is paralyzing – meaning you can’t make any decisions, you’re afraid to leave the house, you avoid things you enjoy, etc. – you need to seek help.

You can’t turn worrying off and you shouldn’t try – but you don’t have to let it consume you.


I’m sorry, dear human, but there are not five simple rules that you can follow and wake up happy tomorrow. That doesn’t mean that happiness is out of reach – just that you have to figure out how to get there on your own. I can’t tell you how to be happy, neither can your parents, therapists, friends, or anyone else.

If I could give you a simple road map I would, but since I can’t I’ll just leave you with this – if you want to be happy, then make your happiness a priority. Take charge of your happiness, let go when you need to, and get help if you need it.

You got this.

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