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Why everything you know about happiness is wrong

  • Author Rolf Dobelli says that we should be grateful for the era we are living in  
  • He says to ignore emotions and dwell on the past and examine past experiences
  • Don’t be authentic, you’re making yourself not just silly but vulnerable
  • According to the author, we should also embrace being insignificant 

Rolf Dobelli For The Daily Mail

Since antiquity — in other words, for at least 2,500 years, but probably much longer — people have been asking themselves what it means to live a good life.

How should I live? What’s the role of fate? Is it better to actively seek happiness or to avoid unhappiness?

As an entrepreneur and bestselling author, I’ve spent years researching what makes us happy and come up with some surprisingly counter-intuitive results.

According to author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, everything we know about happiness is wrong (Stock image)

According to author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, everything we know about happiness is wrong (Stock image)

According to author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, everything we know about happiness is wrong (Stock image)

But it’s precisely these techniques that have helped me cope with challenges, big and small. So, trust me; they may not guarantee you the good life overnight, but they’ll give you a fighting chance …

Remember, you’ve already won the lottery

Even if you’ve had your fair share of tussles with fate, you’ve got to admit you’re enormously lucky.

Six per cent of all the people who have ever lived on Earth over the last 300,000 years, since Homo sapiens first populated the world, are alive at this moment.

They could just as easily have been born into another era; indeed, the probability of that is 94 per cent. Imagine yourself as a slave in the Roman Empire, a geisha during the Ming Dynasty or a water-carrier in ancient Egypt.

How many of your inborn talents would have been worth much in those times? Remind yourself daily that everything you are, everything you have and can do, is the result of blind chance.

For those of us blessed with good luck, gratitude is the only appropriate response. One nice side-effect is that grateful people are demonstrably happier.

Ignore your feelings and DO dwell on the past

Trust your emotions! Listen to your inner voice! That’s the fashionable life advice nowadays, but my suggestion? Don’t bother.

Don’t make your emotions your compass. You won’t find the good life through introspection. Psychologists call it the introspection illusion; the mistaken belief we can learn what we truly desire through sheer intellectual contemplation.

What you should be exploring is your past. What are the recurring themes in your life? Examine solid evidence, not transitory emotion.

Rather than letting them be your life’s guide, let feelings flit through you instead — they’ll come and go anyway, just as they please.

I treat my feelings as though they don’t belong to me. If you’d like it in metaphorical terms, I see myself as an airy covered market, in which birds of all varieties flit from spot to spot.

Rolf encourages his readers to ignore feelings. He explains that he treats them as though they don't belong to him (Stock image)

Rolf encourages his readers to ignore feelings. He explains that he treats them as though they don't belong to him (Stock image)

Rolf encourages his readers to ignore feelings. He explains that he treats them as though they don’t belong to him (Stock image)

Sometimes they simply flutter through, sometimes they dawdle a little longer, and sometimes they even let something fall. But, sooner or later, they all move on.

The metaphor can be taken further still: if you assign species of birds to your emotions, you can treat them even more playfully. Jealousy, in my imagination, is a small green chirruping sparrow, anxiety a flapping thrush, and so on.

Don’t let your life be hostage to fluttering, transient emotion.

Don’t be authentic: it’s just ridiculous

Don’t buy into the authenticity hype. There are several reasons.

One: there’s the simple fact that we don’t really know who we are. As we saw with emotions, our inner voice is far from a reliable compass. It’s more like a hodgepodge of constantly conflicting impulses.

Two: you’re making yourself look ridiculous. Name one famous figure who regularly blurts out their innermost feelings. You won’t find one. People are respected because they deliver on their promises.

Despite often being asked to be authentic, on a psychological level, you are inviting people to exploit you (stock image)

Despite often being asked to be authentic, on a psychological level, you are inviting people to exploit you (stock image)

Despite often being asked to be authentic, on a psychological level, you are inviting people to exploit you (stock image)

Three: Animals have skin, trees have bark — an organism with no outer layer would die immediately. On a psychological level, authenticity just means you’ve given up on this barrier. You’re practically inviting people to exploit you.

You’re making yourself not just silly but vulnerable. So even if other people — your colleagues or friends — occasionally demand you show ‘more authenticity’, don’t fall into the trap. A dog is authentic. You’re a human being.

Being boring makes you happy

Many people are convinced that for a life to be good it must be one long highlight reel of adventures, travels and relocations.

But I believe the opposite is the case. The more peaceful the life, the more productive.

Our brains love short-term, spasmodic developments. We react exaggeratedly to highs and lows, to rapid changes and jarring news, but continuous small changes we barely notice.

 Perseverance, tenacity and long-term thinking are highly valuable, yet underrated, virtues.

This makes us underemphasise the value of a slower-paced, everyday sort of satisfaction that eventually adds up to long-term happiness. 

What’s the world’s most successful car of all time? 

The Toyota Corolla, continuously available since 1966 and now in its 11th generation.

It wasn’t the first year’s turnover that made the Corolla a superstar, but the span of time over which it has been sold. The same goes for long-selling books, West End musicals, tourist attractions, songs and many other products.

Likewise, if you find a good spouse, a suitable place to live or a rewarding hobby, stick with it.

Perseverance, tenacity and long-term thinking are highly valuable, yet underrated, virtues. We should start fostering them again.

Your reputation doesn’t matter

The globally famous investor Warren Buffett puts it like this: ‘Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover?

Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?’

In doing so, Buffett outlines one of the ideas most vital to leading a good life: which matters more to you: how you evaluate yourself, or how the outside world evaluates you?

According to the book, The Art Of The Good Life, the opinions of others are not important and people will still gossip behind your back (stock image)

According to the book, The Art Of The Good Life, the opinions of others are not important and people will still gossip behind your back (stock image)

According to the book, The Art Of The Good Life, the opinions of others are not important and people will still gossip behind your back (stock image)

The opinions of others are far less significant than you think.

Whether they’re praising you to the skies or dragging your name through the mud, the actual impact on your life is considerably smaller than your pride or sense of shame would have you believe. 

So liberate yourself. You’ll be spared the emotional roller coaster and you’ll have a clearer idea of what makes you truly happy. People will always Tweet, gossip and tittle-tattle behind your back.

You can’t control it, and thankfully you don’t have to. If you’re not a politician or a celebrity and you don’t earn your money via advertising, stop worrying about your reputation. Let go of liking and being liked.

It’s ok to wallow in your anxieties

Leading a good life has a lot to do with how we cope with worries and anxiety. First, fetch a notebook and title it My Big Book of Worries. Set aside a fixed time to dedicate to your anxieties.

In practical terms, this means reserving just ten minutes a day to jot down everything that’s worrying you, no matter how justified, idiotic or vague.

Once you’ve done so, the rest of the day will be relatively worry free. Your brain knows its concerns have been recorded and not simply ignored.

Do this every day, turning to a fresh page each time. You’ll realise, incidentally, that it’s always the same dozen or so worries tormenting you.

 Fetch a notebook and title it My Big Book of Worries. Set aside a fixed time to dedicate to your anxieties.

Second, take out insurance. Insurance policies are a marvellous invention and among the most elegant worry-killers.

Their true value is not in the monetary payout when there’s a problem but the reduced anxiety beforehand. 

Third, and last, focused work is the best therapy against brooding. Fulfilling work is better than meditation. It’s a better distraction than anything else.

If you use these three strategies, you’ll have a real chance of living a carefree life. And then, perhaps even in middle age, you’ll be able to chuckle over Mark Twain’s late-in-life insight: ‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.’

Honestly, no one’s listening to you

Should the minimum wage be increased? Should shops be allowed to sell genetically modified foods? Is it a fact that global warming is caused by human activity?

I’m sure you have an answer at the ready for all these questions. As politically interested people, you don’t need more than a second to decide.

In reality, however, these questions are far too complicated to be settled in the blink of an eye. Each of them demands at least an hour’s concentrated deliberation for a sensible resolution to be reached.

The human brain is a volcano of opinions. It spews out viewpoints and ideas non-stop. No matter whether the questions are relevant or irrelevant, answerable or unanswerable, complex or simple, the brain tosses out its suggestions like so much confetti.

 In today's society, everyone is expected to have an opinion. Rolf argues that being opinionless is an asset, and not a sign of intellectual weakness (stock image)

 In today's society, everyone is expected to have an opinion. Rolf argues that being opinionless is an asset, and not a sign of intellectual weakness (stock image)

 In today’s society, everyone is expected to have an opinion. Rolf argues that being opinionless is an asset, and not a sign of intellectual weakness (stock image)

But not always feeling like you need to have an opinion calms the mind and makes you more relaxed — an ingredient vital to a good and happy life.

And there’s no need to worry that opinionlessness is a sign of intellectual weakness. It isn’t. It’s a sign of intelligence.

Opinionlessness is an asset. It’s not information overload besetting our era, but rather opinion overload.

Embrace your insignificance!

Boulevard Haussmann, Avenue Foch, Rue du Dr. Lancereaux, Avenue Paul Doumer, Rue Théodule Ribot, Avenue Kléber, Boulevard Raspail — all the names of large Parisian streets.

But who these days knows who they were named after?

Try to guess who those people were.

All major figures of their era, no doubt — city planners, generals, scientists . . . If the expiry date of such important figures as Haussmann, Foch or Raspail extends only four generations or so, then even the colossal names of the present will have faded in a few more.

In a hundred or two hundred years at the most, hardly anybody will know who Bill Gates, Donald Trump or Angela Merkel were.

And as for you and me, a few decades after we’re gone, nobody will spare us a second thought.

Adapted  by Alison Roberts from The Art Of The Good Life by Rolf Dobelli (£12.99, Sceptre).

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