The Happiness Project

Thinking About the Past and Future Is the Cause of All Unhappiness

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my study of happiness, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies.

I’m a longtime fan of Leo Babauta’s wildly popular blog, Zen Habits . I always find a lot of thought-provoking material there about happiness and its related topics (exercise, creativity, relationships, productivity). Leo also just came out with a terrific book, The Power of Less , about “the fine art of limiting yourself to the essential”—it hit the Amazon best-seller list on the day of its release. His Web site, The Power of Less , has a lot of great material on the topic.

Leo lives on the island of Guam, has six children, runs marathons, and has done a lot of provocative thinking and writing about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Leo: Anything! I love reading, running, writing, spending time with my family, watching the ocean, taking a walk in nature, playing games and sports, drinking green tea, lounging around on a lazy Sunday afternoon, cuddling when it’s rainy outside, talking with a good friend, wrestling with my toddlers. Any moment is an opportunity for happiness!

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t when you were 18?
That happiness isn’t something that will come at a later date in life—it can be here and now. I was always waiting for something—a better job, getting married, a nicer car, buying a house, traveling the world, retirement, wealth and fame. Trouble is, whenever you reach one of those things you’re waiting for, you tend to start striving for the next thing, and you forget to be happy!

So I’ve learned, only recently, that I don’t have to wait or strive for anything in order to be happy. I can be happy right now, and I am. Read my recent post on this.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Thinking about the future or the past—worrying, replaying conversations in my head, stressing out about things that aren’t happening right now. Lately I’ve learned to focus on the moment more and more—to be present more than ever before. It’s really a miracle cure for unhappiness, stress, worry, depression, and everything else.

Thinking about the past and future is the cause of all unhappiness.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
“Smile, breathe, and go slowly.”—Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen monk, author and peace activist.

I absolutely adore that quote, as my readers know. It’s applicable in any situation—when you’re stressed at the office, stuck in traffic, doing chores, or even running a marathon—it was my mantra when I ran the Honolulu Marathon in December.

I just love that in just a few words, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us how to be present and be happy, right here and now.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Going running always clears my head and helps me to feel better. I also try to focus myself back on the moment, through running and through breathing, because feeling blue is almost always caused by thinking about the past or future. If you’re in the moment the blueness goes away.

Also, I love cuddling with my children. Instant happiness.

Is there anything you see people around you doing or saying that adds to or detracts from their happiness?
The happiest people I know always focus on the positive things in their lives—they always appreciate what they have, see the silver lining on everything, and find the good in everyone.

The people who aren’t as happy focus on the negative things—they complain, they pity themselves, they think they can’t do something, and especially this: They criticize. They criticize others and themselves. It always leads to unhappiness, for themselves and often those around them.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy?
I wasn’t always happy. It was only a few years ago that I was stressed and overworked, overweight, inactive, smoking, in debt, and so on. And I wasn’t motivated to change anything.

I started making small, simple changes in my life, and these days I’m happier than ever. Small baby steps did the trick.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Sometimes, but these days it’s not so much something I work on as a set of habits I have—again, to remind myself to be present, to remind myself to be grateful and to appreciate life, to remind myself to cherish the small things. I am thankful for all that I have, and when I remember this, I’m instantly happy. It doesn’t take much work.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy didn’t—or vice versa?
Sure, lots of times! I thought getting a big promotion or raise would make me happy. Surprise! It only made me work harder and become more stressed, and the extra salary seemed to disappear right away. I thought a nicer vehicle would make me happier, but it just got me deeper into debt, cost more to maintain and fuel up, and was harder to drive because it was bigger than my old, small car.

I also thought being frugal and simplifying would be hard, and that the sacrifices would make me feel deprived and less happy. That was completely untrue—I’m happier than ever now that I’ve simplified my life, and now that I’m able to focus on the essential things that I value most, that make me happy.

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