In truth, happiness requires effort, not just desire. Focusing on your dissatisfaction and wishing things were different in your life is a recipe for unhappiness if you don’t take action to put yourself on a better path. But if you make an effort to understand human happiness, formulate a plan to apply what you learn to your life, execute on it, and share what you learn with others, happiness will almost surely follow.
In contrast, self-awareness—to be attentive to our own thinking processes—leads to new knowledge and breakthroughs. One recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that self-awareness allows us to recognize emotional cues and distractions and to redirect our minds in productive ways. In essence, studying your own mind and pondering ways to improve your happiness takes inchoate anxieties and mental meandering and transforms them into real plans for life improvement.
Rumination is to be stuck; self-reflection is to seek to be unstuck. The trick, of course, is telling the difference. Say you have just experienced a breakup. If you go over the painful circumstances again and again, like watching a looped video for hours and days, this is rumination. To break out of the cycle and begin the process of self-reflection, you’d have to follow the painful memory with insightful questions. For example: “Is this a recurring pattern in my life? If so, why?” “If I could do it over again, what would I do differently?” “What can I read to help inform me more about what I have just experienced and use it constructively?”
Self-reflection moves feelings of unhappiness from our reactive brains to our executive brains, where we can manage them through concrete action. The action itself is crucial. There is an old joke about a man who asks God every day to let him win the lottery. After many years of this prayer, he finally gets an answer from heaven: “Do me a favor,” says God. “Buy a ticket.” If you want happiness, reflecting on why you don’t have it and seeking information on how to attain it is a good start. But if you don’t use that information, you’re not buying a ticket.
Easier said than done, I realize. When we are happy, we are primed for action; unhappiness often makes us want to cocoon. The way to fight this is to do the opposite of what you want to do: When you’re unhappy, don’t curl up and watch a sad movie. Exercise, call a friend in need, and read up on happiness instead. You will be reprogrammed for action.