How to stop being miserable...RIGHT NOW
I remember the moment clearly.
I had driven home from the airport after a research trip. I had just stopped the car, and was looking toward my apartment, preparing to step out into the rain and the fog to go home to my husband and children.
The thought of opening that door, and returning to my life, brought a flood of misery that pinned me to my seat. I sat, trembling, while tears ran down my face. I thought of everything that was wrong with my life, with my husband, with my cramped apartment. I felt so burdened, and so helpless--other people's decisions had led me here, other people's failures and faults had trapped me in poverty and unhappiness. There was nothing I could do but endure, and that was no kind of life.
I was miserable, and stuck. I could see no way out.
You can probably guess the rest of the story. Conventional wisdom, self-improvement blogs, online advice columnists, and talk-show hosts can all tell you how I overcame my misery. I learned to start saying "No", I eliminated toxic people from my life, I took charge of my own destiny, I prioritized self-care, I learned to love myself.
Those stories are all wrong.
Not just wrong, but desperately wrong. You see, all those approaches to life encourage us to focus on our own selves, on our distinct individual experience. They tell us to make ourselves, as solitary souls, the focus of our efforts.
Our brains don't develop properly if we don't have social interaction as infants. Solitary confinement damages the brain. We even make worse guesses as individuals than as a collective. Human beings can't do anything in isolation.
So why do we assume we can become happier by focusing inward?
The real story
Some time later, I was in a nursing home for Alzheimer's patients watching a nurse's aide care for a birdlike old woman in the last, fragile stages of the disease. She was so careful, so attentive, and so loving that I was fascinated. And as I watched her, caring so tenderly for a woman who could not pay her back or thank her, I realized something about myself.
There wasn't a single person in my life that I was that kind to. Not one. I was not tenderly attentive to my friends or my husband or even to my children. All these people that I blamed for letting me down, that I resented for not being kind enough to me--
I rarely even thought about them, or their lives, or what they wanted or needed from me.
I had never wondered if I, too, had let them down.
So what I started doing, (as described more completely in my book and inspired by the Arbinger Institute) was to think about other people more. I asked them questions about their lives, I offered to help, I thought about their perspectives.
The amazing thing was, the more I focused my thoughts on others, the less miserable I felt.
When I thought about the life, and troubles, and difficulties, and pains, of the people who I thought had let me down--
I stopped feeling mistreated and let down. It didn't make sense anymore. After all, they weren't perfect little mannequins whose job it was to help me out--they were their own selves, working out their own lives, with their own fears and problems. I just felt bad for responding to these people with resentment, rather than compassion.
I started noticing the good things others did (or tried to do). And there were a LOT of them! Sure, people do bad things. And if noticing those things is your focus, you will end up where I was--miserable, and surrounded by insensitive and thoughtless people.
But most people make an effort to do good things. Generally, they fail when they are stressed, tired, overwhelmed, or psychologically drained. And when you make a point of noticing the good things others do rather than the bad, you end up living a life surrounded by good people doing good things!
What you can do
The simple lesson is this:
The way to become happier is not to focus on your own happiness. That's internal and isolated; your brain will not like it.
The way to become happier is to focus on someone else's happiness.
Learn about them. Learn what they struggle with. See what good they do (or try to do). Help them, support them, comfort them when you can. You'll develop compassion for the person. You'll get the uplift that comes when you do good.
Get your brain out of the dark box of the skull and point it toward the larger world. It will thrive when it's put to social purposes. And you'll find that your misery, unfed, has melted away.
I am now happily married and thoroughly content, even though my family and friends and income are the same as they were when I was miserable. The world didn't change. Only I did.
But changing how I looked at the world gave me a new world to live in.