Over the course of my career as a therapist, I've counseled thousands of people, which in a lot of ways amounts to a giant research project. People come to me when they're depressed or otherwise struggling -- whatever their specific issues, they generally hope to "get better." In short, they want what most people want: to be happy.
Through my work, I've come to notice the themes that characterize unhappy people, and the changes that move them from feeling stuck in their own shit to enjoying life. While everyone is different, and happiness is by no means an easily achievable goal, I've learned that there are certain traits happy people share.
Happy people realize that the gods aren't conspiring against them, and only them
Something I often hear from depressed clients is, "Why does this always happen to me?” or, “What have I done to deserve this? Why can't I be like (insert happy person's name here)?"
Yet challenge and change are guaranteed. Debt, illness, job loss, heartbreak, stress, unexpected death -- it’s inevitable that life will throw you some or all of these things. Happy people realize this. They know that everything is constantly in flux, but they’re open to uncertainty, discomfort, and change.
They have solid, deep relationships, and aren't concerned with accumulating acquaintances
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, humans are all social beings who need connection to thrive. This means real, live friendships, where you actually hear each other’s voice (and even spend time together in person!). Happy people's friendships and romantic relationships are based on connection, not money or status.
This doesn't mean you have to come from a supportive family you love unconditionally in order to be happy! It just means you should seek out relationships in which you feel safe, respected, and accepted, in spite of your imperfections. If your family provides that, great; if not, seek it elsewhere.
They actually derive meaning from their day-to-day lives
Happy people don't live for the weekend. I mean, they like the weekend and all. They're down for sleeping in and having no set obligations, but they don't start dreading Monday come Sunday morning.
One of my clients, "Greg," was your prototypical “finance guy.” Bottle service every Saturday, eyeing a
Maserati as his next purchase, taking a different beautiful woman to a different destination once a month. Yet amidst all the glamour and things, Greg was depressed. Largely contributing to his unhappiness? The lack of purpose he felt. Greg realized that depression was telling him he yearned for fulfillment. He remembered coaching and playing rugby in college, which was also the last time he remembered feeling happy. Instead of buying the Maserati, Greg co-founded a coaching academy with an old teammate. Three years later, he doesn’t have the money to spend on bottle service every Saturday night, but he sure as hell doesn’t miss it.
They don't stress too much over the future, and don't whine too much about the past
Living for the next accomplishment or purchase is like being a heroin addict living for your next hit (well, maybe not quite, but almost). Finish school! Get the promotion! Get married! Buy a house! Have kids! Buy a summer home! Buy another summer home! Renovate the bathroom! Chill the fuck out and take some of today in. You can plan for the future... just don't live in it. Similarly, it's useful to learn from the past, but don't spend your days lamenting about "what if" or "if only."
They treat their bodies well
It doesn't matter how many positive thoughts you have if you're living off chips, candy, and booze, then spend all your off-hours watching TV. You may think it's only a minor factor in how you feel, but food is a key player in mental health. Accept it.
They're cool with being emotional, but don't let their feelings control their whole lives
It's true that some feelings can be irrational. You don't always want to act on your anger or jealousy or anxiety in the way you want to, otherwise your boss might have a few black eyes and you'd be doing a stint for felony assault. But cutting yourself off from your feelings entirely isn't a good solution, either. You'll wind up feeling like a shell of yourself.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture where we believe painful feelings are a sign of weakness, or failure, or pathology. But if you can acknowledge that painful feelings have utility (sadness means you've lost something you care about; anxiety means "prepare," anger means you've been mistreated, etc.), you can listen to them and act based on them in a way that'll make you happy, and you won't have to feel like you've given up a part of yourself just to avoid an "undesirable" emotion.