What’s Keeping You From Being Happy?

Somewhere between 30% and 35% of Americans identify themselves as being “happy” with their life, according to recent polling by Harris.

That means that somewhere between 65% and 70% of Americans are actually unhappy with their life.

Why is that?

Naturally (given that this is The Simple Dollar), my eye turns to finances. When I look at the data there, a number pops out at me: 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. In other words, 78% of Americans would struggle financially if they were to miss a single paycheck.

If you look at that number side by side with the number of Americans that are unhappy, you see a lot of overlap.

I’m not saying that living paycheck to paycheck leads to an unhappy life, but I am saying that there is a lot of overlap between people who live paycheck to paycheck and people who are unhappy with their life.

I’m in the opposite group. I’d say that I’m happy with my life on the whole, and I’m not living paycheck to paycheck. It’s worth noting that “not living paycheck to paycheck” isn’t due to a giant salary, as Sarah and I are reasonably close to the American average household income with five people living under our roof.

That doesn’t mean I always feel happy. There are definitely times when I’m unhappy with my life, and that unhappiness can sometimes last for quite a while.

There are a few things I’ve learned from going through the hard work of digging myself out of those unhappy states.

First of all, a lot of the unhappiness I feel comes from misuse of my money, time, focus, and energy. It’s not that I don’t have enough money, focus, time, and energy to do the things I want to do. It’s that I’m using those resources in ways that aren’t in alignment with what I want out of life.

Second, I can almost always improve the situation, though improving it might be hard at times. There’s almost no situation where I absolutely can’t dial down one area of my life and dial up another area of my life. The trick is actually executing that change, because laziness and the path of least resistance often fight back against it.

Finally, the real challenge is seeing the actual problem. I have to see where I’m not using enough resources and also see where I’m committing too many resources. The problem then becomes fixing that imbalance.

Here’s what I do when I’m feeling unhappy about the state of things in my life.

I start off by asking myself honestly what’s keeping me from being happy. What element of my life is making me feel sad? Is it some issue in my relationship with Sarah? Is it my physical fitness? Is it not having enough money to do something I want to do?

Whatever it is, I drill into that issue. Why is that thing keeping me from being happy? Why is that thing bringing me unhappiness? I try to ask “why” at least five times, until I start hitting upon a core issue. You’ll know that core issue – it’s like a raw nerve and it’s fairly upsetting to simply touch it at all. It’s probably something you don’t want to actively think about, something that will cause an emotional response if you think about it too much. That’s good. You’ve found the problem.

There are a lot of things that can be that “raw nerve” in your life. Often, it’s tied to one’s mortality, one’s key relationships, and one’s job and income, but not always.

The next step is to figure out what you need to do to heal that raw nerve. How could you commit some combination of more time, more money, more energy, or more focus to fix that raw nerve?

Maybe you need to start devoting some dedicated time and energy to exercise. Maybe you need to start giving some dedicated time and focus to a relationship in your life. Maybe you need to start giving some real attention and money to your retirement savings.

It’s likely that whatever you uncover needs some more time or more money given to it. At that point, you need to step back and look at the broader picture of your life again.

Start going through how you use your time and your money and, for each usage, ask yourself if that use is bringing genuine happiness and value into your life.

I do this quite often. I’ll go through my bank and credit card statements and ask myself whether I’m happy with each of those expenses and, if not, I think about how I can cut back on those things. I’ll do the same with my personal schedule – are there things I’m spending time on or committing to that aren’t bringing value or happiness into my life? If so, how can I cut back on those things?

When I’ve taken this whole process seriously, I’ve always been able to find time and money I’ve been spending on unimportant things and then been able to apply them to more important things in my life.

How do we even get into these situations? It’s because we constantly make good short-term decisions that might in fact be pretty bad long-term decisions, but then we stick with those short-term choices out of habit. Thus, over time, those initially good decisions become bad ones. We stick with really suboptimal ways of how we use time and spend money and use our focus and energy. We often don’t even recognize this poor use because we’re so used to the routine and because we saw how it was a good decision in the short term at some point in the past, even if it’s devolved into something worse over time.

This is why when we’re unhappy, it pays to step back and give a really critical eye to our use of money and time. We have an opportunity to really look for ways in which we’re using money and time (and energy and focus) that aren’t lifting up our lives by bringing genuine happiness (or the foundations of happiness) in.

Often, these types of questions bounce back and forth, revealing new things. For example, I might have gained some weight and I’m unhappy about that. It’s because I’m eating unhealthy lunches (and planning healthy ones is a real trick on busy work days), and that’s because I haven’t put aside the time to do a big meal prep session to make a bunch of quick healthy lunches in advance. What’s keeping me from doing that? I then go down a chain of conflicting priorities and I end up realizing I’m spending too much time playing a new smartphone game. Solution: delete that smartphone game, spend that time working a little more, and pencil in a meal prep session using the time I free up.

Let’s say, instead, that I’m not happy about how much I’m saving for retirement, but I feel like I’m already living paycheck to paycheck. How am I spending my money? I start looking at credit card statements and I see a lot of routine swipes at a local convenience store where I’m stopping in for a snack on a very regular basis on my way home. Maybe if I just have something at home instead, I might stop doing that, plus the easy snack I might have at home will be far less expensive. So I stock up on some bulk snacks, cut out that convenience store habit, and soon I have some budgetary breathing room and can start slapping $100 a month into that workplace retirement plan.

The simple truth is this: Whenever I’m unhappy about something in my life, if I dig deep enough, it becomes clear that it can be at least somewhat fixed by committing money, time, or energy; at the same time, if I dig around in my life, I’m almost always using some time, money, and energy in an unfulfilling way. The trick is to do the self-reflection needed to find both answers, and then suddenly you have what you need to fix the situation (or at least make it a little better so that happiness can shine through).

As is always the case when talking about personal happiness, there may be clinical issues involved as well. If you find that some self-reflection isn’t helping, be sure to talk to a medical or psychological professional about what’s going on. There are any number of simple causes for such feelings, so don’t be afraid to get things figured out.

The simple truth is this: You can’t really succeed on your financial journey (or other life journey) if you’re genuinely unhappy with things. It can provide a great starting point for change, but a sense of unhappiness makes it very hard to stay on a new path or actually take action on the change that you want. Start with a simple question.

What’s keeping you from being happy?

Then ask another one.

How am I spending those resources in my life in a way that isn’t actually making me happy?

Use the resources you find in the second question to implement your solution to the first.

Good luck.

More by Trent Hamm:

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.