According to Todd Patkin, the problem is that you set yourself up for disappointment by having unrealistic and unsustainable expectations. Instead, he says, you’ll be best served by making 2012 the year you stop doing things that aren’t adding to your happiness.
“Let’s face it—our lives are already packed full of responsibilities. Piling on even more just isn’t feasible—and it’s also a recipe for unhappiness,” points out Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $19.95) “Instead, you should focus on prioritizing the things in your life that really matter, and on dropping dead weight that might be holding you back.”
Patkin admits that “quitting” various success-oriented behaviors and habits seems counterintuitive. After all, doing less goes directly against society’s recipe for building our best and most fulfilling lives. But Patkin also knows from experience that more isn’t always better.
“For much of my life I was addicted to the pursuit of perfection,” he shares. “I constantly pushed myself to be the best, first in school and later in my career. Sure, I led my family’s company to unprecedented heights, I had a wonderful wife and son, and I was involved in and respected by my community. But when I was only thirty-six, my do-it-all lifestyle imploded and I suffered a complete nervous breakdown.”
Since then, Patkin has realized that he was pushing himself too hard, prioritizing the wrong things, and working toward success for the wrong reasons.
“In the decade since my breakdown, most of my goals and priorities have shifted,” he confirms. “I’ve learned that you can be much happier if you clear extraneous and unhealthy responsibilities from your life and let yourself off the hook more often.”
According to Patkin, here are twelve things that you should resolve to stop doing now if you want 2012 to be your greatest year yet:
Give up on relationships. …The ones that aren’t working, that is. Face it: Whether it’s a coworker who hands out backhanded compliments like they’re candy or a “frenemy” who always tries to one-up your accomplishments, there are people in your life who drain your energy and make your attitude dip into murky territory. No matter how much you may want to make these relationships work, forcing yourself to spend time with negative people won’t do you any favors. Actually, Patkin says, studies show that in terms of your attitude and happiness levels, you will be the average of the five people you spend the most time with.
“So clearly, you need to be around other people who share your commitment to happiness if you want to be happier and avoid unnecessary stress,” he points out. “It’s okay—and actually healthy—to distance yourself from so-called ‘toxic’ individuals. For instance, politely decline your frenemy’s invitation to grab a drink and call up a more uplifting person instead. And don’t ignore close relationships here, either. Of course I advocate doing everything you can to eliminate strain with family members. Realize, though, that maybe this is the year to finally admit that you and your partner have irreconcilable differences that are making both of you unhappy, or it is the year to finally tell your mother that her controlling behavior needs to stop.”
Stop being so darn nice. …And start being real. Perhaps you’re one of those people who always blurts out what’s on your mind. If so, skip this piece of advice. However, it’s much more likely that you swallow barbed comments or constructive criticism in favor of a more diplomatic response. You might even allow yourself to be taken advantage of from time to time in order to please another person. Guess what: It’s time to stop! Dishonest politeness doesn’t develop authentic relationships.
“No, it’s not appropriate to go on reality show-worthy rants whenever you feel upset, but at the same time, masking your real opinions and feelings isn’t helpful in the long term,” Patkin says. “Remember, having a smaller number of true friends is healthier than denying your own happiness in order to make everyone else like you. And usually, there is a polite way to say no or to let another person know he or she is out of line without permanently burning bridges.”
Stop working so hard. No, Patkin isn’t advocating that you become a total slacker. What he does want you to do is think about the b-word: balance. The fact is, every year we try to reach new heights in our careers. We say we’ll work harder, get a promotion, and earn a raise. However, everyone has physical and mental limits. And more to the point—despite the fact that our society often confuses the two—achievement doesn’t equal happiness. No matter how good your intentions are, overloading on work will cause your relationships, mindset, and even health to suffer.
“Striving for professional success isn’t inherently bad, but in this case you can definitely pile on too much of a good thing,” Patkin asserts. “For me, 70- and 80-hour weeks actually caused a breakdown, not happiness! Please, don’t follow in my footsteps. Even if you don’t drive yourself over the edge, living the life of a workaholic can still bury you in stress, anxiety, and depression. This year, really think about what a healthy balance looks like. And remember, no one looks back on their lives at age eighty and says, ‘Gee, I wish I’d spent less time with my family and friends and more time at the office.’”
Lower the bar. This may come as a shock, but you probably expect too much from yourself. Whether the issue is your appearance, your house, your family, or your job, you want to achieve as much perfection as is humanly possible. And on top of that, you most likely focus on what you do wrong and rarely celebrate what you do right. This year, it’s time to really realize that you’re human, and thus fallible, and so it’s inevitable that you will mess up—or even just put in an “adequate” performance—every now and then.
“Setting the bar impossibly high is a recipe for making yourself feel miserable,” Patkin confirms. “I used to expect nothing less than perfection out of myself, which was delusional! We’re all human, which means that we’re going to make mistakes from time to time. That doesn’t mean that we’re in any way unworthy or undeserving of love. In fact, learning to love myself and accept my flaws was at the core of my own happiness journey. This year, consciously lower your expectations to more realistic standards, celebrate your many successes, and stop beating yourself up so much.”
Ignore the Joneses. Keeping up with the Joneses seems to be the American way of life. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, and even people whose lives we see displayed on reality TV. My sister’s kids are always perfectly behaved, you think. What am I doing wrong? Or even, I know that Bob’s salary is the same as mine. How come he’s driving a new SUV and I can’t even scrape together a down payment? No matter what the situation is, thoughts like these only leave you feeling jealous, less-than, and unhappy.
“The most ironic part is, the friend whose life seems perfect on the outside probably doesn’t feel that way in the privacy of his own home,” Patkin points out. “For years, I was the guy whose career and bank account others would have killed to have, but the truth was, I was stressed out of my mind and unable to relax for even a second! Yes, it will be hard to change your habitual thought processes. But you need to understand the fundamental truth that ‘happy’ for you won’t look the same as it does for anyone else—and that’s okay! Focus primarily on your own feelings and fulfillment—don’t use another person’s life as a measuring stick to determine how good your own is.”
Don’t focus on your spouse. …To the point where you forget to take responsibility for yourself, that is! Yes, conventional relationship wisdom tells you to focus on your spouse and to put his or her needs first. To a point, that advice is accurate: As a partner in life and in love, you should be your spouse’s biggest supporter and coach. Just don’t allow tunnel vision to blind you to your own needs and responsibilities.