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Why You’re Not Happy

Six common barriers to personal happiness and fulfillment and how to overcome them.
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WebMD Feature

Happiness can be a paradox: The more you reach for it, the more it seems to slip through your fingers. “Ask yourself if you’re happy, and you cease to be so,” says Darrin McMahon, PhD, author of Happiness: A History.

How could this be true? Could it be you’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places? Do you think happiness is what you get when you get what you want? Some say happiness is a little like falling in love, that you can’t make it happen. If that’s the case, then how can you become happier?

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At the 2008 Happiness & Its Causes Conference in San Francisco, a wide range of people -- from scientists, doctors, and psychologists to artists, philosophers, and Tibetan Buddhists -- offered their thoughts on the topic. Here are a few of their tips for overcoming six common barriers to happiness.

Happiness Barrier No. 1: Complexity

Solution: Simplify

Schooled in Buddhist monasteries since childhood, Thupten Jinpa, PhD, knows a thing or two about the benefits of simplicity. Why do you think monks and nuns shave their heads, he asks? For one, it simplifies their lives.

A principal English translator to the Dalai Lama, Jinpa is no longer a monk. But he still holds on to some of the lifestyle's spartan values. “My family has a one-car policy,” he says, pointing out the hassles of owning more than one -- the costs, the maintenance, and the time managing the details. Multiple credit cards? They don’t create freedom or happiness, he argues -- although, these days, he might get less of an argument about that.

Modern life has elevated individual choice to the highest level, he says, but these choices come at a big price. “We often conflate quality of life with standard of life,” Jinpa says, “but after a point, the connection [between the two] disappears.”

If you simplify your life, you create more space in your day, making it possible to reflect on your life.

Happiness Barrier No. 2: A Breakneck Pace

Solution: Take a Pause

The same culture that entangles you in a web of complexity may also have you on the constant chase, Jinpa says. “That kind of tension takes a toll on your soul and your psyche.” Whether you call it meditation, silence, or prayer, taking a “pause” just a few minutes a day can help you “recharge your batteries” and make you feel happier. A good time to do this is in the morning. Without it, your life may feel out of control.

Venerable Robina Courtin, a Buddhist nun and organizer of the Happiness & Its Causes Conference, recommends spending these minutes practicing mindful meditation. “During the day, we’re completely absorbed by our senses,” she says, “so we don’t pay attention to our minds.” Sit in a quiet place and simply anchor your mind on your breathing. When your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. Through this process, you learn to observe what your mind is saying.

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