The Right Questions Can Increase Life Satisfaction

You don't have to be 'just the way you are'.

Posted May 07, 2012

That’s just the way I am. This one belief is responsible for preventing innumerable people from creating a satisfying life. It says that circumstances need to change for a problematic situation to improve; because people can’t change. This is not only untrue, but it imprisons people in lives where happiness is dictated by circumstance.

People often give lip service to the idea I have to find happiness within myself. But this belies their real beliefs that they’d be satisfied with life if only they were married, or made more money, or lived in a better place. While certain external circumstances can help you feel better about your life, they don’t account for as much of your happiness as you might think. For instance, research has shown that life satisfaction is minimally accounted for by income (4 percent), employment status (4 percent), and marital status (between 1 percent and 4 percent). In contrast, personality accounts for up to 35 percent of what makes people feel satisfied in life.

So, while circumstances affect your happiness, they are clearly secondary to how you relate to yourself and the world around you. Characteristics that affect life satisfaction are openness-to-experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative feelings, such as anxiety, anger, guilt, and depression). Even small changes in these areas can help you to feel happier and more satisfied with life.

While stating that you can change doesn’t make it happen, it is an important first step.  You are, of course, more likely to try to do something if you think it can be done. So, to become more satisfied with your life, begin by thinking about your attitude toward yourself and the world; and what you can do about them. To this end, consider the following:

Do you try new experiences? If not, then you may be locking yourself into a monotonous routine without an opportunity to expand your horizons. As an experiment, try listing activities that interest you, such as learning about wine or horseback riding. If you think of general ones (e.g. travel), then go back to the list and give specific examples for each (e.g. travel to Great Britain or the Grand Canyon). Finally, make plans to do those things. You will be amazed by how nurturing your curiosity and adventurousness will bring you a sense of wonder, interest, and engagement in life.

Do you try your hardest in everything you do? People feel most fulfilled when they are fully engaged and conscientious about what they are doing; whatever it is. Of course, this is easier when you intrinsically like the activity, such as completing a crossword puzzle. It’s a bit harder when you are cleaning the toilet. But when you put yourself into the task at hand (e.g. making the toilet shine), then you will find at least some satisfaction in doing it well.

Do you enjoy time spending time with other people? Everyone—even an introverted person who is drained by social interaction—needs social connections for a fully happy life. People who shy away from interactions too much suffer from loneliness, depression, overeating, or other forms of distress or unhealthy behavior.  So, take stock of your social network. Does it really meet your needs for connection? If not, this is an area of your life worthy of some attention.

In your everyday interactions, do you approach people with a desire to get along? Simply put; you will enjoy and appreciate your relationships more if you have positive interactions with people. I don’t mean to suggest that you put aside your opinions, values, or desires to ingratiate yourself to others. However, you can stay true to yourself while also making a concerted effort to be agreeable and get along well.

Are you easily upset by different kinds of problems? If you frequently and easily become hurt, angry, sad, guilty, or experience any other negative feelings, then it’s time that you make some changes. Rather than just living with this chronic or recurring distress, set a goal of becoming a happier, more resilient person. You may not know how to do this, but (at this point) that’s not as necessary as making a commitment to yourself to change. Once you do, there are plenty of self-help materials to get you started (for example, see The First Step to Meeting Your Personal Goal); or you can make an appointment with a therapist to guide you.

These questions will hopefully help motivate you to find and address your inner obstacles to a happier, more satisfying life. Just remember to be patient with yourself. Personal change is not easy, but it is doable. So, don’t accept the notion; That’s just the way I am. With a clear focus, effort, and some persistence, you can be just the way I want to be.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.

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