Why You Can’t Think Your Way to Happiness

More thinking, as it turns out, is not necessarily the solution to what ails us
February 21, 2021 Updated: February 21, 2021

Knowing also gives us a sense of control. If we can know something, we believe we can control it. If we can control it, we feel less vulnerable to the ever-changing currents of life. And we come to believe that if we can control life, we can be happy.

In our modern world, we know through our minds. We make sense of things, organize ideas into rational patterns and linear progressions. Causes and effects. Knowing involves stringing together our thoughts about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what we need to do about it. Whatever we want, whatever problem we think we have, we’re convinced that thinking more about it will lead us to the answer we need. We think we can think our way out of and into everything.

We even imagine that we can mentally muscle our way to serenity, that more thinking about life will ultimately lead us to peace.

One of the inherent problems with our great faith in thinking is that it relies on the premise that our thoughts are true. We confuse our subjective experience with objective reality. And because of this, we believe that every narrative we construct from our thoughts is some form of absolute truth.

If I have a fight with a friend, I then generate thoughts that create a story about what happened and how to solve the issue. The problem with that is that I’m basing the storyline on my subjective experience and past wounds, conditioning, history, and core beliefs.

I believe that my thoughts about what this person did reflect what happened, and that may be based on my assumptions about their motivation and character. From there, I come to some idea of what they need to stop or start doing in order for me to feel better, and I believe this is an inarguable fact.

But the problem is, what I think this friend is doing may have nothing to do with what they think they’re doing or what I’m doing, for that matter.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example between Friend A and Friend B. Friend A often brings over healthy snacks and tells Friend B they are low in sugar and full of nutrients. Friend A thinks this is an obvious expression of affection. Friend B thinks Friend A only does this because she is judgmental about Friend B’s weight. Friend A, meanwhile, thinks Friend B is the best friend she has ever had and is worried Friend B is at high risk for cardiovascular disease. Friend A is upset Friend B is not taking her diet seriously. Friend B is upset Friend A seems to look down on her.

Each friend has a different reality. For Friend A, eating well is something she learned from a young age. She puts time and effort into making healthy food, and it comes easily. And Friend A’s father died of a heart attack, and she’s afraid of losing someone she cares about. For Friend B, succeeding at work is crucial, and she feels overwhelmed by various obligations. She wants to eat better, but the thought of learning to cook better food and eat out less fills her with anxiety about one more thing she has to deal with. She doesn’t believe her weight is a significant issue since most of her family members are a bit overweight, and her parents are healthy in their old age.

A friend’s intentions and inner reality are a universe unto themselves and different from that in which we reside. We construct our own narrative about any given situation, but it’s entirely based on thoughts and assumptions.

The whole narrative we’ve constructed is irrelevant, then. We are each operating in a universe (our minds) with rules and systems that make sense to us but that have little or nothing to do with what’s happening in others’ minds. What makes the dots connect in my thought system is of little use when applied to someone else’s reality.

Figuring out life based on our personal narrative is an exercise in futility. To some degree, it’s simply absurd.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand our experience. But rather, that we need to be aware that our version of reality lives only in our own mind. Our truth exists within us, and only within us. And, it co-exists with billions of other truths that exist in other people’s minds. We can still present our version of reality to another person, but we can stop assuming that our subjective experience is true in some absolute way.

We don’t have to work ourselves up into a lather believing we know the way it all needs to go. And we don’t need to worry that if it doesn’t go the way we’ve scripted it, that there’s something wrong, or that we’ve been wronged.

It’s profoundly liberating to realize that our version of the truth, which almost always places us at the center of what’s driving everyone and everything else, probably isn’t the same truth for anyone else.

There’s yet another flaw in our assumption that we can figure out our way to happiness. We can come to believe that thinking more about a challenging situation will automatically help us fix it. We believe that the mind is the proper tool for every situation, but that’s not true. In fact, it’s often the worst tool. In many cases, what’s needed for actual improvement, growth, or change is something else entirely.

Sometimes, if we’re dealing with a difficult person, the best thing we can do is nothing.

That means we don’t try to understand their behavior or what we need to do about it. Instead, we just let it be what it is.

Often when we stop trying to figure out what’s wrong, or how to fix everyone and everything and just let it be the way it is, our whole experience changes.

Because what we discover is that all our efforts to figure things out and create narratives can mislead us. We come to fixed understandings of reality that can often amount to little more than self-delusion. As a result, in trying to fix a problem, we may actually exacerbate it and create a whole lot of mental and emotional suffering for ourselves in the process. This can even leave us fomenting anger and resentment.

Sometimes when confronting a problematic person, it’s wise to simply offer the generosity of compassion. Seek the serenity of not trying to control the situation and the wisdom of not trying to figure it out.

It can be helpful to realize that the other person’s behavior probably comes out of their own suffering or ignorance. Remind yourself that they also want the same things you want—happiness, safety, and peace—even if the way they’re seeking it may not seem wise to you.

Keeping our attention focused on kindness while resisting the urge to form concrete interpretations often improves the situation far more than any mental activity could. Wishing this person well, even if we can’t understand their behavior, can bring us change—and relief.

Whether or not we can find compassion for this person, it’s an act of profound compassion—for ourselves. It relieves us of the burden of trying to figure it all out. Few things let us feel better than letting go.

Knowing feels fundamental to our safety and control. But in the end, if what we really want is peace, then trying to understand a situation or person is not the wisest choice.

In place of figuring it all out (which I spent umpteen years doing), I now like to turn difficult people and situations into opportunities.

In place of trying to make sense of things, I focus on being the person I want to be in the situation. I turn my attention away from figuring out what’s making the other person do what they’re doing and how to get them to change (according to my reality), and toward how I’m being in the midst of this reality.

This profound turn from something I can’t control to something I can gives me back my power—and more importantly, my freedom.

What’s ironic is that if my underlying desire is for my external world to change with regard to this difficult situation, I’ve had far more success when my focus is on my own behavior rather than on others’ behavior.

Taking my eye off the self-diagnosed problem and putting it on myself, how I’m acting and reacting in this difficulty, just plain works better. But even when the situation doesn’t change on the outside, my experience of the situation on the inside radically changes when I shift my attention in this way.

Challenges become opportunities to grow and evolve; sometimes I actually even look forward to them. I get to practice being who I want to be. I get to choose what my own participation in life will look like.

The process of taking care of my own side of the street has never failed to be a nourishing and rewarding choice. It always changes my experience even when it doesn’t change a single thing on the outside.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “When I don’t try to figure it out, I’m happier and things go better,” I’d have a lot of nickels. It’s certainly been true for me.

Figuring it out may give us a sense of control and safety, but it doesn’t make us feel better, which at the end of the day is what we really want.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com