3 dangers of always being dissatisfied

January 27, 2015

Stuck moment: This is not the life I imagined. Tony got the promotion, which means I’m caught in a dead-end job because it’s too overwhelming to strike out on my own. And if I want to have any fun at all, I can only afford a tiny rental. Don’t get me started on finding a decent date. I’m afraid it’s never going to be my turn. 

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Everyone complains. It’s practically a fact of life. And our lot in life is a prime target. Bad commute. Bad plumbing. Bad hair day. But when the gripe-fest is over, we continue our quest to make life better — unless we don’t.

Continual complaining, to others and in our head, chips away at our urge to keep trying and replaces it with a foundation of dissatisfaction. We start believing that things will always go wrong, that we’ll always get the short end of the stick. We stop being so pleasant to hang around with. And our fears start to come true.

To get out of the dissatisfaction trap before it turns into a chronic condition, we need a serious shift in how we look at things. That means owning up to our current perspective, which may not feel great, but certainly not worse than the current state of unhappiness.

So take a deep breath and ask yourself the three questions below.

You just got back from a week in Florida. You had a fabulous time — until your colleague starts talking about his trip to Bali. Suddenly your vacation seems as lame as a weekend at Grandma’s.

Hearing about other people’s huge salaries, fabulous homes, vacations, cars, relationships, and other accomplishments makes you feel inadequate…and then some. In addition to experiencing a sense of lacking, deep down you resent other people for having what you don’t. If this envy is left unchecked, it could become malicious. You might begin dwelling on the unfairness. Or bad-mouthing people. Or finding enjoyment in someone’s misfortune. You’re practically swirling in negativity.

Reality check: Not only is malicious envy a waste of time, it won’t help you realize your own dreams because you’ll spend your time trying to put down or one-up other people. Even if you did work the 14-hour days it takes to make that huge salary, you wouldn’t have the time to pursue your aspiration to train for a marathon.

Tips to help downplay envy or make it benign:

• As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” Your friend’s brag of “I’m going to Bali!” shouldn’t diminish your trip to Florida or even an island in Lake Erie, for that matter. There are always people who’ve done more than we have, and people who’ve done way, way less. Instead of focusing on your jet-setting friends, reflect on how lucky you are to travel at all while so many people rarely go beyond their town borders.

• Imagine what would make your friends jealous about your life — your great social life, the time you can devote to yoga, all the art shows you attend, all the books you have time to read. Gratitude is an instant attitude-changer. (Here’s how it works.)

• Turn your comparison into an intention to improve. When you feel envious of something that is important to you, take it as a signal to start figuring out how you can achieve it (this is called benign envy). What does it take to reach your goal? What’s your first small step? (Consider this strategy for reaching a goal.)

• This isn’t psychologist approved, but when someone else’s good luck is really tearing you up, consider the whole picture, including the downside of things, like that endless, 20-hour plane ride to Bali or how that friend who dropped 10 pounds hasn’t even tasted bread, pasta, or wine in the last six months.

You’ve always wanted to be a writer or app developer or trapeze artist, but you’re fearful of giving up your job to make it happen — you definitely know you don’t want to live with seven roommates or pull all-nighters to make ends meet. So you live a grumbly existence, secure in what you have, but longing for the reward that lives on the other side of risk — the one you aren’t willing to take.

Reality check: Are you so caught up in thinking about the hardships you might encounter that you’ve talked yourself out of even trying? In this case, you need to take a step back and look at your priorities with a different lens. In five years, are you going to be happier that you could afford to watch every episode of Game of Thrones or that you have a solo show at a local gallery?

Tips to help build courage: 

• Recommit to your dream. This means reconnecting to the passion that made you want to pursue it in the first place. For example, if you hope to start a wedding-cake business, taking a pastry class will reignite your enthusiasm because you’re actually doing something.

• Instead of an all-or-nothing approach — the quit-your-job-and-live-in-a-hovel-to-compose-a-musical scenario — come up with a plan for making a less drastic transition. Set up a schedule so you can work on your dream project for an hour a day, or an entire day on a weekend.

• Make a mistake or two. We live in a society that relishes people’s failures (Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage! Billy Joel goes bankrupt…again!), so we’ve developed a crippling fear of it — and a false perception of what success is all about.

Say you quit your job to write a book…but never find a publisher. You still achieved your dream of writing a book. And the things you learn from that disappointment will help you next time around. (You can figure out what went wrong and how you can learn from it with our Failure Analysis Checklist.)

Did you think you’d be vice president or making six figures by now, even though you’re by any measure a professional success? Or did you believe you’d be married with two adorable kids before your 25th birthday?

Reality check: Despite your accomplishments, you don’t feel you’re where you should be in life. It makes you question your abilities, your opportunities, and yourself. Before you give up, revisit the rulebook you’re following. Where did the benchmark you’re striving for come from? Who says you must do this before then? Why is contentment impossible if you don’t own a Porsche.

Tips to help adjust expectations:

• Consider that you’re already living your dream…only it’s not exactly in the package you envisioned. Do you write about interesting people every day, but it’s for your employer’s newsletter, not your own Great American novel? Do you design beautiful projects, but they’re for your graphic-arts clients, not the Museum of Modern Art? Maybe you’ve achieved what you set out to, it’s just not exactly the scenario you pictured. 

• Rethink your timeframe. Your dream might be realistic, but you’ve given yourself an improbable cut-off date for attaining it. Most things take longer than we’d like, so allow yourself extra time to account for delays and setbacks. Maybe you won’t be making six figures by the time you’re 30, but you’re on track to earn that much by 35. By extending the deadline, you can take a sigh of relief and then refocus on your ambition.

• Streamline your goals. Most likely, you can’t work as much as required to make vice president and take six weeks of vacation and get an MBA. The answer: Prioritize, then focus on one goal at a time. Success will come quicker, and that will boost your confidence to tackle the next priority on your list.

While constant dissatisfaction gets you stuck in a negativity rut, a complete lack of it can also stall things. Without that niggling of irritation, we don’t have a guide to what could be better. As Thomas Edison once observed, “Discontent is the first necessity of progress.” And if he had thought candlelight was A-okay, he never would have been inspired to invent the light bulb.

And we’d all still be sitting in dark.  

Next: How to stay focused in a distracted world
This year, let’s get stuck

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