If Your Life Makes You Miserable, This Is What You Need To Change
Nod your head if you're someone who counts down to their holiday, then feels you cannot escape that tornado in your head while you're on it, and then you get so guilty you're not engaged enough with the people you're around or the experience you've paid good money for.
Or nod your head if you refuse to spend a little extra on yourself and are instead funneling every.single.cent into your retirement pots, believing you'll be able to splurge when that day comes.
Newsflash: We don't suddenly become that peaceful or happy person on holiday or spend freely when we finally retire. These are habits—both ingrained deeply in our behaviors and mindsets—that take time to form. In other words, we have to practice becoming the person we want to be.
First up, this piece is not about unbridled hedonistic behavior or irresponsible spending. Instead, it's about how too many of us wait for that Mythical Someday to happen, which may never come. And then we spend our Mundane Every Day unhappy, dissatisfied, and experiencing compounding mental health struggles because we're tolerating them till the brief (sometimes imaginary) reprieve during vacation or that ginormous reward upon retirement.
In reality, the bigger the gulf between your Mythical Someday and your Mundane Every Day, the more miserable you become. And this suffering—with its habits, mindsets, and knock-on effects on your health—is a compound interest you don't want to pay.
Instead, I invite you to aspire toward what I like to call Everyday Amazing. That's a compound interest you want to benefit from!
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you get there:
What about holidays inspires you?
Let's start with the obvious: Draw inspiration from your holidays because there are bits that you do engage in. Beyond the fact that it's a physical escape from your daily life and a forced break from work obligations, I invite you to think in terms of these three dimensions:
- Joy: When you're away, what experiences bring you joy, pleasure, or contentment? Think in terms of the types of interactions you have, the things you do, or the mindsets you have then.
- Order: What about your holidays feels visually, physically, or digitally organized or just plain clean for a change?
- Mastery: Do you engage in anything during your holidays where you feel you're picking up a new skill or strengthening an existing one, for instance when you're reading or learning a craft?
Now let's flip it over. In what ways are these missing from your everyday life, that make it miserable or make you feel resentful?
Let's get clear: This is not about shooting yourself down for having First World problems or being "spoiled." Plenty of things that we tolerate incinerate our energy without us knowing it. Think about the suffering you get when you have a migraine and the sweet relief that ensues when it passes over. That is how we can understand the things we could technically live with but perhaps shouldn't anymore. Even if it feels trivial.
So here's a simple example. Maybe what you love is the fact that you get clean sheets every few days in a hotel, or that there's no visual clutter, and the designs are well thought out. Or, you're reading for 15 minutes a day and have time for a sit-down meal with your partner. These are things you could engineer into your life.
Based on these, write down the top five things you should add or subtract from each category of Order, Joy, and Mastery. And then circle the one that will be easiest to execute while creating the biggest change.
What do you resent maintaining in your everyday life?
When I was a child, I wanted to keep the bed propped against two walls to create a little alcove for myself. I did not understand what my mother meant by her statement that it'd be difficult to clean. "Just push it out, clean, and then back again," I protested. Enter adulthood, where the only way I use my hand cream is to keep it uncapped because that extra step makes it feel emotionally laborious on a day when I already have so much more to do.
One of the biggest lessons I've learned is that the true cost of something isn't the actual price you pay but what you keep paying to maintain it. On the flip side, there are other things that keep paying you dividends.
Let's start with money because money is never just practical; it's hotly emotional. What subscriptions in your life feel like "they're okay to pay for because it's a small amount" but really you resent them? Or you're keeping five different streaming options just in case? Maybe the money you save is trivial, but getting rid of them will feel like you've removed a huge emotional burden. And in the midst of a global recession, what other things are you paying for on a recurring basis that you could technically do without? I love how financial expert Ramit Sethi always says, cut ruthlessly on the things you don't care about, and then spend on what you love. That's a win-win for me!
Then let's think about the other things that you maintain that add little or negative value to your life:
- What rituals do you have that actually cage you and steal your time?
- What relationships are a pain to maintain, but you endure because you want to be nice or feel bad for cutting out a toxic or ambivalent person?
- What identities do you hold on to that are costing you energy and sanity to maintain? (e.g., "I am a giver; I don't know how to take" might be hurting you when you're bending over backward to please everyone and do everyone's job while not letting anyone help you.)
What day-to-day beauty do you not notice?
I live in a tiny city in Singapore where many locals I know bemoan it to be boring. After all, we're technically a little red dot on the map. Call it the Prodigal Child Syndrome—having moved back happily three years ago—but I haven't stopped discovering everyday beauty in all of her compact 728.6 square kilometers.
This may hail back to a mindset I committed to when I moved away years ago: I decided I'd want to see any city I lived in or visited through the eyes of both a tourist and a local. Yes, I'd love to Netflix-and-chill over takeout on some days, and there are other days I want to see the spectacular sights that are both famous and best-kept secrets. And because the social media algorithm is a self-reinforcing one, I milk it to keep discovering new places or to revisit old ones through new eyes.
Sometimes it's a coffee run to a new spot where I can people-watch or brush up on my languages, and then I throw in a walk somewhere I've never been before or take a familiar stroll at a different time of day. At other times, it's a new running route. That takes care of my introvert needs to nourish myself.
And then I also make it social. I've made friends who bring each other around random neighborhoods or trek down different hiking trails. Sometimes I invent food pilgrimages. At other times, I take my visiting tourist guests around. There's always culture, architecture, history, food, and conviviality. And something new to discover (or rediscover). Because I've committed time to it.
What mindsets stand in the way?
The thing about the stories we tell ourselves is that we often aren't aware of what exactly they are, and we become their puppets. In psychology, we call them "core beliefs," "hidden assumptions," and "negative automatic thoughts."
For example: If you've lived watching your parents suffer through their day-to-day lives, then you may automatically believe that that's your destiny too. But just as Gen Z has very different needs from millennials, Gen Yers, and Gen Xers—where every generation automatically calls the next one "snowflakes," "entitled," and "unable to take hardships," we've all been raised in very different socioeconomic backgrounds that shape who we are and our needs.
Or maybe you think it's shallow to be happy, or someone's told you that. But the idea of Everyday Amazing isn't about overtly chasing happiness (or your image of it). But rather, do you feel guilty and talk yourself out of moments of joy, pleasure, or even contentment?
Otherwise, if there's a mental health challenge you struggle with on a daily basis that makes every day feel like a Sisyphean task, know that support is available.
Making these switches also means that you have to give something up. It could be an old way of living—for me, the excuse that I lived in a tiny city and had to keep escaping—or having to forgo some creature comforts like cab rides all the time when you decide that taking public transport forces you to walk (and perspire) more. Or, having to explain these new choices to someone in your life.
Consider how different your life would be, and the rewards you'd reap, once you commit to them.
How do I make time for the life I want?
One of the first protests I often hear—from myself too—is, "I don't have time."
The thing is, we hemorrhage a lot of time every day anyway, randomly scrolling or engaging in things we don't particularly want to. For instance, a meeting could be an email, or an email a text, if we took three minutes to straighten our thoughts before interacting. These areas are where you can start reclaiming time. An example could be training yourself to reach for your books or language app instead of the 'gram, three out of 10 times a day.
And then there are some things we have to intentionally set slightly more time to do, to get more time back. I've been an Inbox Zero person for the last six years; before that, I had 6,000 unread emails floating about nebulously in my inbox. Everybody lives that way, right? Except that, I knew that number would grow, and I'd hate myself in five years. So I sat down and created a system to sort that out. It was a grueling and gloriously boring four hours. But I've never looked back.
So for these tasks like getting your digital real estate organized or physical clutter gone, book them into your calendar, sit down, and do it. Then reward yourself.
Designing a good life takes effort. It's easy to read something and get excited about a miracle cure, but the life that you define as a good life is really for you to design.
"You're saying that if I had an almond croissant and an espresso, my life would be good?"
A miffed participant raised this question at one of my workshops.
I acknowledged my privilege in being able to access these everyday pleasures and then reiterated what I meant: that this is a way I sometimes create pauses in my day or hit my personal reset button. This way, I make better decisions instead of making decisions from a place where my fear center hijacks my wiser self. And that everybody has their own resets; it can be as simple as taking three deep breaths correctly.
It is easy to denigrate or cast aspersions on a different way to live because it may feel like we've been living "wrongly" up to now. But there's no right or wrong. We've just been living the best we know how to, and there's no harm in trying a new way out if you want a different lifestyle to see if that fits.
The deal is, it's the littlest, most mundane, and infinitely trivial things that might be your biggest bugbears that make it feel absurd to even begin contemplating changing. After all, it's easy to pile on something simple into our lives, and it's churlish to complain about the load. But the thing is, these things aren't logical; they are emotional, and if they drain your energy, then they do. And because they're little, mundane, and trivial, it also means sorting them out is easy—if you allow yourself to.
It may be trivial, and that's the point. This way, we can ride the inevitable more difficult chapters of life with more equanimity because we've built that mental muscle. And hey, we'll also be better poised to enjoy our holidays and eventual retirement.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.