Five Obstacles to Happiness (and How to Overcome Them)

Mindfulness can help us maintain our well-being in the face of difficult situations.

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“You’re making Daddy late for work!” I said, standing over my then-three-year-old daughter with the winter coat I was insisting she wear. 

“No! I’m not wearing it!” Celia screamed. My anger surged. Thoughts of “I’m sick of this” and “She’s doing this on purpose” swept through my mind. I was scheduled to conduct a 9 a.m. parent training therapy session, and her resistance would make me late. Ironically, it was on “mindful parenting.”

Mindlessly, I pressed my agenda. Understandably, she pushed back. “NO!!” she yelled, dropping rag-doll-style to the kitchen floor. 

I lost it. Bending down nose to nose with her, I yelled: “Celia! Put on your f&@#ing coat!”

She froze. I jammed the coat onto her, led her to the car, buckled her in, and drove to daycare. My daughter, usually chatty, was notably silent. Me? My cheeks burned red with the shame and self-doubt of a man completely convinced he was a “horrible father.”

And then, from the serene calm of the backseat, my daughter spoke up. “But daddy?” she asked. 

“What, Celia?” I expected the usual request for a snack, or for me to flip on her favorite Mickey Mouse songs. 

“But, daddy, I don’t want to wear my f&@#ing coat.” 

Whether you’ve ruminated over a fight with a loved one or avoided work by taking a not-so-sick day, you’ve fallen prey to a negative habit of mind that is keeping you stuck and miserable.

If you’re a parent, you may recognize yourself in this story. But let it soak in that I’m not only a dad, but also a child and family psychologist and a mindfulness author. Let yourself feel a bit better for all of your own angry, self-doubting, anxious, avoidant, or compulsive reactions to difficult circumstances. It happens to all of us.

Even if you’re not a parent, you still have your own moments of surging thoughts and emotions leading to highly reactive and “unskillful” behavior. Whether you’ve ruminated over a fight with a loved one or avoided work by taking a not-so-sick day, you’ve fallen prey to a negative habit of mind that is keeping you stuck and miserable.

In my new book, The Five Hurdles to Happiness, I describe five problematic and reactive habits of mind (or hurdles) that were originally identified in ancient contemplative and meditative traditions, and I explain how they affect our happiness, peace, compassion, clarity of mind, and effective action. Though these habits evolved for important reasons—to keep us safe from danger, for example—many of us find them less than useful in our modern world, where they can wreak havoc on our well-being.

The Five Hurdles to Happiness

So, what are these five hurdles to happiness? Here is a brief description of each, with examples of how they can become obstacles in our lives.

  1. Desire: craving for pleasurable experiences of people, places, or things. Desire for pleasure is completely normal. It’s compulsive craving that leads to excessive costs to our effectiveness and, in extremes, to the impairments and perils of addiction. For example, 8 percent of U.S. adults have experienced an alcohol use disorder at some point in their lifetime.
  2. Aversion: anger, frustration, and hostility when we perceive life circumstances “shouldn’t” be as they are. We all get irritable and frustrated with daily life from time to time—it’s natural to want to “push away” from aversive situations (and people). The problem is how toxic anger can be to our relationships, and even our physical health.
  3. Mental fatigue: the clouded, dull, sluggish state of mind that saps our concentration and ability to see others, the world, and ourselves clearly. We all “zone out” on occasion. But when our minds regularly tune out the world around us because it’s unsatisfactory in some way, then we pay an unnecessary cost. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 26.5 percent of individuals in the U.S. over the age of 16 report feeling unrested during the day, with 25 percent reporting difficulty concentrating.
  4. Restlessness: anticipating the threat of negative outcomes in the future, and a lack of abiding in the present. Our powerful human brain evolved to help us quickly and efficiently anticipate threats in our environment. When anxiety becomes extreme, though, it can seriously block us in everyday life. In a 12-month period, approximately 25 percent of U.S. adults would meet diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder, and in 2004 anxiety disorders cost the European Union more than 41 billion euros.
  5. Doubt: uncertainty about our situation and ourselves that blocks our ability to see the way forward with flexibility and our willingness to engage with challenges and demands in our daily lives. People with chronically high levels of self-doubt are much less confident and, for example, report lower self-esteem when presented with a memory task.

Practice SNAPP-ing awake when hurdles arise

While we can’t change experiences or objects that trigger us, we can shift how we relate to them—meaning, the thoughts, images, and uncomfortable bodily sensations that accompany them. How? Through learning about and practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a state of nonjudgmental paying of attention to one’s experience of the present moment and is key to detangling ourselves from habitual ways of responding. Cultivating mindfulness, we can learn to lean into habitual patterns when they show up and ultimately sidestep them, allowing for more consistent experiences of happiness and well-being. 

Cultivating mindfulness, we can learn to lean into habitual patterns when they show up and ultimately sidestep them, allowing for more consistent experiences of happiness and well-being. 

As researcher Judson Brewer has demonstrated, mindfulness practices offer the possibility of severing habitual cycles at their source in the brain. For example, studies suggest that mindfulness can help us stop smokingmanage anxiety, and change problematic eating by cutting the link between conditioned cues in our environment and our habitual responses to those cues. We simply need to learn to leap over these hurdles to happiness with consistent practice. 

Here’s a sample of how you might practice doing so, by “SNAPPing” awake.

  • Stop what you’re doing for just a moment when you can tell you’re getting triggered by something in your environment.
  • Notice with curiosity what is happening in your body and your mind. Witness and watch the energetic play of bodily sensations and the continuous flow of thoughts and mental images as each is born, lives, and passes on its own.
  • Allow these experiences to be just as they are, without judgment or attempts to control them. This doesn’t mean you’re signing up for discomfort or pain; you’re choosing to recognize what’s happening in the moment without trying to change it.
  • Penetrate uncomfortable sensations in the body with full, deep belly breaths, and continue to breathe in this way until you notice your experience shifting and your negative patterns of thought and feeling beginning to dissolve and become more flexible.
  • Prompt yourself to move or act with intention in the direction that feels most important and reflects compassionate care for others. Pause to remember to be kind to yourself and to appreciate your efforts in working with your habitual patterns.

When bringing mindfulness to our habits, we build the skill of deeply listening to what these patterns are telling us about how we play defense against pain every day, and how we might learn to be with our body and mind with spacious presence and clear awareness. That way, we can look at our lives with less distortion and leap forward with more purpose and direction. 

I certainly have tried to practice bringing mindfulness to my own habit loops, and Celia, now nine years old, is the prime beneficiary. It’s easier for me to slow down before I slide into my old, unhealthy, reactive “Abblett anger.”

And I’ve got the absence of F-bombs in recent years to prove it!

This article was adapted from Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, one of Mindful’s partners. View the original article.