What Would a Happy Person Do?

The question that changed my way of being

Close up of a man smiling with his eyes closed.

It’s funny how the smallest, silliest thoughts can have a catalytic effect on a person. I had one of those thoughts recently, and it 180’d me into a new way of being.

I’d been thinking about how I spend far too much time dwelling in dark feelings, or what I call “emotional murk.” I’ve lived this way for most of my life: When I was growing up, my dad always valued negative emotions more than positive ones — to him, feelings such as anger, depression, sadness, frustration, and anxiety gave someone depth. Those emotions were valuable. They were real. In his mind, things like happiness, love, peace, and fun were superficial wastes of time. He lived his life convinced that the other shoe was always lurking somewhere nearby, ready to drop and squash all that was any goodness that came his way.

Reflecting on my own relationship with emotions, I realized that this apple did not fall far from its paternal tree. I spend far too much time dwelling in the murk, and when I do come out to play, my mind makes sure not to get too comfortable there (since the positive feelings are bound to end soon anyway). But as I reached middle age, I started to come to the painful realization that I’m in danger of missing out on the experience of ever being happy, truly happy.

I knew I didn’t want to waste another second of my life. But how the heck was I supposed to change a mindset that had been ingrained in me over the course of a lifetime?

And that’s when the thought, the one that altered everything, came to me, in the form of a question:

“What would a happy person do?”

It’s the simplest thing ever, I know. But it changed my vantage point instantly.

When I asked myself the question, I doodled the image that sprouted in my mind.

You can see that there is light. Underneath the light is this big, dark abyss, the part I’d labeled “icky.” A happy person simply does not let the darkness weigh them down. They exist in the white space. There was something about seeing this image that shifted the way my body felt. I could feel the burden of unhappiness dissipate. The icky just poofed away and I instantly felt lighter.

I started to apply “What would a happy person do?” — WWHPD? — to every choice I made, as well as to support me when my chronic anxiety reared its ugly head, and it was a bit like magic. For instance, say someone didn’t reply to my email. I’d typically worry that had something to do with me and my obvious failings as a human. But what would a happy person do? They would know that other people’s actions are rarely a reflection on us, and would go about their day. If and when they received any concrete information that the other person was upset with them, they would deal with it. They didn’t assume their reaction was a precursor to the apocalypse.

There’s science to back up how a simple question like this can have such a gargantuan impact. Anxiety-driven reactions can become habitual. I’m not talking about appropriate circumstantial anxiety, like when someone swerves into your lane on the freeway. I’m talking about chronic anxiety that seeps into even the most mundane tasks. In an interview on Impact Theory, the motivational speaker Mel Robbins explains how you can interrupt thoughts in the part of your brain that drives habitual behaviors, and move those thoughts to your pre-frontal cortex, where decision-making happens. Basically, you’re moving thoughts out of Habit Land and into Conscious Choice Land. And in Conscious Choice Land, you get to ditch the ick.

What I learned is that happy people aren’t in a state of bliss all the time. They still feel anger, sadness, loneliness, and envy. But with my simple WWHPD? inquiry, I was stopping my dark thoughts in their tracks, allowing me to make a choice: Did I wish to proceed the way an unhappy person would, or act like a happy person? Eventually, I wasn’t acting at all.

Try your own version of the question. If you are running around in a state of constant anger, ask yourself what you’d prefer to feel. Maybe you’ll ask yourself: “What would a calm person do?” or “What would an easygoing person do?” You can compare and contrast, trying different options to see which feels good to you. Once you find a pattern-breaking question or method that resonates with you, use it — a lot. In creating any sustainable change, practice is what makes it a habit.

Exec Coach @evolutionsvc, BoD Women Founders Network. Allstar Mentor at @techstars

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