The 5 Obstructions To Happiness (and how to remove them)

It took me a long time to figure out how to be happy. Most of us are not raised to be happy, we are raised to be perfect, or accommodating, or accomplished. This leaves a lot of us anxious, frustrated, or angry. I was all three.

Of course part of my struggle was at times poverty and homelessness. It’s hard to be happy when you’re not sure where you’ll sleep at night. But when your basic needs are met (food, water, housing, safety) your emotional needs are met (a sense of belonging, emotional bonds to others), and you are healthy, then happiness should not still elude us.

Happiness is not a Pollyanna-ish means of ignoring what is wrong in our life and the world around us or avoiding difficult emotions; sadness, anger, and loneliness are all normal feelings that are part of life, especially that of a happy life.

But for many, the world we live in is one where people are living better in terms of basic and emotional needs being met, yet many experience dissatisfaction and anxiety in regards to their own lives. Happiness seems to be more of a marketing tool than a reality for most people.

But marketing exploits our insecurities, it tells us we can not be happy without Product X, that unless we have Product Y we are not enough. It keeps us focused on what we lack, on what we dislike – it keeps our awareness on negatives.

We move through the world, be it walking, driving, or riding a bicycle, by looking where we want to be. It’s hard to get to the bus stop by staring at your feet. Similarly, our mental states are no different. If we keep our attention focused on misery, that is where we will end up.

Much of modern life feeds into this negative mindset. Social media was created to help us connect, to satisfy our esteem and emotional needs, but has been hijacked to project images of perfection and scarcity.

This sense of scarcity forces us to market ourselves. We must present our best selves, our best life, we must constantly outdo our selves and our peers to capture and be worthy of attention, or money, or work, or love. It is a race with no beginning or end…one where everyone loses.

The result is a life without happiness; the validation gained from external sources is far more easily lost than it is gained.


Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He was right for a whole lot of reasons. 

It’s so easy to compare yourself to others especially since most of us are online and posting images and thoughts about our lives. Of course, those images and thoughts are often idealized or exaggerated to present ourselves in the most perfect and enviable light. But studies show that individuals that spend a lot of time on social media have higher levels of dissatisfaction than those that don’t.

The idealized lives on social media will make us feel we are somehow left out and missing what everyone else must have.

Furthermore, what we see online are usually external representations of happiness and success, mainly wealth and popularity. Having more stuff or money or popularity might mean more comfort, but rarely does it mean more happiness. 

In fact when we rely on these external sources of validation and satisfaction we create an unending cycle of needing more stuff or money or success or popularity to maintain satisfaction. 

Don’t believe me? Consider a time when you wanted something that you eventually got, it could be a job or car or into a particularly impressive yoga pose. What happened when you got it? At first you experienced a deep sense of satisfaction – But how long did it last? How long before you began to fixate on something new?

Expecting happiness to come from outside of ourselves will create a cycle of wanting only more, while undervaluing what we already have.

It’s easy to say “don’t compare yourself to others” but we can’t help it. Even if all our basic needs our met and we are doing our best to live our best life no one is on vacation and having a blast 24/7/365. That’s just not how life works.

The solution is to simply stop looking at other peoples lives. Disable your social media accounts for a short time – consider it a kind of fast- and at the end of that time you will notice an increase in your own sense of happiness as well as an increase in overall satisfaction in your life.

But even beyond online life, in our day to day living we must celebrate the victories of those around us as we would want them to celebrate our own. The deeper we connect to those around us, the more we will see not only their victories and accomplishments, but also their failures and pain. 


Everyone wants to be liked. Everyone wants to be appreciated. Everyone wants to belong. 

But in order to belong we need to find our tribe. And that’s impossible to do when you are not being your authentic self.

Shel Silverstein, beloved author, wrote:

“She had blue skin, And so did he. He kept it hid. And so did she. They searched for blue. Their whole life through, Then passed right by- And never knew.”

There’s no worse torture than mutilating yourself to fit into a mold. We end up miserable, surrounded by people that do not understand or relate to us, while also alienating those we could find deep and meaningful connection with. When we conform, we always lose. It is far better to be alone in solitude than lonely in a crowd. 

The obstruction to happiness requires a lot of self-reflection, as there is an undercurrent of self-loathing or shame at the heart of conformity. What aspect of ourselves are we denying? And if it is so abhorrent why not bring it to the surface to work on it and improve ourselves?

The world becomes a lot less lonely when we stop pretending to be someone else, and we start being ourselves. Yes, we may lose friends and family. But if their expectation of us is to deny our nature, or live in shame, or exist to mirror them, then their loss becomes a greater gain for our own happiness and well-being.


Complaint and critique are two sides of the same coin, they are the slavish fixation to all that is wrong with the world; the prior being focused on the self, and the latter focused on others.

With complaint nothing is ever good enough, no experience rich enough, no relationship loving enough, no meal tasty enough. It is, fundamentally, about not being enough. 

By complaining we do not allow ourselves to find joy or pleasure in the simple things around us. Faults are easy to find, a minor imperfection in an otherwise perfect whole. A fantastic meal could be ruined because the pasta was slightly overcooked, the beach was gorgeous but the sand was too coarse, the vacation was a dream but it rained one afternoon. 

Complaint keeps us focused on what we dislike rather than enjoying what we do like, and robs us of moments of pure joy. If we keep our attention focused on flaws and faults, it is all we will ever see.

We deserve to be happy, we are allowed to enjoy our lives. We must stop giving voice to that part of ourselves that works to reinforce the notion that we do not. The voice may never leave us completely, but we can work to slowly silence it.


Critique is finding fault with others and the world around us. It wasn’t always this way, and I’m not sure when it happened, but critique changed. Originally it meant to analyze something, to look closely and evaluate the good as well as the bad. Maybe it was Simon Cowell on American Idol sitting back and caustically judging contestants, but somehow critique came to mean a detailed analysis of only flaws and faults, while being conflated with sophistication. 

There is nothing sophisticated about destroying another’s effort by someone sitting on the sidelines.

The more we criticize, the more we fear being critiqued. This fear will stop us from trying anything new – why risk being bad at something, if you will only be shamed for it? It keeps our world small, and so it keeps us small as well.

To cure ourselves the curse of both critique and complaint we must find that which we appreciate, to look at the world with wonder rather than contempt. The easiest way to do this is to seek new experiences and skills. Learn how to knit, play guitar, speak French, and do it all badly but with great joy. This practice releases us from the obstruction of critique, as well as self-consciousness and self-doubt. After all, critique is the externalization of our own inner insecurities that paralyze us into inaction and mediocrity.


Perhaps expectation is the wrong word, perhaps entitlement or delusion is better, but either way when our hopes rise into the realm of fantasy we will always be disappointed by reality. The problem with fantasy is that it can always be replayed and edited, only ever becoming better or more perfect. 

Think of the television phenomenon of the ‘Bridezilla,’ where an otherwise sane woman has been fantasizing about her wedding day since childhood. Can the day ever live up to a lifetime of expectation? 

When our expectation for something is not met we feel cheated. We all have dreams for how our lives will turn out, what we will experience, and who we will become. For the most part, what we want and what we get are two very different things. But that doesn’t mean our lives can’t be magnificent.

There is a flexibility of mind necessary to navigate the disappointments, thwarted ambitions, and dreams left unrealized, and still appreciate what we have. The cure for expectation is gratitude. Appreciating what we have makes it easier to accept everything that we don’t.

It can be difficult to see the minor miracles we are showered with on a daily basis. This modern life is one of constant distractions and reminders of what we do not have, the practice to stay focused on all the good we have in our lives –  our good health and loved ones, the comfort of our homes, and the stability and meaning of our work – is constantly challenged.

The steps are simple: stop comparing yourself to others, be true to yourself, neither complain nor critique, and be grateful for what you have.

Happiness is not something we can find. Happiness is a choice. We can become happy by constantly keeping our gaze focused on happiness, not as a goal or destination but as having already arrived. Appreciate the life you have, love the person you are and the one you are still becoming, and recognize the happiness that is already around you.

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