A Little Happier: Why It’s So Important to Identify the Problem—and Why It’s Easy to Skip This Essential Step

In my book The Happiness Project, I made a list of my twelve Personal Commandments—the overarching precepts I use to guide my thoughts and actions.

My Eighth Personal Commandment is to “Identify the problem.” That is, when I’m annoyed, angered, or frustrated, I pause to ask myself, “What exactly is the problem here?”

“Identify the problem” seems like such an obvious thing to do! Yet grasping this idea was a real happiness-project breakthrough for me.

When I pinpoint the actual source of the problem, it’s much easier to see how to solve it. Even if that solution isn’t simple, it’s clearer.

But it’s harder to do this than it sounds. In my experience, people–including me–often skip this essential step.

We realize something is wrong, or that we’re unhappy, but we have only a vague sense of what the actual problem is. And because we don’t pinpoint the specific problem—the specific source of our bad feeling—we’re often not very effective when we try to address that problem.

You might think, “This doesn’t make any sense. If I have a problem, how it is possible that I haven’t identified it?”

The fact is, I’ve found that it’s surprisingly easy to misdiagnose a problem—I assume that I’m feeling lousy about a situation for one reason, when in fact my bad feelings arise from a completely different source. Or I assume that one kind of solution will work, when that solution only applies to a completely different kind of problem.

Here’s an example: Throughout my childhood, I thought I hated to exercise. I dreaded gym class. In high school, I played in team sports, because I liked being on a team, but I hated the actual sports part of it. I thought of myself as a true “couch potato,” someone who never wanted to exercise.

But at a certain point I finally realized: I don’t like games. I don’t enjoy any games! The only game that I enjoy playing is the card game Uno. And I’m terrible at sports! I have no eye-hand coordination, and I’m not fast.

And when I realized that, I also realized that while I don’t like playing games or sports, I don’t mind exercising. And once I realized that, over the years, I’ve consistently exercised by walking, running, doing the Stairmaster, doing high-intensity weight-training, doing therapeutic yoga. No games, no competition, no coordination. Just exercise. When I identified the actual problem, I was able to find ways to exercise without the sports or the games.

These days, I try to discipline myself to ask, “What’s actually bugging me? What’s the real problem here?”

When I take the time to pinpoint the actual source of my problem, I’m much better at spotting solutions, and while those solutions aren’t always easy, they’re much more effective.

Want to read more about why it’s useful to identify the problem? Look here

And here’s an article about a common work problem: “Identify the Problem: Burnout at Work.” 





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