Analysing Happiness

This is a series of reminders to my future self about what I’ve figured out about happiness. The gist of the last one was basically this:

The reason we want things isn’t that they’ll make us happy.

Often, getting what you want does give you a little rush of happiness. We can be fooled into thinking this is the sensation of having that thing. In fact, of course, it’s the sensation of getting it. We are feeling the change in our status, not its new level. Which is why it fades.

We expect this relationship:

But we get something more like this:

As a long-term strategy for pursuing happiness, you can see chasing success clearly isn’t going to work. You’d have to be consistently improving your lot to stay happy, and if you ever hit your potential, you’d flatline. This type of happiness – you could call it Gain Happiness – is fleeting.

One consolation is that the reverse is true: if a major loss doesn’t have recurring consequences, you only feel it temporarily. Before long, you’re back to your previous level of happiness even if you’re worse off. A study in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology (PDF) explored the subjective well-being of 118 people over two years, and found that neither positive nor negative events had a lasting effect on their reported happiness beyond three to six months.

So Gain Happiness is hard to gain, but Loss Misery is easy to lose. We’re surprisingly stable. Within that, how do we get happier? Here’s what I have so far:

AT-AT (Playtime)

1. Be ruthless about getting away from sources of misery.

I can’t help you with this, but it’s worth acknowledging its importance. I’ve only talked about what happens in the positive bit of the happiness chart – if you’re actively unhappy and there’s an external cause, obviously getting permanently away from it is your only priority.

For me, the only times I’ve been truly unhappy have been when I was living with people I didn’t like. Once I managed to get away, every type of happiness got a hell of a lot easier.

Disclaimer: try not to kill anyone.

2. Do something because you enjoy the process, not the result.

Ideally for a living. There are two particularly great things about my job: writing, and feedback. If feedback was the only one I enjoyed, I’d be miserable.

It’s the result, and if you’re anything like me, getting a great result makes a good one disappointing. It’s Gain Happiness with ever-increasing expectations, which leads to a constant war of neuroses. You can’t let your happiness be dependent on something like that.

Luckily, I love writing. Before we launched the site in June last year, I didn’t get that much feedback on what I wrote – people don’t write to a magazine as readily as they comment on a blog. But I already loved my job, because I love the process.

3. Do what you want to be in the mood to do.

Often you’re not angry or sad because of the thing you’re angry or sad about. You’re just in a bad mood. I’ve found if I pay attention to what mood I’m in, it’s amazingly easy to snap out of it.

In my case, I can just watch something funny – I’ve never been angry while Flight of the Conchords is on. And like everyone, I have mood amnesia: the moment I’m out of a bad mood, it’s forgotten.

But it’s even more powerful than this. You can also get stuff done that you don’t feel like doing, just by starting to do it. Your brain only resists up until the point you actually start the job, at which point it starts to focus on doing it. You do what you want to be in the mood to do, and soon you’re in the mood to do it.

It sounds ridiculous, but it’s the single most useful piece of information I’ve discovered about the way my brain works in 29 years of having one.

24 Replies to “Analysing Happiness”

  1. “Your brain only resists up until the point you actually start the job.”

    That’s a brilliant way to put it, possibly the best I’ve seen. It’s funny that it’s something we all basically know but still manage to forget, everyone should probably have it tattooed to their arms.

  2. Well, la-de-da. Look at the man who thinks he’s figured
    out the secret of happiness. Who does he think he is? A zen master, or something?

  3. You know the weirdest way number 3 has proved to be true for me? With Victoria 2. Throughout the day I’m thinking “man, I’d love to be playing Victoria 2 now” then I get home and the first thing I do is look at the icon and go “wow, but there’s a lot of effort there. I don’t want to play Victoria 2 now” and whenever I’m enough of a man to push past that I end up playing for four hours.

    In video game terms you could probably call number 3 the “You Will Want One More Turn And It Will Be Fun So Stop Wussing Out” rule because the same was true of GalCiv for a very long time for me.

  4. What a great post. I don’t think you said anything that I didn’t already know in my heart, but it’s good to read it and think to myself “Yep… yep …. yea that too.” :)

    And I’m here reading your blog when I should be doing my uni work (I’ve decided to start studying again at 29)

  5. I’m liking this post, Tom. I’ve been reading your blog for years, since I was a member of PCGF. I no longer post there though and I rarely play games anymore. I still come back to your blog though because I guess I am a loyal reader!

    I’m glad to see more posts about non-gaming stuff. Personally it’s the thing I get the most from, and they’re a hell of a lot more meaningful that…well…something about TF2.

    I totally agree with what you’ve said here, but I’ll admit, it’s not really news to me! You should read The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell as he came to the exact same conclusions.

    One of his main conclusions was that people focus on becoming happier so much that they convince themselves they are unhappy, making themselves more miserable in the process. But if you focus less on having a perfectly happy existence, you’ll realise you’re happy enough anyway.

    Basically, so many people go through life looking at their neighbours grass and thinking “man, I wish my grass was that green” that they never stop to look at their own grass and feel happy with it.

    Or something.

  6. Jackrabbit, I find that with SupCom as I’ve just started playing it. Surely games aren’t supposed to invoke a similarly daunting reaction akin to writing an essay though?

    Also, what do you do if you don’t seem to have a true passion for any process?

  7. Keep trying new things, and if you can’t find anything you love, get better at something you’d like to love. I find things get more enjoyable as you improve at them, and you can improve at most things with practice and research.

  8. Thank you! Really concise and helpful. Point 3 is particularly perceptive. I think I may print it out and staple it to my forehead. (Although then I wouldn’t be able to read it. Maybe I should staple it the opposite wall instead…)

  9. @ TooNu

    31, win :P

    @ Chris

    It’s possible that you have a passion and don’t know how to realise it in the modern world: perhaps you’d like to be an adventurer, fighting goblins and righting wrongs. Well, there are no goblins per se, but perhaps something linked to travel, whether it’s righting wrongs as a volunteer (preferably a paid one) somewhere in Africa etc, or facing as-naughty-as-goblins children while teaching English in Asia… you might find something close enough to your passion to make you happy…

  10. And there’s always writing if you haven’t tried that.

    Found that as a hobby a year or so back, and it turned out I loved it. Which was interesting, as it was just tolerable previously. The miracles of not having a deadline or anyone to impress, I suppose.

  11. No. 3 definitely be aware that if you’re sad/grumpy it’s not what you’re doing, you are just in a bad mood.

    90% of the time when I’m not happy what most cheers me up is… a glass of water. Because actually I was dehydrated, not miserable.

  12. “Your brain only resists up until the point you actually start the job”

    Oh yes. But it resists so very, very hard…

  13. What happens if the answer to point number 2 is being with someone, but that someone doesn’t want to be with you?

  14. Then, having been in that position, you feel miserable for a bit, then get over yourself and leave them alone.

  15. Thanks!

    Anon: the statistics are comforting. However well you click with someone, given the extraordiarily small number of people you’ve met in your life, there are inevitably hundreds of thousands of better matches for you. There are thousands you’d click with just as well, but who’d reciprocate. And there are even more you’d click with better still.

    Finding them isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s easier than changing someone’s feelings towards you. And finding them isn’t always fun, but it’s more fun than hoping someone will settle for you, and that they don’t run into anyone they like more.

    I think people get confused between “Of all the people I’ve met, this is the one for me.” and “Of all the 1 billion gender and age appropriate people I could meet, there is definitely no-one this good who would want to be with me.” The former is completely reasonable, the latter is absolutely absurd.

  16. “Your brain only resists up until the point you actually start the job” I wish this would work with me, but if my brain doesn’t want to do something, I just can’t help it, it won’t work at all. Sad but true.

Comments are closed.