The 5 Excuses You’re Using to Sabotage Your Happiness

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This is the first in a series of posts that explores a question that deserves a lot more attention than it currently gets.

Why don’t we more actively pursue happiness?

  1. We think hard work and delayed gratification will get us there.
  2. We think its selfish.
  3. We think we see the world as it really is.
  4. We think our happiness should come second.
  5. We think we’re already as happy as we’re going to get.

Each of these mentalities impedes or distorts our quest to be as happy as we can and want to be.

 

1. We think hard work and delayed gratification will get us there


All of your life you’ve been schooled in the philosophy of delayed gratification.

  1. Birth to College: Study even though you hate to. You need to get a good job!
  2. First Working Years: Get your boss his damn coffee! You need a promotion to pay off your debt and buy that house to impress your friends and family.
  3. Mid-life: Work, work, work, work! Mid-life crisis? Finding meaning in your work? I don’t think so honey, we need to save for the kids.
  4. Competitive 50s: Nest egg is too small! Work more!
  5. Retirement: Have fun, push your boundaries, develop strong social connections, and become genuinely happy?
  6. Afterwards: Die.

Chicken or Egg – Are Happier People Wealthier, or Wealthier People Happier?

Happier people are 10%-20% more productive, and earn on average $10,000-$30,000 more than their less jubilant peers. See the Warwick University Worker Productivity study here, and the Wesleyan Income study  here.

So…
Ambition –> Greater Productivity –> More Money –> More Happiness?
or
More Happiness –> Greater Productivity –> More Money?

In the income study, the participants were asked questions to rate their happiness in 1979, when they were 14 to 22 years old. This single data point explained thousands of dollars in income disparity over the next 31 years of their life. Don’t mix up the order, it’s happiness first.

2. We think it’s selfish

That looks fun, doesn’t it? Who do you think is having a better time, you, sitting on your chair reading this blog post, or Barney, doing all sorts of ridiculous things? 

Let’s be straight, I’m not recommending that you ask yourself:

  1. Will this lead to sex?
  2. Is this the tastiest stuff I can put in my mouth?
  3. Will this lead to maximum comfort?
  4. Is this the path of least pain and effort?

Barney is probably having more fun, but that doesn’t mean that he’s got more happiness and well being. There’s a difference between happiness and pleasure. According to recent scientific studies, pleasure is one of the least effective sources of life satisfaction and happiness.

Pursuit of meaning and engagement is 12x more correlated with higher life satisfaction than pursuit of pleasure. See the Positive Psychotherapy study by Martin Seligman here.

Meaning and Engagement

Happiness comes from many sources: pleasure certainly, but also from living with meaning, acting according to your values, volunteering, achieving your goals, showing gratitude, having strong social connections, and being engaged with your community. That doesn’t sound selfish to me:

  • 29 Ways to Show Unique Gratitude – Showing gratitude is the opposite of selfishness.
  • Kindfully + Mindfully – It’s not “Treat others as you’d want to be treated”, but “How you treat others is how you treat yourself.”  When you’re kind to others, it’s not just the recipients that have a better day.
  • Stoicism 101 – Acting with virtue, it’s not about  repressive discipline, but about being 100% proud of yourself.
  • Happiness is contagious in social networks – Happiness spreads up to people three degrees removed from each other. A happier world starts with you.
  • Voluntarily Happy – Helping others is one of the most effective ways to grow and cultivate happiness. It’s also a good way to develop your social network.

Do these things make you think of the word “selfish”? Not to me.

3. We think we see the world as it really is

As crazy as this kid seems, we deliberately and regularly make choices that lead us towards more pain and less happiness.

When describing our global feelings of a past event, we have the cognitive tendency to remember our feelings at the peak of an experience, positive or negative. We’ll also remember how we felt at the end of the experience. This means we won’t pay attention to how long the experience lasted, and we easily disregard the sum of our feelings over the course of the experience. There are the Duration Neglect and Peak-End cognitive biases –

In one study, participants were told their hands would be immersed in painfully cold water three times. In one trial, one of their hands was immersed in painfully cold water for 60 seconds. For the second trial, their other hand was immersed in painfully cold water for 60 seconds (same as before), and then slightly warmer, but still painful water for 30 more seconds. Clearly, the second trial delivers more pain than the first. Participants were given the choice of which experience to repeat for their third trial. They overwhelmingly chose the longer, more painful trial. Sure, it involved more pain as a whole. But, because it ended slightly less painfully than the other trial, they remembered it as being less painful.

See Why First Impressions Don’t Matter Much for another great example of us just asking for more pain.

Just as we can be pretty bad at remembering how painful an experience was, we can be pretty bad at remembering at how much we enjoyed an experience.  Let’s say you already have a son, and are considering having a second:

Thinking about your experience with your son, you remember when he spoke his first word, when he started crawling, when he said ‘dada’, and yesterday, when he walked for the first time! Yes, he also woke you up 374 times in the middle of the night, but that’s OK. Right?

Wrong. The happiness research is clear, parents with kids have less life and marital satisfaction, and less happiness (see a NY Mag feature with some interesting thoughts on the topic here). I don’t agree with the philosophical framework of the research, and will post a full analysis on this later, but the data across numerous studies is clear. Again, I’m not suggesting we not have kids, but having proper expectations can make a world of difference – it can increase satisfaction, reduce stress levels, reduce the indencence of post-postpartum depression, and more.

We base future decisions and expectations on how we or others remember past experiences. Because memory is so fickle, we’re making imperfect decisions and expectations all of the time, some small and some big. 

4. We think our happiness should come second

WOW!! We’re almost 1000% richer than we were 100 years ago.  Enough already! If our great-grand parents had enough to be happy, we sure as hell do, with electricity, the internet, modern medicine, cellphones, and a thousand others things they didn’t have. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for progress. But seriously, we’ve been in survival mode for far too long.

My parents are from India. If they didn’t work hard and focus as hard as they did on getting a great education and on getting an equally great job, they might not have had food on the table. With little money, they never would have been able to come to America. I never would have been diagnosed and treated for fibromyalgia.  I might still be suffering from crippling pain . But that was then. Now, you don’t need to be exceptional to keep yourself fed. Now, you don’t need to graduate summa cum laude to have access to great doctors. Yes, there are problems in the world that only economic growth can fix – I’m not suggesting we all become marijuana puffing hermits. But instead of focusing 90% on making money and 10% on pursuing happiness, I suggest we value the two equally.

Career mediocrity is OK. A teacher making $30,000 a year has enough for himself and his family, and he’s helping others on a daily basis. He has all that he needs to build the foundation of a satisfying life.

Life mediocrity is not OK. An investment banker making $120,000 a year with no time for friends & family and no sense of meaning in his life will not automatically be happier just because he’s making more money.

It’s time happiness entered the conversation.

5. We think we’re already as happy as we’re going to get

If you’re sad, deal with it or go see a shrink. If you’re “normal”, go on living your life as you already have.  That’s the mindset of most Americans. Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project recalled resistance from all corners of her life when she decided to become a HappierHuman. Her husband didn’t understand the need and her friends thought she was being selfish – “Isn’t having a good husband and two kids enough?”.

But why settle? More happiness = more life, love, satisfaction, productivity,  friends, generosity, and more of that amazing, feel-good feeling. 

Be grateful for what the world has given you, but make the best of it. Don’t you want more happiness?

 

Did I miss a reason? Does one of these really resonate with your life? Let me know by leaving me a comment!

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Bobbi Emel

Hi Amit,

I love this article! Great roundup of interesting research and thoughts on happiness.

I find that many of us tend to think, “I’ll be happy when __________ happens.” Then we spend our lives waiting for ________ to happen or, after we get it, we wait for the next _________ to happen. In the meantime, our lives are going by and we’re not happy because we think we must have whatever _____ is to be happy.

I don’t think we can be happy every minute of every day, but there’s much more happiness available to us then we allow ourselves. Happiness can happen right now – we don’t need to wait for some elusive _____ to happen.

Reply

Amit Amin

Thanks Bobbi!

You have no idea what a shock all of this information was to me when I first discovered it. Well, to be honest, I simply didn’t believe any of it. I’d grown up on the idea that _____ is what brings happiness, not whatever I have now. It took a lot to change my perspective, but now that I have, there is indeed so much more happiness available. And contrary to what others worried about, I’m more productive and ambitious now than I was when I thought I needed _____ to be happy. It’s great to see so many others with this perspective.

Reply

Lori Lynn Smith

But why settle? More happiness = more life, love, satisfaction, productivity, friends, generosity, and more of that amazing, feel-good feeling.

Why settle!?!?!? indeed, that was something I was saying to a friend just last week.

I am not sure that everyone knows how to be happy though… and it is hard for them to imagine more of anything.
It is a beautiful journey though!

Reply

Amit

“I am not sure that everyone knows how to be happy though… and it is hard for them to imagine more of anything.
It is a beautiful journey though!”

Yup, that’s what we’re here for!

Reply

Dolly Garland

Amit,

Very insightful post. Delayed gratification is one of the most terrible and harmful things we get schooled in, in my opinion. That is not to say that we shouldn’t think long term, or put in the effort now to reap the reward tomorrow. But the point is, it is important to enjoy today. It should not be, “Oh I will do this job I hate for 40 years, so I can be happy when I retire” That is one of the most stupidest argument ever, and yet majority of the society pursues it. You might be dead before you get to that. Then what? What an incredible waste of life!

Happiness of course is a very subjective subject, but the objective view comes in to saying that we should do what makes us happy, as long as it is not harmful to others. (And there is a difference between not harming others, and not worrying about hurting their feelings just because they want you to do something different.)

Reply

Amit Amin

Yup, it was only until I had my recent quarter-life crisis that I realized the path of waste I was heading down. It seems that you, at least, won’t be wasting your life!

Actually, one of the more ambitious goals of positive psychology is the objectification of happiness. It’s an extremely difficult task, of course. From just the small amount of research I’ve read, there’s pretty hefty debate surrounding the different scales and measures that are being used. Looking at just the component of happiness that correlates to mood, the scales used are good. But when we get to more complicated things like satisfaction, meaning, and such, the scales are less developed and certainly less accurate. The objective view comes in to say that we should do what makes us happy, and what makes others happy (volunteering, keeping a gratitude journal, doing work we can find flow in, developing strong social connections, and so on) generally also makes us happy.

Reply

Jane Robinson - Art Epicurean

Amit – Love, love, love this post and your new format! This post is sooo true. I think sometimes we always think that the world is full of pain and suffering and since we live in so much comfort and have so much, we shouldn’t expect more. Or we think happiness is just a state of mind so if I train my mind to be happier I will be. There is some truth in this but many never make the changes necessary to truely be happy. Bravo!

Reply

Joel Zaslofsky

Hi Amit,
Wow, you sure put a lot of work into getting some entertaining and valuable media for this post. The “Give Me Pain!” picture was both funny and a wake up call at the same time.
I’m always hungry for more happiness but I’m incredibly fortunate to have a life packed with it every day. I’m glad you’re doing your part to not only bring more happiness to the world but give people steps to get there.

Reply

Amit Amin

Thanks Joel! Yeah – I recall reading a post a few days back that posts with 3 forms of media are 15x more likely to be shared than posts with just text. I believe posts with 2 forms of media are 5x more likely to be shared.

Reply

Sarah O

Love all the research that went into this. It’s so true – many of us have been fed a fib that we have to struggle to achieve some eventual happiness. Yet, look at the folks who have discovered that they can enjoy happiness DURING the journey – not wait till the end.

The new blog design looks wonderful. Good stuff Amit!

Reply

Amit Amin

Thanks Sarah! Indeed, eradicating that fib is one of my goals. You raise a good point though – its important to find and appreciate those that are enjoying happiness during the journey. Those are the ones we should be emulating!

Reply

Ciara

Hi Amit, I enjoyed this post. I have read most of Martin Seligman’s books and agree. I think our ultimate goal is happiness and if we acknowledge this first we dont’ have to go through achieving all the things that we think will make us happy before we find happiness!

Reply

farouk

number 3 is so true and funny in the same time
most people bring themselves pain on intention by making the wrong choices
thank you : )

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