Human

Joy is not all ponies and rainbows

The last two posts make it sound like choosing happiness is easy – just a matter of programming ourselves to always do so. Let’s be realistic, and not buy completely into the hype.

First of all, many people are playing life on “hard mode,” as they fight chemical dependencies, depression, or other neurological illnesses. Those require more than a personal choice. They require professional treatment, sustainable management, and the joyful support of friends. The choice is often to recognize and accept those requirements, and to take action.

Secondly, while we can reprogram our lizard brains with some success, it’s not a panacea for all emotional reactions. We get annoyed, we anger, we feel helpless, we worry, we mourn. That’s as it should be.

Finally, it’s hard. We’re not only fighting evolution, we’re fighting our own learned habits. We are constantly tempted to enjoy the short-term “joy” of recreational complaining, of vengeance, of being the victim, of blaming others. (The Internet is built on those instant dopamine hits.) It’s the easy path with a quick reward, but one that sets us on a programmed path for long-term unhappiness.

Optimism is not the opposite of realism. We can expect the best while preparing for the worst. We can seek joy in hard work. We can look for happiness in the face of suffering.

Finding joy can be hard. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.

Human, Marketer

Using consistency to choose happiness

In my last post’s story, the always-happy friend is concerned about self-consistency. That’s not surprising, because consistency is a great tool to persuade our brains to behave the way we want to behave.

Psychologists will tell you that, as humans, we want to be (and to be seen as) consistent with our self-image. We want to follow through on our commitments. We want to live up to statements we made. We don’t like wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of behaving inconsistently. Our “lizard brain” takes over the decision-making process.

This leaves us open to manipulation (for good or ill) if someone can get us to express the behavior they want us to emulate. For example, clipboard carrying researchers who asked “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” before inviting people to participate in a survey saw their volunteer rates shoot up from 29% to 77.3%, as detailed by Robert Cialdini in his book Pre-Suasion, among many other examples of influencing people.

But it also gives us a tool for self-programming. For instance, many weight loss approaches have been shown to work because they create habits through self-consistency. You stood up and told your Weight Watchers group what you were going to do this week… how can you go back on that now? Rather than just counting calories, you promised to avoid carbs or sweets or dairy… and are you the kind of person who goes back on promises? Your desire for consistency can convince you, at that moment of truth, to think I’m not a person who buys a candy bar in the checkout line as that belief becomes part of your identity.

So, as extreme as the “if I were any happier, I’d be twins” guy may have been in his response, he does provide a model for all of us. Wouldn’t we all like to say, in that moment of truth:

I’m not the kind of person who stops being happy when bad things happen to me.

I’m not the kind of person who gets angry at others and looks for someone to blame when my plans are disrupted.

I’m not the kind of person who lets problems take away my joy for more time than it takes to experience those natural negative emotions.

It’s up to you to decide how you want to program your brain. But if you don’t make a  conscious effort to decide, your programming will be decided for you by your unfiltered life experiences.

 

 

 

Human

Owning happiness

There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story that a motivational speaker gave which has stuck with me over the years. It goes something like this:

“I have a friend who I think was the happiest guy in the world. When people asked him, ‘How are you?’ he would respond, ‘I’m great! Because I’m happy. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. If I were any happier, there’d be two of me!’ It wasn’t an act, either – he was genuinely, authentically happy. He was always a ray of sunshine, and he brightened up everyone’s day.

“One day I got some terrible news. My friend had been in a car accident. Several bones were broken. He would probably be in the hospital for weeks recovering. Just a horrible, horrible event. So I went over to the hospital to see him. I said to him somberly, how are you doing? Without delay he said, ‘I’m great! Because I’m happy. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. If I were any happier, there’d be two of me!’

“I couldn’t believe it, and he explained: My happiness is a choice. Bad things happen that we can’t control. I’ve chosen to be happy. It’s easy to choose that when things are going well. I choose to be happy even when they’re not.’ ”

Whether or not this extreme case of a story is true, it’s an admirable, aspirational philosophy. We may not all be able to follow it, but we can all remember it the next time choosing happiness is hard.