No one wants to be unhappy. We can mostly accept this as an universal truth. We often actively seek to avoid unhappiness even though it does come for all of us: breakups, school failings, disappointments in personal relationships, frustrations at work.
In the last 5-10 years especially, there’s been an increasing amount of discussion about happiness, the importance of happiness, how to seek happiness, where to locate happiness, and anything else you can think of. The self-help industry is massive — about $11 billion in the U.S. alone.1 When Disney modernized their theme parks a few years ago, they even called the project “reinventing happiness.”2 It’s on many minds, and you can find the topic in dozens of TED Talks.
This approach is problematic.
As writer Emily Esfahani Smith has pointed out in a TED Talk, the focus should be less on happiness and more on finding some degree of meaning in your life. Meaning is a mix of purpose and behaviors with intent; it’s akin to finding your passion and yourself.
One of the problems with this whole discussion is the interplay between sadness and happiness. In a world without sadness, there can’t be happiness either. It’s just a straight line of emotion. How would you even know you’re happy if you’ve never experienced being sad?
Happiness is relative. Think about it in terms of peaks:
Why is this a peak? Only because of a difference in height between this and everything around. Flat ground isn’t a peak, correct?
Happiness and sadness work the same way. Without one, the other can’t be defined.
When you avoid sadness, then, you reduce happiness in your life too. Life is ultimately about experiencing different aspects and locations. Avoiding sadness often means avoiding experiences. As you avoid sadness, you paradoxically also avoid happiness — and you drown your thinking in things that may not actually happen.
A better approach is to think about life this way…
Perfection is essentially unattainable, as is any form of “truly perfect happiness.”
This entire concept is called “The Progress Principle“. Celebrating small wins helps you create your own system of instant gratification. Your brain needs to feel happy. And it needs to feel happy often. By looking at life as a journey instead of a short-term goal, you start to see the bigger picture and see the ups and downs as part of the progress.
Ups and downs are part of the journey
No one has a perfect life. Everyone has their own challenges and problems.
When you feel negative, you’re focusing on the current level while the peak level is yet to come. You need to keep your sights on the extended curve.
Monitor your emotions and rack up small wins along the way
When you reach a disappointment in life, it’s likely you only see it as a big fluctuation. But in the long-run, it’s a small dip on an upward-trending pathway.
Be aware of your everyday emotions, you will realize that you’re happier on some days and sadder on others. A bad day happens only occasionally. Instead of focusing on the unpleasant moment right now, flash back your memory to when you feel happier. This memory keeps you going during your down times.
Getting started with the Progress Principle
You can start by tracking your emotions. This will increase self-awareness. Find out more about how to do it here: The Magic of Marking down Your Mood Every Day
You can also write down your achievements every day, or do a “3-1” model where you write down 3 positive things and 1 constructively negative thing. At the end of a week, you have 21 positives and 7 things to work on. It gives you a good baseline for next week’s progress.