The Trap of Happiness: Big Things and Small Things, Outside and In

[fr] La clé, pour être heureux, n'est pas dans les événements ou circonstances extérieurs, mais dans nos activités. En nous, et non au dehors de nous. Ce n'est pas très intuitif, d'où le piège. ("Quand ceci ou cela arrivera, alors je serai enfin heureuse.")

I realized today that many of the things I agonize over, the big things of life, are probably not worth spending so much energy on.

These big things of life — work, relationships, where to live — are just the measly circumstantial 10% component of our happiness (50% is due to our happiness “set point”, and the remaining 40% depends on certain intentional activities).

If I’m agonizing over whether to pursue a relationship or not, whether to keep my current line of work or change it, stay put or move to another continent, I’m doing so because at some level, I believe those decisions hold the fate of my happiness. But they don’t.

This is not to say that major life changes have no impact on how we feel. Of course they do. And of course bad decisions can lead to pain and anguish. But if things are going reasonably well and the drive is to be happier, the research presented in The How of Happiness (which I’ve already blogged about) tells us that these major changes will probably have way less long-term effect on how happy we are than certain more modest-looking intentional activities that have been show to reliably increase happiness.

Major events give us a “happiness high”, which is maybe one of the reasons we keep on looking to them as the solution to our lasting happiness. Hence the trap of happiness:

We think that big important things like being in a relationship, having a great job, having kids or living in our dream city are going to make us happy, when in fact it is small day-to-day activities that make use happy. So when we’re unhappy, we yearn for big changes and stay stuck on “if onlys” rather than doing something that will actually make us feel happier.

For me, there is an important corollary to this:

The key to our happiness is inside of us, and not in exterior events.

This is nothing new under the sun, but I think that today I have really understood it.

You see, in addition to agonizing over “big decisions”, I spend a lot of energy hoping or waiting for things to happen which I expect will make me feel happier. Things that are outside my control or depend on other people. Without getting into details, this energy sometimes pushes me down alleys where I do things which I know are doomed to failure, which I know are a bad idea (and I can even explain why), but I have a very hard time stopping myself from doing them.

And I have understood today that the way to fight these “dysfunctional” urges is to remember where they come from: they come from feelings of unhappiness that I’m trying to address in the wrong way. I’m trying to make big things happen outside of me, rather than certain small things that involve only me — the “happiness activities” or “intentional activities” Sonja Lyubomirsky describes in her book.

Not surprisingly, some of them are already part of my “toolkit” for making myself feel better. Before reading The How of Happiness, however, I think I just hadn’t measured how important they were. And now I have extra stuff to add to my happiness toolkit. Yay!

So I’m making a note: to fight my gosh-I-wish-I-wasn’t-heading-for-that-wall-again urges, pick an activity out of my happiness toolkit. And I’m putting “working on being happier through daily activities” above my big “existential issues” on the priority list.

I find it ironic, in a way, that something as important as how happy we are (I mean, a huge amount of what we do, we do because in some way we’re trying to be happy) can be influenced by so small and seemingly trivial things.

It does explain, though, how we can tumble from “happy” to “not happy” in just a few clicks, and climb back to “happy” by answering two e-mails and cleaning the bathroom sink.

It’s not rocket science.

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This entry was posted in Books, Personal, Psychology and tagged activities, breakthrough, control, happiness, happiness activities, helplessness, intentional activities, law, life, passivity, rule, the how of happiness, trap. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Trap of Happiness: Big Things and Small Things, Outside and In

  1. Pingback: E L S U A ~ A KM Blog Thinking Outside The Inbox by Luis Suarez » Reflections from 2011 – And Health It Is!

  2. Pingback: How Was 2012 So Far? | Climb to the Stars

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