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

[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.

Warning Signals [en]

With the years, I’m getting better and better at identifying early warning signs. Human beings (I’m no exception) have this tendancy to dig themselves into holes now and again, but not realise they’re digging them or even inside them until the waters are closing on over their heads.

For the past month I’ve been looking at my calendar with increasing dread. I’ve barely been blogging. Things haven’t been spinning out of control, though, but I’ve been tired and more stressed than I like and kind of thinking “gosh, how am I going to manage all this”. At the same time, I’ve been refusing to make some hard choices regarding the things I want to do. Dropping one or the other was not an option.

I’m talking mainly about non-work things here. And things I do for me (as I might have mentioned somewhere before, I’ve become reasonably competent at not saying yes when I want to say no to other people, so I don’t end up with commitments I’d like to wriggle out of as often as I did a few years ago).

Yesterday, I realised that I was setting myself up for a couple of inhuman weeks before the end of the year, but that I was refusing to consider that I might have to let go of something. This is the cousin of “I really need a break now but there’s no way I can manage to take one“.

Something clicked. I realised that I was wanting to do everything. That clearly there was too much on my plate, that I was not Superwoman, but that I was refusing to set priorities between all these different things I wanted to do. So, I knew what I had to do: accept that I have to sit down and decide what is most important for me, and what is less important. I did that, decided to let go of something, and though it really saddens and frustrates me not to be able to do it (in addition to the umpteen other things I’m already doing), I feel better.

The important point here is the warning signals. If I look back at the journey of these last years, one constant for me has been to learn to spot warning signals that I’m leading myself somewhere I don’t want to go, and spot them earlier and earlier. And figure out what to do when I spot them.

And I’m happy to say I’m getting pretty good at it!

What about you? How good are you at recognizing your warning signals? When you recognize them, do you know what to do to keep things from going further downhill?