Do you ever wonder why happiness and joy seem a bit fragile and fleeting, while sadness, low, and misery in general, has this persistent heaviness to it that is sometimes hard to move?
Over the years, I’ve written quite a few articles on happiness (I’ll leave links at the bottom) because, at the end of the day, that’s what we are all after. We want to be happy, right?
We’re just finding different ways to get there.
But why is happiness so impermanent?
Why does it feel so elusive sometimes?
In this article, I want to share with you some thoughts that will help you better understand how to balance happiness (it’s a pun that will make sense later).
The “Brainology” of happiness
First of all, I’d like you to understand happiness on the biological and evolutionary level.
Happiness, although it feels great, is a somewhat undesirable state of mine, evolutionary speaking. Our brain is a survival machine. It favours anything that increases the odds of survival. That why, after tens of thousands of years we’re still here. But happiness is not only unnecessary for survival, but can be counterproductive because when we’re happy, we’re less cautious, wary, sceptical, and more prone to take a risk that could cost us (back then, it would be our life).
Don’t get me wrong, happiness is great and makes the difference between living and surviving. But it helps to understand that it’s not the default “setting” of our mind. Not even a priority. In fact, it’s something that needs to be actively maintained (if you want it), and it is a bit of a balancing act.
Why happiness is Hard
Think of happiness as a peak emotional state, which it is.
As the word ‘peak’ suggests, it’s at the top, so imagine it as a ball that is balancing on a dome (see the image below).
Sustaining happiness is truly a balancing act.
What’s on each side of the dome depends on your particular situation and on what your happiness is dependent on.
- Money -> too much vs too little
- Challenge -> too difficult vs too easy
- Excitement -> too certain vs too unpredictable/risky
When you have too much on one side, your happiness ball will roll that way and down which you’ll notice as a decrease in happiness.
In reality, the dome is three-dimensional and involves many factors.
Another property of the dome is its sharpness vs flatness.
The more specific and demanding your happiness expectations are, the “pointier” your happiness dome will be, and then, consequently, the harder it will be to balance your happiness on the top of it.
So what does this mean for you?
You need to figure out what these happiness factors are for you, and where is the right balance for them, as well as how hard are you making it for yourself to balance it.
The key takeaway from this part is to understand that happiness is a balancing act and doesn’t just happen.
You should not be taking happiness for granted or expect it all the time, in full.
Ironically, being happy all the time would make you miserable because it would make happiness less special.
Unfortunately, that’s just how we are.
Why misery is easy
If happiness is the peak, then misery is… you probably suspect where this is going. Yes, misery is the opposite.
Misery, in its varied forms such as sadness, anxiety, fear, etc., is in the dip.
The dangerous thing about misery, unlike happiness, is that we don’t really need to do much for it to stay.
What makes it worse is that in order to get out of misery, if you look at the graphic, whichever way you go, it is uphill, meaning, it takes work or at least conscious effort (which feels like work).
You may be wondering, what effort or what change?
Well, whatever makes you happier or at least bring you back to normal.
Moving out of the misery will require change and effort.
And I know these may be the last two things for our mind when you feel miserable.
People naturally feel uncomfortable about either.
And then the options are: To do nothing and stay the same (sometimes justified with “It’s not that bad, I’m getting used to it) or to put in the effort and go through the changes in the hope you will feel better.
And that’s why people often don’t do anything.
Of course, how much change and effort is also determined by our expectations and perspective.
The harder we think it is, the deeper the dip and the more likely we’ll stay stuck.
But this also gives you power.
Because by changing your perspective, you can “flatten the curve”?
(I’m aware it’s a rather unpopular term these days, haha).
“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
If you find yourself feeling miserable, I suggest asking yourself the following questions:
- Is it really that bad?
- In spite of all this, what is actually going well?
- What would be the quick win that would make you feel better?
- What do you know (that you can do) that would make you feel better?
- What opportunity is in this for me?
These are just a few quick and simple ways to start getting yourself out of the dip.
The key point is: The easier you’ll see the change and effort needed to get out of the misery dip, the easier it will be to do it.
It’s never as bad as we make it.
The sweet spot between happiness and misery
With all that said, you may be wondering:
“So what do I do now? Do I just keep balancing happiness try to swing up from the misery dip when I find myself in there?”
The quick answer would be: Yes, kind of. But then you just end up oscillating up and down like on a rollercoaster.
The more sustainable solution would be this: Flatten the curves and “find your wavelength”.
The ups and downs will always be there, that’s life.
Learning how to manage them is the key.
The higher and sharper the happiness peak (expectation) is, the less frequently you’ll experience it, and the more miserable everything else will pale in comparison.
The deeper the misery dip (the more you dramatise the change and effort), the harder it will be to get out of it and hence, the more time you spend in it.
That doesn’t sound like a formula for a happy life to me.
Find your “contentment wavelength”.
A place in life where you can be blissfully dissatisfied.
This is where you’re happy and content with who you are (and what you have) while striving for more.
The key is to make your happiness less conditional on “if and when” and more on “I’ve already…” while staying excited about “if and when”.
I’ve found that to be much easier and more realistic to maintain.