Thought Catalog
March 19, 2014

If You’ve Ever Wanted To Be Unhappy, Here’s 4 Ways To Do It

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What is the issue?

Nassim Taleb (my intellectual crush) first introduced me to the idea of via negative, get rid of the bad instead of adding the good. The idea is that most of our misery comes from extra treatment (in medicine), bad questions, worse assumptions, and so on.

It will help your health more to stop smoking (or stressing) than to add broccoli to your diet.

Instead of focusing on being happy focus on getting rid of the things that make you unhappy.

Take away your desperate need to find passion, love, and meaning and you’ll find them waiting in the flow of doing good (or bad) work.

Psychology Today rana great article today dealing with our obsessive focus on happiness.

All of this is just reinforcing the idea that the best life isn’t necessarily the “happiest.” Happiness seems overrated when you can be virtuous or interesting. The weird thing is that it also looks like happiness only comes when you aim somewhere else.

In a series of new studies led by the psychologist Iris Mauss, the more value people placed on happiness, the less happy they became.

Some guy Tom, who happens to be our protagonist, moved to every country and tried every job and was always dissatisfied. He was looking for the perfect culture, the perfect job, and the perfect companion. Basically, Tom was a millennial to the max.

The following are:

Tom’s 4 Dumb Doings

1. Evaluating Instead of Experiencing

The first blunder was in trying to figure out if he was happy. When we pursue happiness, our goal is to experience more joy and contentment. To find out if we’re making progress, we need to compare our past happiness to our current happiness. This creates a problem: the moment we make that comparison, we shift from an experiencing mode to an evaluating mode. Consider several decades of research by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity….

Csikszentmihalyi finds that when people are in a flow state, they don’t report being happy, as they’re too busy concentrating on the activity or conversation. But afterward, looking back, they describe flow as the optimal emotional experience. By looking everywhere for happiness, Tom disrupted his ability to find flow. He was so busy assessing each new job and country that he never fully engaged in his projects and relationships.

2. Events Don’t Make Happiness

The second error was in overestimating the impact of life circumstances on happiness. As psychologist Dan Gilbert explains in Stumbling on Happiness, we tend to overestimate the emotional impact of positive life events. We think a great roommate or a major promotion will make us happier, overlooking the fact that we’ll adapt to the new circumstances. For example, in a classic study, winning the lottery didn’t appear to yield lasting gains in happiness. Each time Tom moved to a new job and country, he was initially excited to be running on a new treadmill, but within a matter of months, the reality of the daily grind set in: he was still running on a treadmill.

3. Going Alone

This research is based on evaluation of the self and feeling lonely. I have had some of the greatest moments of my life alone. In these moments my mind wasn’t on myself – it was on writing or the perfection of something in nature.

The third misstep was in pursuing happiness alone. Happiness is an individual state, so when we look for it, it’s only natural to focus on ourselves. Yet a wealth of evidence consistently shows that self-focused attention undermines happiness and causes depression. In one study, Mauss and colleagues demonstrated that the greater the value people placed on happiness, the more lonely they felt every day for the next two weeks….As Tom changed jobs and countries alone, he left behind the people who made him happy.

4. Seeking Peaks

The final mistake was in looking for intense happiness. When we want to be happy, we look for strong positive emotions like joy, elation, enthusiasm, and excitement. Unfortunately, research shows that this isn’t the best path to happiness. Research led by the psychologist Ed Diener reveals that happiness is driven by the frequency, not the intensity, of positive emotions. When we aim for intense positive emotions, we evaluate our experiences against a higher standard, which makes it easier to be disappointed. Indeed, Mauss and her colleagues found that when people were explicitly searching for happiness, they experienced less joy in watching a figure skater win a gold medal. They were disappointed that the event wasn’t even more jubilating. And even if they themselves had won the gold medal, it probably wouldn’t have helped. Studies indicate that an intense positive experience leads us to frame ordinary experiences as less positive. Once you’ve landed a gold medal or won the lottery, it’s hard to take pleasure in finding a great parking spot or winning a video game. Tom was looking so hard for the perfect job and the ideal country that he failed to appreciate an interesting task and a great restaurant.

The article concludes:

In ObliquityJohn Kay argues that the best things in life can only be pursued indirectly. I believe this is true for happiness: if you truly want to experience joy or meaning, you need to shift your attention away from joy or meaning, and toward projects and relationships that bring joy and meaning as byproducts. As the great philosopher John Stuart Mill once wrote,“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.” TC mark

featured image – Shutterstock

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