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Nathanael Garrett Novosel, December 30 2020

Don't FIND Happiness...CHOOSE Happiness

A lot of people this time of year will be asking, "How do I find happiness?"  That's what people are really looking for: more happiness and fulfillment in their lives.  They're looking outside themselves and trying to find what will make them happy.  In doing so, they're missing a key part of the happiness formula where they can choose to make their lives just a little bit happier every day.  In choosing to be happy, they will will become happier.

Let's break down why this is the case; it's not just a cute mantra but is actually key to increasing your happiness in life.  Happiness is an emotion, and emotions are your feedback mechanism that tells you the direction and velocity of your current state in relationship to growth.  If you're happy, you're growing; if you're sad, you've experienced or expect a loss or harm.  If you're excited, you're looking forward to a new, growth-enabling experience; if you're dreadful or fearful, you are anticipating a harmful or unpleasant event.

(Note: we are excluding pleasure "hacks" like drugs and addictive behaviors from this discussion of a properly functioning emotional system; we'll cover the topic later)

Emotions are a factor of three components: desire, belief, and experience.  In other words, if you want to play the guitar, believe you can improve with practice every day, and practice until you perfect a new song, you'll be happy with your accomplishment.  Alternatively, if you want a person or thing and believe you should have it instead of someone else and then see the other person with it, you'll feel jealousy.  It's those three factors that cause you to feel an emotion.

Think about the implications of that emotional formula.  Yes, you will always be impacted by the world around you because you need your emotions to tell you how to act in the moment, like if you put your hand on a hot stove and pull away quickly because your nervous system and emotional response told you to get away.  Similarly, you will feel everyday stress in day-to-day life because you may need to act urgently to protect yourself, mitigate risk, or maintain your health.  It's when you spend the majority of your life on those kinds of activities, though, that you feel drained and unfulfilled.  The reason is, as we hinted at above, you don't feel like you're growing and thriving but rather than you're surviving and "treading water".  While everyone has their own life circumstances that they may feel stuck in, this is where choice comes in to allow you greater control over your emotions.

You may have heard that you can't always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how you respond.  That's true, but most people don't explain what mechanism they're using other than "control your emotions" in their explanation.  So let's explain that here: if your emotions are a factor of desire + belief + experience, then you can choose different desires, beliefs, and experiences to control and change your emotional state.  That's what people who preach about controlling your emotions are telling you to do.  When you understand this, you can maximize your control over your emotions and, as a result, choose to be happier more often.

Let's start with desire.  Now, the obvious option is that you can want something else if the desire is causing you to feel bad.  That's what Buddhists (see the Four Noble Truths for their explanation) teach and what Aesop discussed in his "Sour Grapes" fable (though the fox reduced his desire by changing his belief, so we'll use this example again in a moment).  Buddhists teach that your desire for things you can't have is what causes suffering, so you can reduce your suffering by detaching from that desire.  Aesop's fable addresses the same issue, as the fox who can't get the grapes tells himself that they were sour (a belief) to eliminate his desire for them.  Now, this sounds depressing, and you'll never eliminate all wanting (nor should you; eliminating all desire is both impossible and not a good idea), so the good news is that you can build desire for something else instead of simply reducing desire for something that you currently want.  The obvious form of this is appreciating what you have (desire for what you have = appreciation), as you already have it so you instantly feel good/better when appreciating in the Desire + Belief + Experience formula.  However, you can just focus on something else that you want that is more attainable or more pleasant so the negative emotions from wanting what is making you unhappy is giving you.  By reducing unhappiness, you'll see your overall life as just a little bit happier.

Now, let's cover belief.  As mentioned with the Aesop story, you can change your beliefs to change your desires.  So if you belief something is unattainable, you'll squelch your desire for it and refocus your attention (i.e., your experience) on something else since you can't have it.  The fact that your beliefs can directly, significantly impact all other three factors (desire, experience, and emotions) is why most self-help books primarily focus on negative beliefs.  When you believe that something is possible, you're hopeful.  When you believe that what you have is good, you'll be more satisfied.  When you believe that a negative experience is on the road to a good outcome, you'll find more meaning in the experience and view it more positively.  Your beliefs are your single most powerful influencing factors on your emotions that you have almost complete control over.  The most famous in psychology is what people call "cognitive dissonance", which is when your beliefs and reality (i.e., your experience) are at such odds with each other that you change your beliefs to reduce the stress of that conflict.  Of course, psychologists study that idea through a negative lens to see how much reality someone has to face before their [presumably silly] beliefs change, but the positive side of that idea is that it is literally the mechanism through which you can control all your emotions.  (side note: It's amazing how science has discovered something with profound implications for happiness but that most people use it to belittle people who disagree with them)

Okay, the final piece: experience.  Remember that an experience is anything that you're perceiving or focusing your attention on.  So people might be fighting a war miles away, but it's not part of your experience if you're not observing it.  This is something that most people overlook because it's usually the negative experiences that they are exposed to that make them unhappy, and they think that they can't do anything about them.  That is, of course, not entirely true.  Yes, if you're walking down the street and someone runs into you and spills coffee on you, at that point it's too late to control your experience.  It just happened, and now you're unhappy.  Yes, you could fiddle with your desires (e.g., "I hated this shirt, anyway, but just wore it because I paid $80 for it.") and beliefs (e.g., "It's okay.  I was actually meaning to go shopping, anyway, so this was the best time for this to happen.  At least I'm not on my way to a job interview."), and you can improve your emotional state.  However, you'd be fighting an uphill battle if you didn't try to control your experiences at least a little.  So let's investigate ways to do that.

First, you can control what you pay attention to.  As I mentioned, there will always be things in the world that you can focus on that will make you unhappy.  So, the easiest, most obvious solution is to not focus on them. While this might be a callous thing to do in some circumstances and, therefore, you shouldn't do it, there are plenty of times when you should absolutely do this.  A good example is if you are making love to your partner.  Thinking about work, starving people, or war during that time is going to take you out of the experience and make it less enjoyable for both of you.  Similarly, you shouldn't be thinking about stressful things when you're on vacation so that you can get the most recovery benefits from the experience.  Clearly, thinking about negative things in situations like these is not going to benefit anyone and is only going to drag things down.  So refocus your attention on things that make you feel better.  Remember that it doesn't even have to be focusing away from a tragedy; you can simply focus on helping people in need vs. thinking about what caused them to be in need, and you'll feel much better and be helping them.  It's not just about ignoring bad things but rather about focusing on positive, constructive aspects vs. the negative.

Second, you can control your experiences.  You can either let someone yell at you, or you can be assertive and not allow them to treat you that way.  You can not associate with destructive people.  In school, you can choose to study more so your test experience is less stressful.  In life, you can choose to leave 5 minutes earlier so you don't feel rushed or stressed.  All of these life choices directly change your experiences and lead to happier outcomes.  So make the changes to your experience that you can make, and you'll control your emotions.

Finally, there's controlling things that will mitigate the uncontrollable things.  Buying insurance, saving money, or having contingency plans are all examples of how you can reduce the risk that an experience will negatively impact you and, therefore, reduce your worry and unhappiness.  By preparing for the uncontrollable, you are able to control your emotional reaction more easily when these events occur.

So those are the three components of your emotional state that you can directly control or influence.  One final note, however, about increasing your happiness vs. pleasure: ensure that you are raising your happiness levels in healthy ways as much as possible.  There is a fine line between using ice cream or alcohol to unwind from a bad day (so that you feel better tomorrow) and binging in an unhealthy way that will cause you to feel even worse.  Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness; you can "hack" your brain into feeling pleasure to try to mask the pain of negative experiences, desires, or beliefs, but until you address the root cause of the feelings, you'll just be masking them.  So you can use temporary pleasures if they help you get your focus off something you can't control, for example, so you can be happy again, but you can't use them to avoid life entirely because your life stressors will always be there when you come back from the temporary highs.  So remember to focus on your desires, beliefs, and experiences to change your emotions first and only use pleasure-inducing substances or behaviors in a healthy, well-being improvement way.

For this new year, remember to stop looking for happiness and start choosing happiness.  Not coincidentally, you'll find happiness by choosing it.  Choosing to want what you have, want things that excite you, believe things that will make you feel better or give more meaning to what you're doing, and experience things that are positive and constructive as much as possible, and you'll master your emotions and live a much happier life.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel

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