Mental health Happiness 8 January 2022 • 15 mins reading time

Think of some times you were unhappy recently, for these moments, why were they not happy for you? You may think you could not have experienced these moments as happy moments, but I think with a little thought and perspective we can achieve that.

Introduction

During 2021, I experienced a dark period of depression and after a while I began looking for ways I could feel happier. In the past I’d read several books on happiness that approached the topic from a biological background. While useful, these books never helped me to understand what I could do to influence my happiness.

I decided to buy the book Solve For Happy by Mo Gawdat which seemed to provide a more holistic approach to the topic of happiness. Mo is one of my favourite thinkers that I’ve discovered in the past few years and I encourage everyone to listen to his podcast, or to listen to him as a guest on a podcast.

One of my favourite of his interviews is with Steven Bartlett, you can find that here. I truly think everyone should sit and listen to this conversation.

Some of the thoughts in this post stem from the information in Solve For Happy and the ideas from this book have helped me develop a healthier approach to how I think about happiness.


Happiness vs. pleasure

There’s a growing misconception that happiness and pleasure are the same thing — they are not.

Happiness is the state of feeling like things are what we expect and that we’re flowing through life. Unexpected events can temporarily knock us off this flow but in time we should be able to bounce back to that state of flow.

Pleasure, however, is the temporary feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment we feel when we experience certain events and behaviours. Dopamine activates our pleasure pathways in the brain — I’ve written a detailed blog post about Dopamine already, you can find it here. Hedonism is the belief that we should focus solely on the pursuit of pleasure.

For this blog post, we’ve only focusing on happiness.


Expectations vs. Reality

Expectations anchor our minds to a particular outcome. Consider that two people with different expectations can experience the same event but feel completely differently afterwards.

This should give us a clue that expectations play a role in our levels of happiness in some way.

Let’s consider the three possible scenarios:

Scenario Outcome
Reality exceeds our expectations We are pleasantly surprised that life is going better than we believe it should.
Reality meets our expectations We are happy and content that life is going as we believe it should.
Reality is worse than our expectations We are unhappy, we feel that the world is doing us an injustice.

Putting this into context

Let’s consider some examples to make this more concrete:

Expectation Reality Feeling
I have no plans for this evening I end up going on a spontaneous trip to the pub with a friend Happy
New Year’s Eve will be the best night ever New Year’s Eve was an average night Unhappy
It will sometimes rain in the UK You wake up and it’s raining Content
It should not rain when you are on holiday You wake up and it’s raining Unhappy

Notice how in the last 2 rows the reality is the same but we can end up feeling completely different!

This is all down to our expectations.

A naïve happiness formula

From the above knowledge, we can come up with a simple formula for happiness:

Level of happiness = Reality - Expectation

This basically says: if reality is equal to or better than our expectations we are happy, otherwise we are unhappy.

Simple, right? Well, not exactly.

Contradicting this formula

Let’s consider what happens when two people have exactly the same expectation. Can we assume that in experiencing the same event that these two people will feel exactly the same levels of happiness?

Of course not!

Again, let’s use an example to put this into context:

  • Expectation: “I should never be involved in a car crash”
  • Reality: You are in a car crash
  • Person 1: “Look at how damaged my car is, I can’t believe they hit me!”
  • Person 2: “Thank god I am okay and that I live in a time where cars are so safe”

It’s hopefully immediately obvious from this simple example that two people with the same expectation can feel completely different after experiencing the same event.

What’s missing from our naïve formula is the role of our perceptions in determining our happiness, let’s explore that now.


Perceptions

Clearly there’s a little more to happiness than simply setting healthy expectations otherwise pessimists would be the happiest group of people and optimists would be the least happy. Whether you’re an optimist, pessimistic or somewhere in between does not determine how happy you can be.

Events come at us constantly throughout life, some we have expectations for and others we never expected. How we perceive these events ultimately determines our happiness.

Consider the example of the car crash in the previous section. Although it’s a nasty and unexpected event to be in a car crash, we have the choice of how we perceive the event. If we are able to reframe events in a positive way, then for an event that we would otherwise find stressful or unhappy, we can instead find peace or even happiness from it.

A better happiness formula

With this in mind, we can tweak our previous equation to the following:

Level of happiness = Perception - Expectation

If our perception of events is equal to or better than our expectation then we will feel happy, otherwise we’ll feel unhappy.

Immediate reaction vs. rational perspective

Unfortunately, choosing a different perspective is not as simple as it sounds. Like everything, it requires practice.

Our natural tendency when we experience an event is to form an immediate emotional reaction. Changing our perspective involves not succumbing to this initial emotion and instead trying to be rational about the event in front of us.

Some examples of changing our perspective:

Event Immediate reaction Changed perspective
A car changes lane sharply and pulls in front of you while driving “What an idiot!” “Perhaps they are new to this area, the road markings round here can be quite confusing”
Your colleague snaps at you at work “How rude, why are they so uptight today?” “I don’t know what’s happened in their personal life. I’ve been in this situation before and appreciated someone asking how I was, I should check they are okay.”
You’re in a restaurant and service is really slow “This slow service is making me angry, where is our food?” “It is a busy restaurant and perhaps they are short-staffed with covid at the moment, I’m sure they are trying their best.”

In the immediate reactions, the event in front of us has determined our emotions, however with perspective we can choose the emotions we respond with instead. Notice how much healthier our thoughts are if we try to be rational about the situation in front of us.

This process of changing our perspective is not easy. Our brains have evolved to make quick judgements to free us up to focus on other things. This is a useful design of the brain in some circumstances but in others it can get in the way of our happiness.


Revisiting unhappy events

Now that we understand the role that expectations and perceptions play in shaping our emotions, let’s pause for a moment and reflect again on the moments where you were unhappy recently.

Were you unhappy because:

  • You had unrealistic expectations?
  • You failed to use a little perspective?
  • A bit of both?

Hopefully with what we’ve discussed, you can see how changing your expectations or perceptions would’ve resulted in a different level of happiness.

A personal example

Over the Christmas period I injured myself at the gym.

My immediate feeling was that I was annoyed that I wouldn’t be able to train for the next few weeks. However, I recognised that although I couldn’t do strength training I could still go out for runs — something I’d neglected for a while.

This acceptance and change in perspective resulted in me enjoying several runs and hikes in a local woodland which I wouldn’t have otherwise done.


Why are we so unhappy anyway?

Everyone is searching for happiness, but why are we so bad at finding it?

I see four core reasons why we’re often left unhappy with our lives:

  1. Comparison
  2. We get used to what we have
  3. Lack of personal responsibility
  4. Hedonistic focus

Let’s explore each of these in turn.

Comparison

In always comparing ourselves to others, we derive our expectations from our perceptions of the people around us.

Let’s consider a simple example of your salary. Imagine for the sake of argument that you’re happy with your salary, how would you feel knowing your colleague in the same role is earning double what you are? You’d undoubtedly feel unhappy. But before you knew this information you were happy? What changed? You’re now deriving your expectation from someone else’s reality.

Theodore Roosevelt famously said “Comparison is the thief of joy”, and it’s clear even today just how accurate this is.

Nowhere is this more true than in social media. Social media puts the highlights of millions of lives in front of us. Suddenly, we are judging ourselves against all these other people and it’s only natural for our expectations of ourselves to increase, and in a lot of cases become totally unrealistic.

The natural result of this is that we’re left dissatisfied with what we were once content with.

We get used to what we have

If you look back at the struggles of humanity of the past centuries you’ll realise how incredibly fortunate we are to live in the time we do. Despite what the news tells you, the world is incredibly stable, people are living longer each year and technological innovation continues to solve many critical global issues. Life now is better than it’s even been in the history of humanity. Why have these improvements not impacted our happiness in the way we’d expect?

Simply put, we get used to what we have.

I still remember as a kid how much joy I got from my first iPod. I was able to store my music on a device that I could put in my pocket — how incredible! Nowadays, I have Spotify and with that comes the ability to listen to almost any song ever recorded, on-demand, for free, and yet I rarely consider how unbelievable this is. How sad.

These periods of technological innovation give us brief periods of joy where new technology massively exceeds our prior expectations around what was possible. However we soon get used to this new technology and our expectations are adjusted to this new norm. You only have to watch this clip from the original iPhone launch to notice how much our expectations have changed.

What’s worse, when an event inevitably fails to reach our sky-high expectations, we become unhappy — even though once upon a time such an event could have brought us joy. Consider your expectations across some areas of your life and look at how high they’ve become. No doubt they didn’t used to be this high.

This perpetual increasing of our expectations in effect neutralises the joy this technology brings. If we fail to appreciate the improvements technology brings to our lives, then is there any need for these improvements in the first place?

Lack of personal responsibility

At the risk of sounding controversial, we are responsible for how we feel. However, I want to make it absolutely clear that being responsible for how you feel does not mean that you are to blame for how you feel.

Consider the car crash example from earlier, you are not to blame for the way you feel after such an awful event, but you are responsible. That’s probably an uncomfortable thing for a lot of us to hear, but once we recognise that we have this responsibility it gives us the power to do something about it.

Telling myself that I’m responsible for the depression I’ve been experiencing was certainly uncomfortable. However, it’s ultimately made me realise that I can do something about it, and that’s liberating.

Hedonistic focus

As discussed in an earlier section, happiness is not the same as pleasure. As a society we’re becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of being bored. I believe a lot of us have fallen into hedonistic behaviours where we’re constantly searching for ways to experience pleasure.

Alcohol, drugs, partying, and fast food are just some examples of the highs people chase. But in focusing solely on chasing these highs, we can begin to think that any time not spent experiencing pleasure as a waste of time. But really, that’s where most of life is.

It’s also not sustainable to be chasing these highs constantly. As I wrote about in my post on Dopamine, over time we’re unable to derive the same pleasure that we once were from these. This leads us to chase bigger and bigger highs. Before we know it, we’re addicted. A symptom of addiction is anhedonia — the inability to derive enjoyment from anything, except the addictive behaviour. Being in a state of anhedonia is not conducive to a general feeling of happiness or contentment.

I’m not suggesting you stop drinking or partying, but rather to recognise what your highs are find a healthy balance with them. They should supplement, not define, your life.


How we can all live happier lives

The previous section may sound quite doom and gloom but I think in identifying some of the core issues affecting our happiness we can then look at ways to avoid them.

Set healthy expectations

As we’ve explored in this post, expectations underpin our happiness. Setting healthy and realistic expectations is key to giving yourself the best chance to feel happy.

Here’s some examples of some unhealthy expectations, with some that are healthier.

Unhealthy expectation Healthier expectation
I should never get injured through my fitness training Occasionally I’ll injure myself. These things happen and I will learn from each injury.
My neighbours should never play loud music late at night Sometimes my neighbours will have parties and play music late at night. That’s okay, I’ve thrown parties before and there’s been loud music late into the evening.
My boss should never annoy me Sometimes my boss will do things that annoy me. Everyone does things now and then that will annoy me and that’s okay.
Everyday must be productive or it’s a failure. Some days will be more productive than others. It’s okay to have a bad day now and then, things come up in life that get in the way.
I judge myself against my friends using salary. Some of my friends will earn more than me. That’s expected as everyone works in different industries and companies. Each company has pros and cons and job satisfaction is about more than salary.

Notice how much less black and white the healthier expectations are. Reality is never black and white, so why should our expectations be? Using reality to help shape expectations is important to make sure they end up being healthy.

Search for different perspectives

Things will happen throughout life that don’t match our expectations, there’s not much we can do to stop that happening. What we can do is to make sure we look at the event in front of us in a healthy way though.

Choosing how we view events can be the difference between feeling unhappy and happy. Consider the car crash example from earlier on, choosing a healthy perspective can make a big difference in how we experience such events.

Don’t let your initial assumption fool you into feeling a certain way, take time to process what happened and come to your own perspective.

Some questions you may find useful when looking for a different perspective:

  • Is this true?
  • Does this matter?
  • Why do I feel this way?
  • What can I do about it?

Appreciate what you have

Being grateful for what you have is crucial in keeping your expectations in-check and in forming healthy perspectives throughout life.

Gratitude is a more than just setting aside a few moments a day to list things you’re grateful for. It’s important to try and live each moment of your day with a sense of gratefulness so that you can process each event that comes at you with the right mindset.

Stanford Neurobiologist Andrew Huberman has an excellent deep dive video on the science of gratitude and how to establish healthy gratitude practices.

Invest in your physical and mental health

The body and mind are intimately connected and our lifestyle affects the health of both of these. The healthier our body and mind is, the easier it is for us to maintain a healthy mindset which is key to how we setting sensible expectations and coming up with different perspectives.

Our health is a catalyst for our happiness.


Closing

We’re all searching for happiness and everyone’s happiness journey is different. Happiness is not an end-goal that you reach and you’re done, but rather it’s about finding what works for you in your life.

I’m sure the thoughts I’ve discussed in this post will change over time as I learn more about the subject and myself. My current position is that I believe happiness comes from having realistic expectations, being open-minded with your perspectives and trying to live a kind, healthy, and modest life.