Some Practical Thoughts On Unhappiness

“Tomorrow will be different”.

When I feel lonely or out of place in Budapest, this is what I tell myself.

It gives me hope.

It tells me that my happiness will improve when my circumstances improve.

Small problem: this is false.

How does one alleviate unhappiness?

Because we’ll have our portion of misery anyway, we’d do best to try to attain happiness despite it. Not by avoiding it.

So ask yourself, what do you do when you’re unhappy?

For me, a natural approach is to try to increase my life satisfaction by changing something about my life.

Sounds logical, right?

But this strategy doesn’t work.

“The idea that you’re going to change something in the outside world and that is going to bring you happiness is a fundamental delusion that we all suffer from.” — Naval Ravikant on the Farnam Street podcast

Stop reading and let that marinate for a second.

Changing something in the outside world is not going to cause sustainable changes in your happiness level. While the external surroundings might change, you’ll still live in the same haunted house.

Everything I’ve learned about life in ___.

You know these ‘Everything I’ve learned about life in X lessons’ articles?

For some reason, they always perform well. People dig ready-to-eat bites of wisdom.

So if I’d have to tell you my best strategy for winning the game of life, it would be:

Changes in the outside world don’t make you happier.

This a tremendously profound insight. So you manage to internalize it, let me know how you did that.

Research confirms that variations in circumstances only account for 10% of variations in happiness.

I could end the essay here, and if I managed to craft a nice title, elaborate a bit and add some more inspirational quotes, it’d probably do well.

But there’s more to it.

A lot more.

So buckle up.

Hedonic adaptation

All this has been a way of saying that, when happiness is concerned,

““Someday” is only right the fuck now.” — Kris Gage

In Happier, Harvard-psychologist Tal Ben-Sahar defines the “arrival fallacy” as“the false belief that reaching a valued destination can sustain happiness”.

Again: if your outer life changes, but your inner life doesn’t, you’ll maximally increase your happiness by 10%.

Psychologists explain this by citing hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation is the psychological process by which people become accustomed to a positive or negative stimulus, such that the emotional effects of that stimulus fade out over time.

In other words, we return to a relatively stable way of feeling about our lives despite major life changes.

For instance, in his famous TED-talk, Harvard-psychologist Daniel Gilbertcites a study according to which “a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives”.

Whatever external change, you’ll return to your base level of happiness.Hence, what we need is a way to change this base level, independent of external circumstances.

Just say Yes

So far, we’ve seen that happiness is internal. Changing your mental life is where the bigger gains are to be found.

Saying: “I’ll be happy when I’ll see my friends more” might be true for the first two weeks back home, but for the long term, the claim is false. Same haunted house, remember?

So let’s change the haunted house into a craft beer bar:

“There are only two mantras, yum and yuck, mine is yum.” — Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

If we say Yes to something, this thing will no longer have the power to make us unhappy. Therefore, we can dissolve our unhappiness by doing so.

Many contemporary self-help gurus give this advice. It has some merits. If you want to have a pleasant life, cultivating positive thoughts is immensely important. Furthermore, practicing gratitude can counter adaptation to things or regular experiences that used to be special to us but now no longer makes us happy. And yes, perhaps many instances of feeling bad can be combated by acquiring the Yes-habit.

But not all of them.

The price of happiness?

Everyone feels in their gut that there’s more to happiness than saying Yes to whatever comes our way.

Here’s what this gut feeling gets at: when something conflicts with yourvalues, saying Yes to it will undermine you. Some things make you unhappy for a reason, and denying that by saying Yes anyway will make you lose your self-respect.

I don’t want to buy my happiness by lying to myself. Often, feeling bad gets at something and you can’t make it go away by pushing it down.

For example, when I miss my family, I genuinely doubt whether I’ve made the right choice to spend so much time away from them.

When that conflict makes me feel bad, I have to re-assess my choices. “Overriding” these questions by saying Yes to everything means silencing some of my values.

That’s not a nice way to live.

Worth it

It’s a fact that my mental life doesn’t change sustainably when I succeed in making some external changes. But detaching my feelings from reality by ‘choosing’ to be happy whatever happens, doesn’t do the trick either.

I take some things to matter in life. Part of judging something to be important is caring about it. When we care for something, there might be a mismatch between how the world is and how we want it to be. Therefore, wanting implies suffering.

Indeed, this is the reason that Buddhism thinks we should eradicate desire: because suffering is bad, we should stop wanting.

I think Buddhists are right in inferring that we could put an end to some pain if we could just stop fighting, but wrong in concluding that we should therefore stop fighting.

Some pains are worth having.

How can I seriously judge something to be worth caring about if I am not prepared to feel bad when something incompatible happens?

For instance, it seems that I can’t coherently assert that academic freedom means a lot to me, while also wanting to be totally unaffected by the Central European University being forced out of Hungary.

If this is right, then the puppet-of-life happiness is not the happiness we are looking for. While changing your life is no solution to the problem of unhappiness, mindless Yes-saying doesn’t work either.

Getting it right

“But Maarten, surely you’re not denying that acceptance and positive emotions are super important for happiness?”

It might seem like I am, doesn’t it?

That can’t be right.

On the other hand, think about it. It seems like when you decide to say Yes to things, you thereby judge them as OK. But many events are not acceptable.You can get it right in choosing to adopt a certain attitude towards something and the attitude of acceptance doesn’t always get it right.

That said, it’s pointless to deny that reality is as it is.

A middle way might then be to make sense of accepting that something is the case, without accepting that in some other sense of the word.

I don’t know how that might go, so I want to suggest a different solution.

Conscious risk-exposure

As we’ve seen, feeling good is not about the outer world, but about our about inner life.

Yet, inner feelings need to relate to reality in the right way. We can’t makesome terrible event good by accepting it.

I can’t desire to finish my PhD and say Yes to not finishing my PhD. When wecare about something, we thereby expose ourselves to the risk of unhappiness.

We need to be care-ful with what we choose to care about, as this comes with a commitment to refuse to accept certain things. Such non-acceptancemakes us unhappy. This means that we need to have a good reason for not accepting some event.

This is where the part about values comes back in.

Something might be so important to me right now that I can’t accept it, and that now I’m going to put up with a mental battle for it. Then, I recognize that as the axis of my suffering. I realize that that’s where I’ve chosen to be unhappy.

Ideally, hopefully ever, I will be self-aware enough to catch myself when my ego unconsciously resists against the way the world is. That is unnecessary unhappiness. This such a short and precious life that it’s important for me to not spend it being unhappy for something that’s not worth it.

The challenge is to limit non-acceptance to conscious non-acceptance and unhappiness to mindful unhappiness.