Forget happiness, focus on unhappiness

In 2009, Stacey Kramer was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Today, she’s better off for it.

Kramer was 43 years old. She was just getting ready to celebrate her wedding anniversary, and by all accounts, she was the happiest and healthiest she had ever been at the time.

It was the last thing she expected, and at first, it shook her to the core. What followed wasn’t an easy road, but looking back, when Kramer tells the story, she speaks of it as a gift.1

She believes that in spite of the pain and the suffering, she wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. It brought her closer to her family, made her more appreciative of life, and reminded her of what really mattered. It inspired a seismic shift in her perspective.

Kramer doesn’t claim that every form of trauma or suffering brings with it a new hidden meaning. She realizes that it’s more complicated than that. The only point she tries to hit home is that the unwanted and the unexpected doesn’t always have to be that bad.

The phenomenon that she’s talking about is actually fairly common, and it’s based on how the brain reframes stressors. Scientists refer to it as post-traumatic growth (PTG).

Though a concrete strategy for happiness is almost impossible to identify and even harder to generalize for a large body of people, there is sense in using what we know about our brain to give us insight on how we can limit unhappiness in our lives. It starts with realizing that:

  • Almost nothing is as bad as we think it is
  • How we feel depends on how we respond
  • The key is in our ability to adjust expectations

If we can successfully target unhappiness, we can better guide ourselves to be happier.

Almost nothing is as bad as you think it is

One of the major differences between humans and other mammals is that our brain has a prefrontal cortex that allows us to make rational decisions and plan for the future. We can imagine possibilities that have yet to occur and use them to make choices.

The only problem is that we’re not always good at imagining how we will feel about something in the future. The primitive parts of our brain that influence emotions don’t imagine how future us will feel about something, but they imagine how present us feels.

One of the byproducts of this is that we have a tendency to presume that certain things in life will be much worse than they actually are. Luckily, that’s not necessarily the case.

An array of experiments have been done in fields ranging from behavioral psychology to neuroscience, and although we can’t necessarily pretend that anyone can overcome all obstacles, they do tell us that we’re far more pliable than we give ourselves credit for.

One of the most famous of such experiments was done in 1978. A group of researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts set out to compare the happiness levels of two vastly different groups of people.

The first was made up of recent winners of the State lottery, with the prize ranging from $50,000 to $1 million, and the second was filled with victims of accidents that had caused a form of extreme paralysis. They interviewed each group to measure the pleasure they felt in response to day to day activities in their lives. The results were absolutely fascinating.

Lottery winners were unsurprisingly better off in their present happiness level (temporary), but it turned out that there wasn’t really a big difference between their day to day happiness level (long-term). In fact, the victims reported they were slightly happier in their daily life.

This finding has caught a lot of traction in the decades following. The verdict is still out on the exact degree of control we have over our happiness and where we should draw the line.

However, one thing appears fairly conclusive. Human beings are extremely flexible in their ability to adapt to life events. Even if some things really do make or break us, for the most part, many of the things we fear will cause us unhappiness when we imagine the future are things that have limited effect on our day to day life once we readjust.

Almost nothing is as bad you think it is when you’re thinking about it, and it’s probably not the end of the world if things don’t turn out exactly how you ideally imagined.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t strive for what you perceive to be the optimal result. It’s simply about relieving yourself of the needless unhappiness that comes from underestimating your own resilience to life events. Know when not to worry.

How you feel depends on how you respond

It’s one thing to imagine and fear trauma, but it’s an entirely different thing to experience it.

In spite of stories like Stacey Kramer’s, and notwithstanding that most outcomes aren’t as bad as we think they will be, some experiences can stay with us for a prolonged period.

Mental illnesses like PTSD, depression, and anxiety are often triggered by painful episodes in our lives. And science has yet to provide a reliable answer as to why these debilitating diseases are so prevalent and where exactly they come from.

It appears that part of the answer lies hidden in our genetic code and part of it has to do with how we choose to respond to the stressors in our environment.

Addressing these extreme illnesses is beyond the scope of this article. That said, if one part the equation is how we respond to our environment, then maybe better understanding how people like Kramer come out on the bright side can help us fight the unhappiness brought on by circumstance in our own life. What exactly is PTG?

Post-traumatic growth was originally coined by two psychologists at the University of North Carolina, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. At the time, they had spent a decade studying bereaved parents. They found that though the tragedy of losing a child was never really lessened, there was a personal gain within that loss for many of the parents.

By choosing to grow and extract meaning from their loss, the parents moved towards activism and acts of compassion and altruism that they wouldn’t have otherwise discovered the richness in had they not experienced the trauma. It might not have been a blessing in disguise, but there was a gain, and that’s what they focused on.

We can influence our environment and maximize our odds of a favorable outcome with good information, but in life, there will always be a chance factor. The world will hit you, and it will be unexpected. You can’t do much to control that.

You can, however, to some degree control your response. You have two primary options: you can choose to respond with acceptance and seek meaning and growth – or any other framing tactic that makes sense to you – or you can give in to your circumstances.

The result will be the difference. How you respond will affect how you feel, and how you feel will ultimately determine whether or not you’re unhappy with your life at large.

The key is in your ability to adjust expectations

So far we’ve discussed mental tactics for dealing with specific instances. There is, however, an overarching strategy that brings it all together. Ultimately, limiting unhappiness comes down to cultivating the ability to constantly adjust your internal expectations.

An outside event is often objective. If a parent passes away, for example, that’s something concrete. But how we make sense of such events is through subjective experience. It depends on what you believe about what’s happened. It depends on your prior expectations.

Almost any feeling that we have in response to an event generally falls into two categories: good and bad. Over time, good feelings come together to nurture conditions for what we define as happiness, and too many bad feelings are the cause of unhappiness.

It’s all far more complicated than simplified labels, but an easy way to make sense of it is to view good feelings as sensations that occur when reality meets or exceeds our internal subjective expectations, and bad feelings as sensations that occur when reality falls short.

Now, many that agree with this general framework often come to one easy conclusion: the key to happiness is low expectations. This way, the objective reality almost always meets or exceeds what we expect from it. And on the surface, at least, it should make sense.

The problem with low expectations, however, is that they’re just not feasible. We know that mindset affects results. If a professional athlete went into every game or occasion not expecting to be the best they could, they likely wouldn’t stay a professional for much longer.

The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate unhappiness but to limit it. Elimination doesn’t work, and more importantly, doses of unhappiness are needed for true happiness to be appreciated.

The secret then lies in our ability to adjust the lever of our expectations when we do fall short. We have to be flexible in how we manipulate our outlook based on new information.

It’s okay, and sometimes even necessary, to feel unhappy in response to something. The danger lies in going from a moment of unhappiness into a prolonged state of unhappiness.

All you need to know

Every year, a new body of research points out the things that will make us happy in our lives. Most of it is nothing new. It’s just a different way of reframing what we already know. Relationships are important, meaningful work is important, and gratitude is important.

Most of us know this, and yet, nothing changes. For some, the case may well be that the things that make us happy are out of reach. The vast majority of us, however, are limited not by our pursuit of happiness, but simply by what we don’t know about limiting unhappiness.

We don’t have a solution for clinical mental illnesses. What we do have is a three-step process for how some of us may just be able to remove unhappiness from our lives.

  • I. It starts with realizing that almost nothing is as bad as you think it is when you’re thinking about it. We have a unique ability to imagine and plan for the future, but we’re often bad at it. We do so with our current feelings in mind and not the feelings of our future selves. We overlook our immense adaptability to our surroundings.
  • II. Know that how you feel depends on how you respond. Of course, adversity doesn’t just go away because we want it to, and certain circumstances really can cause a prolonged state of unhappiness. That said, we can use framing tactics like seeking meaning and growth in hardship to better respond to our environmental stressors.
  • III. There’s a way to bring the whole concept together, and it’s by cultivating the ability to adjust internal expectations. Over time, whether or not you feel good or bad depends on how consistently reality exceeds or falls short of what you expect. The secret lies in how swiftly you can adjust the lever of these expectations once you’ve fallen short.

To have a shot at being happy, we must first nurture conditions that limit unhappiness in our lives. Getting from neutral to happy isn’t the challenge. Most of us can manage that. The challenge is in how to consistently and effectively go from unhappy to neutral.

This isn’t necessarily a magic bullet cure. It’s just another way of thinking that might help.

Want to think and live smarter? Zat Rana publishes a free weekly newsletter for 30,000+ readers at Design Luck.