One of the most important lessons I learned very early in life came from a series of psychology studies that I read for entertainment. It talked about how the big troubles we face – the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the foreclosure of a home – are often overcome because our natural defense systems activate, causing our behavior to moderate with time so that we accept what has happened, rebuild, and put it behind us. The things that cause severe unhappiness are not these major shocks; they are the small irritations that build up and wear away at you like Chinese water torture.
The example, if I recall correctly, was that a broken arm was far easier to deal with psychologically than a backdoor that squeaked loudly but was never fixed. Part of this is that the severity of the broken arm requires treatment whereas human nature being what it is, the door will always be put off to the imaginary realm of “someday”, which never arrives for most people. Long commutes to work, dirty dishes in the sink, never having enough pairs of socks when you get dressed in the morning … those are the things that will make you feel unhappy according to the research.
This was bolstered by a wonderful book I read years later, picked up as part of one of my many book runs, called Stumbling on Happiness that talked about the science of human contentment. It turns out that happiness is not something you acquire; for most people it is something that develops when there is an absence of negative events or frustrations. Another is the unexpected joys that confront you, which are often more important to the brain chemistry of happiness than huge events like winning the lottery. It sounds crazy, but that’s the data shows.
When setting up my life after college graduation, I decided that one of the things I was going to do when putting in place a self-reinforcing structure that governed my home and office life to take these lessons to heart. I did it by:
- Constantly filling my life with happy surprises
- Immediately removing any irritation that was big enough for me to notice more than twice
Each requires a bit of explanation and some examples. Please note that all of this assumes you are a well-adjusted, mentally stable person, as is most of the population. If you suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, or some other neurological condition, none of this is going to apply because there is a brain chemistry issue at play that make the rules of engagement entirely different for you. In that case, see a doctor and do something about it because the systems that work so well for others aren’t going to be effective on your own mind.
Fill Your Life With Happy Surprises
You want a stream of constant, happy surprises, personal, professional, financial, culturally, and bombarding you, day in and day out so that you find yourself going, “Oh, that’s nice” at least once every day or two.
[mainbodyad]Family and friends are important to me so I arranged my life to live near people I care about deeply. Not that long ago, we had some people over at the house and suddenly there was a knock at the door. My grandmother had decided she wanted to bake a ham for me and brought in this giant feast of a dinner “just because”. My niece would show up to the office and somehow convince me to stop working and, instead, watch videos of Disney World on YouTube for an hour. Our friends would stop by with their new babies or grab a cup of coffee. I’d go to lunch with people with whom I went to elementary school. I’d get a phone call and be told that I had to attend an art gallery showing because someone in my life was competing; next thing you know, you’re not only enjoying the exhibits, but everyone is out to dinner afterwards.
Proximity is important so being in a place where you are surrounded by those about whom you care can do wonders. If you don’t have that now, develop new relationships!
Imagine you hold 25 different stocks, each of which pay a quarterly dividend. That is 100 different times throughout the year of 365 days that you will wake up and suddenly find that cash has been deposited into your bank account.
A few days ago, I sat down at my desk and pulled up my family holdings to find that there was money sitting there, waiting for me to do something, from the cash Microsoft had deposited into our accounts as an owner of the business. Yesterday, there were new cash deposits from our ownership stake in McDonald’s. Wells Fargo & Company just announced a 20% hike in the dividend rate. Three days, three different, wonderful surprises that just show up. The reason this worked so well for me is I get obsessive about projects. When I’m learning how to cook, if I don’t get enough done in a day as I think I should have, it’s wonderful to sit down and see that, despite my absence, more capital piled up for me to utilize, just as if I had been at the office.
Go online, order yourself and your spouse a gift basket of your favorite things to be randomly delivered eight months from now … you’ll probably forget about it and when it shows up, it will be an unexpected surprise.
You get to the point where you instinctively, without realizing it, set yourself up for future payoffs. Then, it becomes a cycle.
Immediately Remove Irritations That Cross Your Radar More Than Twice
If it is important enough for you to notice more than twice, it’s important enough to fix. Do not put it off to “someday”. Schedule it in, on a specific date, at a specific time. One of my favorite thinkers suggested believing there is no yesterday, there is no tomorrow, if you don’t do it today it doesn’t count.
I was informed last night that the towels in the house are not up to standard after years of use so all of them are being thrown out and a new shipment arriving. It may seem like a small thing, but it now removes one flash of negativity when you reach for a towel after a shower and think, “Man … these have been around awhile.” We put a rule in place at home that if a pair of socks, no matter how nice nor how expensive, begins to wear thin, they are immediately thrown out before developing holes. No one will ever reach into a dresser in my home and be disappointed by finding something that can’t be worn. Again, by itself it seems insignificant, but it is extremely important in the aggregate.
Always running out of batteries? Setup an automatic refill order for large boxes of batteries from Amazon to ship on a regular schedule. Never have enough coffee? Setup your schedule so that on a certain time each week, you run by Starbucks and pick up some new coffee beans, like clockwork. Never have a pen where you need it? Put two there and never allow them to move, under any circumstances. Again, they seem so small, but in the aggregate, the results are enormous. Hot water heater not lasting long enough? Go get one of the new perpetual GE ones that heats water instantly so you never have to worry about it again.
Don’t like fighting? Don’t allow yourself to be around those who are hateful, cruel, or selfish, even if you are related to them or have known them for decades. At least 1% to 2% of the people you meet in life are miserable wretches. Run! If you come from a terrible household with abusive parents for whom nothing is ever good enough – stop calling them. Stop visiting them. Stop attending Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Just go away. Your misguided sense of loyalty is precisely that … you get to choose your family and friends. Being part of your life is a privilege. Likewise, others allowing you into theirs is also a privilege. To quote the wise RuPaul Andre Charles, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love anyone else?” You do not have to sit around and take all of this abuse that is heaped on you – just leave. You have to believe that you are worth that. You have to take ownership of your own life, not sit there resigned to fate.
Many of the projects you’ve seen in my life – from the minimalism inspired reorganization of the pantry to the going digital on books – happened because something irritated me and I thought, “There has to be a better way”. As I’ve gotten older, these things happen less and less because I’ve figured out how I want to live and what works best for me. Eventually, you’ll develop your own “rules for living” that maximize your personal enjoyment. Your list will be completely different from the list of many others.
(This brings up an important point – the single biggest contributor or disutility to happiness in your life is likely to be your choice in spouse. If you select someone who has a list that is in polar contrast to your own, you are stacking the board against you in a way that cannot be easily recovered. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to find someone who is compatible with you on all things, only that you must create a system that accommodates the needs of both parties.)
It’s a Paradigm Shift in Thinking About Life
By studying the neuroscience of happiness (I think I was researching depression levels in Russia at the time, or maybe it was the role of genetics in self-motivation, but I can’t recall what got my on a kick about the brain; this was around the time I was reading almost everything I could on the physical wiring of the mind), it was this twin approach I developed for my own life that took me from an already very content person to a sometimes obnoxiously satisfied one.
[mainbodyad]The downside – or upside, depending on how you look at it – I’ve had more than one person say to both my spouse and I, in so many words, “I can’t be around you. It’s my issue, not yours. Even when I stay at your house, everything just works. It makes me feel terrible about my life.” I will never understand that line of thinking (first off, I’m still figuring out a lot of the systems – I’m nowhere near where I’ll be in the end, God willing – get back to me when I have a hidden helipad at the bottom of a volcano bunker) because it’s not an accident! You have to arrange the system of your life, actively arrange, around self-reinforcing cycles that will constantly remove the irritations, and constantly produce unexpected joys. There is nothing we’re doing that someone else can’t do in this area of behavior. It isn’t going to happen by magic.
Disappointments will come. Heartache will come. Tragedy will come. But living itself is an art. Why set yourself up for failure? Just as with investing, you need to arrange the entire system to maximize the probability of a favorable outcome. You can’t “be happy” in the sense that it is something that is acquired … instead, you can remove the things that cause unhappiness, and increase the things that bring you joy. Happiness is what develops; like a flower growing out of the soil; a by-product of the right conditions.
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