When you book with an airline they give you a baggage allowance, the maximum you can take on board. And happiness and positivity can work in a similar way. Before we look more closely at strategies you can use for feeling brilliant, it’s worth examining just how happy you’re allowed to be. Or supposed to be.
Your psychology and physiology has a mechanism to guard against extreme happiness. In hot baths and cold seas, there is an initial shock to the system. It’s painful, at least for a minute or two. The British sea can be so achingly cold that you strut round, chicken-style, with oval mouth and wide eyes. Your body soon adapts. It becomes accustomed to the extreme temperature and your physiology compensates. In the cold sea, your body’s reflex mechanism is to keep you warm, so most of your blood goes to your core, leaving you blue on the outside. Conversely, the hot bath reflex is for your body to try and lose heat, so it moves all your blood vessels to the surface and you develop a pinky glow. You don’t have to think about this. It just happens
We all have what scientists call a ‘set point’. This is your default happiness setting. Things can happen which cause you to rise above your set point. Think lottery win, wedding, birth of a grandchild or passing an exam. Equally, awful things can happen that cause you to fall below your default happiness setting. The death of a loved one, a relationship break-up, redundancy or illness, for example.
But, just as in a hot bath, your body compensates and your happiness levels out. So, according to science, we are able to experience small bursts of extreme happiness but striving to be happier forever is a waste of time. The set point acts like a string of elastic, pulling you back to where it thinks you should be. The set point is useful because it stops us living in happiness utopia and it also helps us bounce back after a bout of awfulness.
So, according to the boffins, you cannot therefore affect long-term happiness because you’ll always be dragged back to your set point. But what if we’re missing a trick and your happiness ‘set point’ isn’t, in fact, ‘set’? What if we could find ways of raising the bar so that your ‘normal’ happiness was set a little higher? What if your happiness thermostat was turned up, just a notch or two, into the ‘feeling like I can take on the world’ zone?
Various scientific studies concur that most people are in the Goldilocks zone of mildly happy most of the time. There’s even a phrase, ‘happy medium’ (no, not a giggling fortune teller), which describes a happiness compromise. Not too happy and not too sad.
The authors have tried to avoid traditional ‘positive thinking’ stuff, or at least tried to put a realistic spin on it throughout this book, and hopefully the message is starting to sink in that true, long-lasting happiness, positivity and effervescence come from within.
If you change your internal world, your external world changes, or at least your experience of the external world will change. Focus on the good things in your life and you roll the dice in your favour. You’ve improved your odds of feeling good. And vice versa. But, to summarise the essence of our evolutionary struggle, bad weighs more than good (remember, fear saves your life whereas happiness merely enriches it), so we are therefore naturally drawn to notice negativity.
There is one ‘thing’ that will have a really big impact on your world. A ‘thing’ that gets a mention in every half-decent self-help book ever written. A ‘thing’ that isn’t actually a ‘thing’ at all – that ‘thing’ being your beliefs.
Beliefs are a big deal. A belief is something in your head that you hold to be true. You have a model of the world that you hold in your head. You ‘know’ what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable. You might have religious beliefs. Or you might think religion is a load of old nonsense. Both of you are right. You might have a belief that you should get up and go to work and earn an honest living and that people on benefits are scroungers. Or you might be on benefits and have a belief that life’s a bitch and there are no jobs. Or you might be on benefits and be wondering why on Earth people get up at 6am and commute to work when they could be sitting at home watching daytime telly. You’re right again!
If you change a belief, you will change your experience of the world. The tricky bit is, for most people, we believe our beliefs are real, which makes them really hard to change. Good news! Beliefs are not real, we have learned them. Essentially, your beliefs are based on your past experience. All of this begs the question, what beliefs are holding you back? What have you accidentally learned that’s stopping you being awesome? Personal development isn’t just about doing new things. It’s equally about stopping doing rubbish things!
You’ve heard of the saying, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ That may well depend on whether you’ve got a fixed or growth mind-set. You will be familiar with ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, a mental replay of a terrible event that happened in your past but is blighting your present. You think back to it and, whoosh, you’re flooded with the same terrible cocktail of emotions as though it was happening again and again. PTSD seems to be very common and it courts publicity because you can claim compensation for it.
You’ve probably not heard of the opposite, ‘post-traumatic growth’, sometimes called ‘adversarial growth’. That’s because of our old adage that ‘bad’ weighs more than ‘good’. Plus you can’t sue somebody for improving your life.
So, for example, you often hear of soldiers who have suffered in war zones and are struggling with PTSD. You don’t hear of the soldiers who return to civilian life enhanced by what they’ve experienced, stronger and more resilient.
So, the question arises, what distinguishes the people who find growth in these experiences from the people who don’t? Mind-set! And CHOICE!
Positive interpretation, reframes, acceptance … it’s all pretty much the same thing. The next sentence isn’t going to seem particularly earth-shattering, but I promise you, it is. Positive people use mental strategies that help them move forward.
Consider this scenario: you’re on a plane, heading to see your sister in New Zealand. You are strapped in, taxiing for take-off and there’s a faint whiff of smoke as the wheels leave the tarmac. The plane climbs, circles once and the whiff has turned into billowing black smoke. Panic ensues and the pilot makes a very heavy landing. There are 200 people on board and all of them survive. There are a few injuries and you are taken to hospital with a broken leg.
Are you lucky or unlucky? This kind of scenario links to your ‘explanatory style’ and this has a crucial impact on your current and future happiness. An optimistic explanatory style interprets adversity as local and temporary (‘It’s only a broken leg, could have been an awful lot worse, and as soon as it’s better I’ll go and see my sis.’) A pessimistic style is described as global and permanent (‘I’ve been seriously injured in a plane crash; it’s a disaster. I will seek compensation because I can’t ever fly again. My sister will have to visit me.’)
As you can see, the belief generated by this event directly affects your actions. A permanently pessimistic outlook means things are bad and aren’t likely to get any better, so you sink into what Martin Seligman calls ‘learned helplessness’. This is when life can get very heavy indeed.
In terms of ‘bouncing forward’ from adversity, it’s a matter of retraining yourself to have a more positive explanatory style. There’s a saying something akin to ‘it’s never too late to have a brilliant childhood’ which means that it’s possible to reframe events in such a way that you learn from them rather than being traumatised by them.
Have a quick go. Cast your mind back to a difficult time. What did you learn? How did you change? What in your life has changed for the better because of this? Is there anything about the difficult experience that you can, on reflection, be grateful for?
Life is a series of linear events. Then you have a chain of choices about those events, which leads to more events. And your explanatory style can trap you in a never-ending cycle of pain or free you into an upward spiral of pleasure and growth.