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The Psychological Immune System


This week a close friend called me to ask for counsel because he was feeling seriously down.  We all feel blue at some times, and it’s good to be clear that it is never helpful to let such feelings persist.  I was able to say three things that helped my friend – things that I have said to myself at similar times:

The Psychological Immune System

Psychologist and neurologist Timothy Wilson explains how we vastly over-estimate the happiness that winning the lottery – or any other event – will bring us, and that we similarly over-estimate the misery that a terrible event, such as losing a spouse or even as serious health problem, will doom us to.  In his marvellous book Strangers to Ourselves he explains that we are naturally resilient and resistant to extremes of feeling, which are must more fleeting than we believe at a moment of utter euphoria or misery.

Such feelings pass.  One study Professor Wilson cites measured the happiness of college students over a couple of years.  This was a time when a lot happened in the students’ lives – a third lost a member of their family, four-fifths had a romantic relationship and half then ended it, everyone made an important new friend, and more than a quarter won entrance to graduate school.  These “life-changing” events – whether good or bad – actually only changed the students’ overall level of happiness for very short periods.

Another study, of adolescents, tracked them when in an extremely good or bad mood.  On average these lasted for just three-quarters of an hour!

Since we return to our baseline level of happiness quickly, we should not be deceived by our moods, nor should we wallow in unhappiness.  We can and do overcome terrible events, and we do get used to great ones too.

There is a good reason for this.  “Happiness,” Wilson says, “is like blood pressure.”  This goes up and down at different times of day, but rarely stays at an elevated or very low level for long – and if it does, something serious is wrong.

Likewise, we react emotionally to our environment and events, but they are much less important than we think.  What matters is what is inside our heads, and that doesn’t change much – except gradually for the better if we develop the right habits.

Think of the last time you were euphoric.  You might have expected or wanted it to last a long time, but did it?  No.  If it had, you’d be in dire straits.  Imagine a day or week of euphoria – it would be exhausting and might lead to a heart attack!   Nobody can sustain such excitement for long.

So when you are down, realize that it is temporary.  Once you know that, the blues can suddenly evaporate.  It is the feeling of no escape from misery that perpetuates misery.  This feeling serves no useful purpose and is just a feeling, not a fact.  Tell yourself you’ll get over it – and then you’ll probably find that you already have!

And if that hasn’t happened yet, do some exercise.  Force yourself to take a long walk, or go and talk to a good friend.  You’ll find it impossible to stay miserable.

What matters is what we ourselves can control and do

The second way to escape feeling down is to work towards a goal, to have something you are working toward.  Truly, the journey is more satisfying than reaching the destination.   Like Professor Wilson, I am happiest when I feel I’m making progress towards a goal.  A good day’s writing makes me happy in the evening.  If I read the draft in the morning and feel it wasn’t as good as I thought, that doesn’t matter much.  Yesterday’s illusion of progress made me happy, and today’s feeling that I’ve greatly improved the draft will serve for my daily dose of happiness too.

Having a worthwhile goal – even if relatively modest, such as improving a particular relationship, or cleaning out the garage – is vital.  Because if you don’t have a goal, you can’t make progress.  And if you don’t feel you’re making progress in something, it’s really hard to raise your happiness.  But if you do, happiness and achievement can gradually build over a long period of time.  Once again, it’s not what’s outside that matters, but what’s going on inside that peculiar thing we all have, an inextricably mixed-together mind-and-body that is aware of itself.

When we realize that what we can control is what matters, we are less dependent on external circumstances.  Half the battle is our attitude, which only we can influence.  The other half of the battle is gradually increasing our average level of happiness.  This is the third reason not to be blue, and I’m proud of it, because it’s my very own invention:

Happiness Islands

The third way to conquer the blues is the concept of Happiness Islands, outlined in my books The 80/20 Principle and its follow-up, Living the 80/20 Way.  I define these islands as the small dollops of time – the special, glorious times – when we are happiest.

When were you last really happy?  And the time before that?  Not euphoric, but steadily happy and at peace, for a whole afternoon, day, weekend, or week.

What were you doing?  Who were you with?   Where?  Are there some common denominators of happiness?

The trick is to identify these happiness islands, and bit by bit multiply the time you spend on them.  What we want is a consistent, gradual, and sustained increase in time on your islands.  How do we expand our time on happiness islands?  Simple.  We plot to spend more time on the things we love doing, with people we respect and whose company we enjoy where the feeling is mutual, and in the places we are most relaxed.

Conversely, there are unhappiness islands where we are most inclined to be slightly or very down.   We identify their common characteristics, too, and work out how to spend less time in the surroundings and with the people who bring us down.

Conclusion – Happiness is a Duty

I said there were three reasons never to be miserable, but I lied.  There is a fourth, but four is too many to remember and doesn’t sound snappy.  And anyway, it’s a kind of over-arching reason that build on and wraps the other three into itself.

Happiness is a duty.  It’s not selfish.  It’s the least selfish thing you can do.

It is our duty to be happy.

Why?  Because our moods and happiness or unhappiness are catching.  They inevitably infect other people.  When we are happy we make other people happy, especially the people closest to us, physically, at home, at work, socially; and even people we speak to on the phone, online, or by email.

And, vitally important, there is the multiplier effect.  I am happy, I make you happier, you make them happier, they make yet other people – whom you may never know – happier.  The effect is incalculable, and it is always large.  The same is true in reverse when you are miserable.

So time spent being miserable is antisocial.  Stop it now!   Relax, change your mood, be happy, and make the world hum rather than shudder.

What’s all this got to do with business?

Nothing and everything.  You might say that business and happiness are unrelated subjects, and you would be largely right; but as in a Venn diagram there is an intersection.  Where business and happiness collide, there is a magic zone.  The most valuable things in business – new products, new ways of doing things, new markets, new customers, new levels of beautiful productivity and profitability, and above all new ventures with wonderful cultures – are created by happy and fulfilled people who enjoy working together.

So happiness is not just a duty.  It also makes the material world go round.

Action Implications

  1. Never stay unhappy. It’s a blunder, it’s a trap, it’s a sin, and above all it is unnecessary. When you are blue, remember that it is transient, that what matters is not our circumstances but what we do, that we need daily progress on goals, that happiness breeds happiness and the other way round, and that there is a reliable way to get steadily more cheerful by spending more time on our happiness islands.  If all else fails, go for a long walk and your mood will lift.
  1. Identify your happiness islands and multiply the time you spend on them.
  1. Identify your unhappiness islands and spend a fraction of your current time – ideally no time at all – on them.
  1. Join a happy and creative company. Better still, start one.

Image credit – Pixabay