Paul Nixon's Blog |||

Most Unhappiness is a Mistake

Which is a nice, bold claim.

Obviously, all of our lives are marred by a variety of tragedies, not least our own impending irrelevance, diminishment and eventual demise to which our rightful emotional response is unhappiness. However, I want to talk about how we deal with the infinity of day-to-day travails that beset of all us.

I came to this counterintuitive but ultimately optimistic conclusion in a roundabout fashion. I realised that most of my personal objectives aim to, as Stephen Covey would say, sharpen the saw. They broadly fell under the banner of fit body and calm mind”, for example exercise, diet, journalling, meditation and so on. These are all good and worthy, and most are intrinsically enjoyable once the habit has been acquired, but they are the basis for being able to enjoy a good life, not the good life in and of themselves.

So, what if I tried to, well, deliberately have more fun? This sounds simple, perhaps for most people it would be. It struck me there would be three ways to achieve this

  • Find some new fun things to do
  • Do more of the things I already enjoy doing
  • Enjoy the things I already do more

It was clear that the latter category was the richest seam. And, in the spirit of bad is more powerful than good, I should try and understand the times when I’m not happy and work out why that is.

We have a hierarchy of goals. Some we are conscious of, others not so much. Some from our biology, some from society, and some that we have chosen for ourselves. These goals quietly and subtly affect everything we think, say and do.

Daily we are bombarded with events, and events bring data. Everything that we see, hear, the things people say, emails, the news, and so on. And almost everything either helps us towards our goals, or thwarts our progress.

I’m indebted to Michael Hutchinson, a competitive cyclist, for his analogous description in his book Faster where he explains that he viewed every life choice - big and small - as either making him him faster, or making him slower.

Almost everything we encounter in some way, small or large, either supports of thwarts our progress towards our goals.

And, to (finally!) reach the conclusion. Most of our unhappiness is an overly emotional and exaggerated reaction to goal-thwarting events. Not only did we not choose most of our goals, and not only are we only dimly aware of them, but most of the time, actually, whatever it is doesn’t really matter.

So, most of our unhappiness is a mistake. Mine is, anyway. A mistake to not recognise and challenge our goals, especially those inherited from our biology and from society. And it’s a mistake not to have the right perspective and to submit ourselves unchallenged and unconsciously to reactions that are disproportionate to the overall impact on our life.

If we know and accept that unhappiness is largely a mistake, we are empowered to challenge our automation reactions. This makes unhappiness more of a choice, and one that we should reject more often than not.