There’s plenty of books on happiness – The Art of Happiness, Authentic Happiness, Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Project – just to name a few, and many are well worth reading.
However, if you only take a cursory glance you could easily be left with the impression that pursuing happiness, above all else, should be your ultimate goal. However, this approach has a downside.
If you’ve watched the Disney movie ‘Inside Out’, you’d already know this is a recipe for unhappiness.
The animated film takes place inside the head of Riley an 11-year-old girl. Her five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust – play out as animated characters. It’s the emotion of Joy that initially takes control of Riley’s mind believing that it’s her job to make sure Riley is happy all the time. As the movie unfolds, it’s clear this strategy isn’t working, and that for Riley to be content she needs all emotions.
It’s the same in real life – be it our personal or professional. We need to experience the lows in life, to then be able to appreciate the highs in life. These punctuation points – the full stops, exclamation marks, dashes and commas – help to mark out our days. When everything feels the same, we stop noticing what’s good and how we feel.
In 1988, Dutch psychologist, Nico Frijda released his research on the Law of Emotions. While he agreed there are always exceptions, he also proposed there are general rules that can be universally applied to how and why emotions are experienced in certain ways and what they give rise to.
There were 9 rules with the three core domains of emotional elicitation, emotion persistence and emotion regulation:
- Emotional elicitation is what provokes emotions, and this included the law of situational meaning, the law of concern, the law of reality, the laws of change, habituation and comparative feeling, and the law of hedonic asymmetry
- Emotion persistence focused on how long emotions last for (with some being longer than others), and there was one law – the law of conservation of emotional momentum
- Emotion regulation looks at what we do to regulate our emotions and consequent behaviours and included the law of closure, the law of care for consequence, and the law of the lightest load and of greatest gain
The law I am most interested in, for the context of this discussion, is the law of habituation. As Frijda writes, “Continued pleasures wear off; continued hardships lose their poignancy… The pains of loss of love abate with time, but love itself gradually loses its magic. Continued exposure to inhumanities blunts both suffering and moral discernment”.
Over time, we get used to our surroundings and circumstances, seeing things as the way they are – normal even. And so our emotional response gets dulled. There’s a reason why it’s said that ‘change is as good as a holiday’.
It’s in the change that our emotions – of varying form and duration – are sparked. And when we notice those sparks we can appreciate what is going on around us, even if that spark has given rise to emotions of sadness or anger.
Your emotions are real and they matter, and they all offer benefits. This article from the Greater Good Science centre provides useful insights, for example, into the benefits of sadness.
Rather than let the law of habituation merely unfold, you can take steps each day to create your punctuation points. Here’s some ideas:
- Celebrate milestones that matter and capture the memory
- Look back at old photographs from childhood or a vacation. Looking at pictures lights up your mirror neurons, sparking memories of happiness, excitement or adventure (whatever emotion you were feeling at the time)
- Plan a special event for a loved one or family member
- Notice how you are feeling during the day and be comfortable sitting with that emotion; even if it’s an uncomfortable one
- Seek variety and change in your life. Mix up your routine and be interested in what is new
- Meet new people, particularly people from different backgrounds and with different experiences
- Always have things – booked in advance – to look forward to. It can be as simple as walking the dog at the end of each day
Notice what’s around you. Notice what you have. Notice the highs and the lows.
In the words of Buddha, “Happiness will never come to those who fail to appreciate what they already have.” How you consciously choose to punctuate your day will help make that clearer.