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Happiness Experiments: Tipping the Scale Towards Joy

The Gist: We sell our happiness away every day, but by solving a few basic problems, we can keep it for ourselves instead.


This is part two of a two part series on happiness. You can read part one over here.

So we’ve established that happiness can’t be bought but can certainly be sold. The question now is: Why do we sell our happiness away? And more importantly, how do we stop?

The Quiet Excuses We Make

Let’s jump right in and tackle the first question. I think there are a number of reasons we choose to do things that don’t benefit us in the long run (sell our happiness), and instead settle for a second rate life. Here are just a few that come to mind:

  • You don’t know what else you’d do because you don’t know what actually makes you happy.
  • You’re afraid to do what you really want because it involves some kind of risk (What if this doesn’t work out?).
  • You’re saddled by old obligations like debt, or some other service that you agreed to a long time ago and no longer want.
  • You’re confused by what you’re doing now—sometimes things are great, other times they’re terrible.

Any of those sound familiar?

I know I’ve faced each of these scenarios at some point (still do sometimes), and I know they can be challenging and confusing. The problem isn’t that they’re all that hard to overcome, it’s that they usually hit you hard, in combinations, and all at once. A recipe for overwhelm.

I don’t know about you, but my default response to overwhelm is to do nothing. When the challenge looks so big that it can’t be confronted, the easiest thing to do is “wait it out.”

And the problem with that solution is that it actually works! For a little bit anyway. If you do nothing and ignore the problem, things tend to die down for awhile, but then they come back… stronger. Unfortunately for the ostrich, burying his head in the sand provides no real protection. He simply won’t have to watch himself be devoured.

How to Eat an Elephant

So if the real problem is overwhelm, how do we deal with that? How do we tackle such an enormous and fierce problem?

As the famous saying goes: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

The first part of the solution, I think is to understand that turning around takes time. It took a long time to get where you are today, so it’ll probably take some hard work to change course, and you might not finish today? You should get started today, but understand that it takes a lot of effort to stop a train and turn it around.

Look for little wins. Selling your happiness, for money or anything else, provides an instant gratification we’re accustomed to. We can still enjoy this instant gratification, but we have to enjoy it in the small wins that add up over time. We must get the ball rolling, so to speak, in the right direction.

And where do these little wins come from? I say they come from addressing the problems raised above:

  • If you have no idea what you actually want to do, how many things could you try this weekend that would help you find out? How many spaghetti strands can you throw against the wall to see which stick? Even if you try ten new things and don’t enjoy any of them, is that not still a win? Haven’t you eliminated, with certainty, ten things that you can now forget about? Clarity.
  • If you know what you really want to do, but you’re afraid it may not go right, first of all: Join the club! Guess what, none of us have any idea if what we’re doing is truly the right answer. We’re just working from our best guess, and it could all go wrong at any minute! How can you test your idea on a small scale without risking everything? Find version 0.1 of your big idea.
  • If you’re tied to some old obligations that you no longer care about anymore, what are the smallest ones that you could start working to eliminate? Do you actually have to do anything special to eliminate them or could you just quit? Sometimes we overestimate the repercussions of simply giving up and underestimate the effects of continuing something life-sucking. Choose life.
  • If you’re confused because sometimes you enjoy something but other times you hate it, what’s the overall conclusion? Which way is the scale tipping? Hint: if you have to ask yourself this question, the answer is probably more obvious than you think. Also understand, though, that doing something amazing can be quite frustrating at times. There is no sweet without the bitter, but there should certainly be an uneven distribution of it. If it takes a little hardship to enjoy something important, don’t sweat it too much. But ask yourself if it’s worth it. Ask often and answer ruthlessly.

Happiness Experiments

Solving the happiness problem doesn’t have to be a terribly difficult process, but doing so can result in profound life changes. You can’t buy it back, but you can slowly take it by selling less and less of it away each day.

At the heart of the matter are two questions that should guide nearly every action, regardless of what problem you face:

  • What do I really want? What would I choose to do if I didn’t need money and there were no consequences?
  • How can I get started today? What little “happiness experiment” can I do to get myself headed the right direction?

These questions can’t solve your problems—you do need money and there are consequences for your actions—but they’re the spirit of the solution.

By stripping away all the real world complexities and asking yourself these kinds of questions, it’s much easier to find an answer. These answers are the very beginning of the trail. You don’t know where it leads, but you must follow it. Your happiness experiments will help blaze the way.

What happiness experiment can you start today?


Here’s another great article about money and happiness by the very talented J.D. Roth.

Image by: lensfodder