My latest experiment is something a little different from the regular kind that I’ve been doing. This one is particularly meaningful to me because I think it is one of a few things that have completely changed my mind and my perspective on such a large component of life.
Experiment: Delete Facebook from my phone, shift Instagram to my “app graveyard” (the name I’ve given to the last page on my phone), and place all other forms of social media like Snapchat and Reddit into a folder where I’ll be less likely to compulsively open it.
Note: I still need to use Instagram to post updates on my challenges, but I won’t use it for anything else like scrolling through the feed or using the endless Discover page.
We’re Addicted to Our Phones
The real question is why?
I imagine it’s because we’re trying desperately to distract ourselves from a reality that we can hardly bear. In fact, if I asked you to stop using your smartphone and disconnect from the internet for just a week, there’s a good chance you’d hate it. That’s because you’d be stuck in reality with no form of escape.
I wouldn’t blame you, I’m just the same. My reliance on these technologies is just as serious as the next person.
“If I can’t use my phone, what on earth do I do instead?”
There are reasons for this intense addictive behaviour. According to Johann Hari1, we’re searching desperately for connection in a world that’s becoming more disconnected every day. Paradoxically, this habit of searching for connection online is ruining our ability to connect with people in the real world.
The worst part? This addiction is by design.
Here’s a great explanation by an ex Google employee about how apps are designed to be addictive:
Think about that for a second. That little fire emoji with the 100 next to it is literally there to make you addicted and to encourage you spend more time on Snapchat.
It’s part of what Tristan calls persuasive psychology, unethically being used to induce people like us to spend more time on these apps.
I get that this sounds very conspiracy theorist-like, but there’s a logical explanation to why companies would want to do this: The longer you spend on their app, the more money they are likely to make.
Is the Cost Worth it?
I’m in the generation that saw the explosion in the usage of smartphones and the rise of the older crowd yelling out warnings about the dangers of addiction to social media. I didn’t pay any attention of course. I considered them to be out of touch and afraid of technology, unable to understand the benefits of these great devices.
Not anymore. I was definitely wrong about that.
To highlight the effect of disconnection, let me ask you this:
How many friends can you truly confide in, and trust to have your back when it counts?
The number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled.
This study was conducted in the US and they’re not citing social media as a factor at all, but the point is about us having less close relationships in general, and these forms of addictive social media certainly does not appear to be helping our cause.
In fact, they seemed to be designed without any regard for the effects on mental health or development.
Why is this Happening?
I’d say it’s because we’re unhappy with the state of our lives, and we use our devices and social media as a way to distract ourselves. This desire to stay connected exists because we feel more alone than ever before.
We have larger houses, with more rooms in it than people. Our families rarely have dinner together, and when they do, it’s in front of the television of some other kind of device. We work more hours in a week, and constantly feel anxious and unfulfilled. These are just some potential reasons for this phenomenon.
If we look at work, for instance, a staggering 85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at workaccording to Gallup.
It appears to me that most of us seem to detest our work lives, so we distract ourselves while we can, to forget that we have to spend the next ten, maybe twelve hours at a job that’s completely unsatisfying.
And don’t forget about the dreaded commute to and from work. Now there’s another reason to be consumed by your smartphone.
We then reward ourselves for having to slog through work by purchasing stuff. First it’s a huge TV with a surround sound system, then it’s a car, then a new house, and then a new phone, more clothes, expensive watches, and so on. We consume to fill the void.
For the younger folk, they grew up with technology in their hands. However, as you’ll hear from the talk by Adam Alter below, the people who work in tech rarely allow their children access to these devices. A little odd, don’t you think?
Every single year, I’ve noticed that any organisation, society, student accommodation or anything group based (that I’ve been a part of) has been deteriorating.
There are less activities, members are less involved or interested, there are declining rates of participation, and at the student accommodation I was living at, people no longer eat together and bond in the common areas.
Instead, there is a sharp uptick in isolation, depression and other mental health issues. My theory is that this is a symptom of the same larger issue that I alluded to above, but since this post is in the context of smartphones and social media, I’ll focus on these as the main factors.
I believe that the increased reliance on smartphones and social media to interact mainly online is detrimental to our ability to socialise and form those meaningful bonds with people in the real world.
Everywhere you look, you can see people plugged in, connected to their devices as they commute, utterly oblivious to the person sitting next to them. Earphones in, eyes glued to the screen, they immerse themselves into the online world.
You’ve probably seen this yourself: People going to dinner and not speaking a word to each other as they scroll through their news feeds, sending texts to people who aren’t even at the table.
Yet, people can’t pull themselves away.
Imagine having to have a conversation with the person who’s there with you at dinner, without checking your phone once.
Imagine having to sit at a dining table with the family and have a conversation over dinner, without watching TV or using your phone.
These are nightmare situations for a lot of people, which is very unfortunate. This is what I mean when I say that our need to stay connected with others online is disconnecting us.
Have you ever noticed how Netflix recommends shows you’re likely to watch and Amazon recommends items you’re likely to buy? These are examples of how machine learning is being used to understand our habits so that they can best hook us in with recommendations they know we’ll be likely to click on.
Some of these findings, like in the TED talk by Adam Alter above, indicate that smartphone use is not always negative. There are positive effects of course, but it also appears that these come from a very small number of applications that we use, while we spend most of our time on the apps that make us feel horrible.
The main goal of this post is not to discourage the use of your phone entirely, but raise awareness of how you can be affected and to make choices based on your own research.
Over the next few posts that I make, you may notice a theme. It’s reflecting a change of sorts that I’m going through about my own personal values and beliefs and my worldview.
It’s based strongly on the research I’ve been doing over the past few months and I’d like to share my findings with you as I figure out the implications for myself. I’m hoping to make it a discussion and to hear from you about these findings. Stick around for the upcoming posts.
Would you disconnect from social media and your smartphone? Why or why not?
1 Although Hari has been the subject of intense criticism for his previous conduct, I think the point he makes about disconnection is still valid. Aside from his own credibility that is in doubt, the argument he makes seems to make sense.
Hugo is the author of TrackingHappiness.com, and a civil engineer with an infectious passion for life! He’s agreed to share a very personal and profound learning experience with us in this post. Enjoy!
Hitting Rock Bottom: How Tracking Happiness Can Help
One of the most miserable periods of my life started when I hopped on a flight to Kuwait. I knew I was entering a “challenging” period, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was only going to be 5 weeks, but man, those 5 weeks took a big hit on me.
I am writing this while re-reading some of the journal entries in my happiness tracking journal. It is clear to me now how badly this period influenced my happiness. I want to show you exactly how my happiness took a tumble.
You see, I have tracked my happiness during this entire period in Kuwait and thus have the opportunity to reflect on this brief episode. I want to show you how this period started as a fresh new challenge but ended up as a miserable chapter of my life. I’m going to show you some of my happiness tracking journal entries in chronological order, just so you can see how I slipped down to a state of despair.
Let’s start with the beginning! This is how my journal in Kuwait started, on the 18th of January 2015.
Day 1, happiness rating: 8,25
“Hello Kuwait! I just landed in my apartment and finally have some time to catch up. The flight was alright, my nerves were okay. This is my first night ever in the Middle East. How exciting. When the plane landed, I couldn’t help but think “Where the #$%! am I” for a moment.
So far so good. The apartment is nice, I’ve got a big bedroom with WiFi. Nice. There’s soooo much sand here. Insane. I hope I’ll be able to run outside after work.
I’ve got my alarm set for 06:00 tomorrow. It’s going to be tough. But I’m super excited! The next adventure starts here, right now. Tomorrow is day 1 of 33 or something. It’s going to be alright. Going to bed now. Adios!”
Day 1 was a good day!
Let me explain: I was sent to Kuwait to work on a huge project for my employer, a big marine contractor. I had never been to the Middle East, and this was my first assignment abroad. I was super excited to work hard and enjoy the project. In fact, I was actually looking forward to my very first day!
But when that next day arrived, I wasn’t so excited anymore.
My First Day in Kuwait
Day 2, happiness rating: 7,00
“First day was OK, but that’s all…
My colleagues are alright. The office is nice. And my desk is fine. But man, these hours suck.
Breakfast was fine. Lunch was awesome. Dinner was terrible. I don’t know… I guess today was alright. I just have to figure out how I’m going to find my pace with the project. It’s going to be a busy time.
Skyped with my girlfriend, which was nice. My apartment is still nice. I want to prove myself to my colleagues. Going to bed now. The alarm is set for 6:00 again. !@#$ me… Bye!
My first day on the job was OK, as you can read from my journal entry. But you may have noticed that I’m already a lot less confident in my writing. It looks like my optimistic energy pretty much evaporated overnight. You see, I was going to work at least 12 hours every day, for the next 5 weeks. I knew it was going to be tough.
I was hoping my work would actually be a source of energy, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was actually very demanding.
I quickly forced myself into a rhythm of working, working, working, eating, skyping, spending an hour on something that would actually be relaxing, going to bed way too late, sleeping way too little, cursing my alarm clock the next morning, and repeat.
That repetition resulted in the complete loss of my energy.
Spending another day offshore on one of the vessels.
After 1 week, my happiness journal looked quite depressing already:
Day 8, happiness rating: 4.50
“I survived my first week in Kuwait. Hurray. Today was fine, despite the sleep deprivation. Woke up feeling extremely tired, but coffee pulled me through. The work today was alright. Better than expected actually, but still exhausting.
When I got back to the apartment I skyped with my girlfriend. But man, that sucked. We got into an argument, which seems impossible to fix over a shitty Skype connection. It absolutely killed whatever was left of my energy and mood. !@#$ this sh*t.
I just want to go to bed now. I don’t want to be tired again tomorrow. Hell, I just wanna go home. Where the !@#$ are my hobbies?
Just going to bed now, so this period will be over sooner. Cheers.”
Boy, that escalated quickly. Right?
So I continued to live and work in Kuwait. The project progressed at a fast pace and it was always busy. Work sucked up all my energy. My days were long and my personal life suffered because of it.
I left my apartment at 6:30, worked from 07:00 to at least 19:00, and was back in at around 20:00. No matter how much I liked my actual job, I eventually got exhausted from it. It was unpreventable, I think.
In the meantime, I lost access to all my hobbies when I was in Kuwait. I suddenly had no guitar to play on at night, no more friends or girlfriend to have fun with, no more video games to take my mind off the work, you get the idea. I lost access to the biggest sources of my happiness.
In fact, my relationship actually turned into a negative happiness factor as a result of this long distance thing.
The town I was staying in wasn’t so bad, actually! I quite liked the view from the rooftop of my apartment building.
Fighting Sleep Deprivation
I made another very big mistake during this time: I forgot to prioritise my sleep.
You see, after getting back to the apartment at around 20:00, I still felt like I wanted to do stuff I actually enjoyed. Stuff like watching a series, doing some exercise or just walking outside.
But I also wanted to Skype with my girlfriend, have dinner and take a shower.
Before I knew it, it was already past midnight. Sh*t…
This happened just about every single day. I worked over 12 hours every day, while sleeping way too little. It eventually caused me to burn out, even though I was only in Kuwait for a total of 5 weeks.
“I’m shattered. I have never felt as depressed as I do today. What a miserable feeling.
I can’t keep up with this. I’m completely unhappy, and consciously counting down every second of every day. I wanna go home. I’m going crazy here. It’s a miserable lifestyle.
I can’t believe how anyone would voluntarily want to live this kind of life. !@#$ this project. !@#$ my employer. I’d rather not work at all, then to have this job for the rest of my life. It’s unbearable.
I’ve got no passions. No enjoyment. No fulfillment. I honestly don’t think I laughed even once this week.
I’m going to watch a series now (The Walking Dead has started again). And then I’m going to sleep. These days are worthless.
Just Whatsapped with a friend I met in New Zealand, and it makes me think back of that wonderful country. I had such fun during that time.
I cannot think of ANYTHING more interesting to say… I just hate it here.
Message to future self: Don’t you EVER romanticise this period, you idiot! Don’t ever say that this wasn’t so bad after all. You DON’T want this, and you are absolutely MISERABLE!
Hence the 3.0, the worst happiness rating ever..”.
That shitty day happened almost 3,5 years ago, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. Maybe because I have direct access to my mind during that time via my happiness tracking journal?
Anyway, I still hear my younger self loud and clear: I’m never EVER going to romanticize this period. No way.
The Power of Tracking Happiness
You see, that’s part of the power of tracking happiness.
Everybody romanticizes periods of their lives every once in a while. I have done it myself as well. But this is dangerous. Having access to your personal happiness ratings allows you to relive every period of your life, whether it was a good or bad period.
I still know damn well how much that brief period in Kuwait sucked. And for that I am very thankful these days.
Why is this important?
Because I can use this knowledge to steer my life in the best direction possible!
Ever since those 5 miserable weeks, I have tried my best to not get myself into a similar situation again. And when I did eventually have to work on another project abroad, I made damn sure that I had a better plan.
The work itself in Kuwait was tough. But I made some pretty bad mistakes that were unrelated to my work that made this period even worse. I neglected my sleep, my long-distance relationship was way too bumpy and I had none of my hobbies with me.
By tracking happiness, I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to improve a new “challenge” like this.
And that’s what I did. During my next “challenge” abroad, I made sure that I got sufficient sleep, had a hobby that I could enjoy while not at work and that my relationship had no communication issues. These decisions allow me to be much happier with the work I do, since I simply cannot control everything.
I used the knowledge from my happiness tracking journal to improve my life.
And that’s the reason why I think tracking happiness is in itself an extremely powerful tool. Not only is it fun, it actually allows you to steer your life in the best direction possible!
Hugo is the creator of TrackingHappiness.com, a site about tracking the things that influence your happiness in order to steer your life in the best direction possible. He loves spending time with his girlfriend, running, playing music and looking at nerdy data.
While I am talking about this in the context of my life, I do think that some of this could be applicable to you.
Since my tracking happiness post, I started thinking a lot about how much my life has improved over time, so I started putting together a compilation of all my thoughts, trying to document all the things that I believe led to the change.
I want to share with you how I got through some tough moments, a couple of key lessons that I learned along the way, and how I became a lot happier in my everyday life.
Think of this as a snapshot in time of where I am today. This is my ground zero, and from this point, I want to start challenging myself to start building upwards.
As always, I’d like to hear what you think about this and I’d also like to know about the kind of things you do that make you happy. Leave a comment and share your thoughts!
Let’s get into it.
Be selective with the people you spend time with
“You are the average of the five people you associate with most, so do not underestimate the effects of your pessimistic, unambitious, or disorganized friends. If someone isn’t making you stronger, they’re making you weaker.”
– Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
This one is possibly one of the toughest things to do in practice.
The people you surround yourself with the most have an incredible impact on your personality, the choices you make, and even where you end up in life.
It’s extremely tricky because most of the time, you’ll be unaware that you’re surrounding yourself with the kind of people you should be avoiding.
How to know if you’re hanging out with the right people
Here are some questions I ask myself to figure out if my relationships with people are worth investing in:
Does their friendship consist of equal give and take?
Do they encourage me, and push me beyond my comfort zone?
Do they tell me when I’ve screwed up?
Can our friendship survive through tough periods?
Do they challenge me when I’m wrong?
Are they willing to put in the effort to maintain and build our relationship?
Obviously I don’t disqualify people based on these criteria alone. They’re more like guidelines that I would look at, and it could be different for you. What do you value in your relationships? Let me know in the comments.
Now let’s think about this for a second: If you lost everything, would you be able to turn to your friends?
If you’re trying to improve yourself, and your friends laugh at you or belittle you, they’re not your friends. If they don’t value you or your time, politely tell them to get stuffed, cut them off, and don’t look back.
I used to have friends who didn’t believe in me, ridiculed and laughed at me behind my back, and competed against me, always feeling the need to be ahead of me in some way, no matter how trivial the stakes. I didn’t need that kind of negativity in my life and all I had to do was walk away, so I did.
Today, I have friends who are willing to push me, encourage me, and believe in me even when I don’t. I have friends who respect me enough to tell me when I’ve messed up. I have friends who appreciate my time, value my friendship, and invest the same amount of effort (sometimes even more) that I put into my relationships with them.
This didn’t happen by accident, and it took many years to get to this point.
I chose to invest in these relationships. The hardest part is finding them, and the way you can do that is by being the friend you would want to have, to the people around you. Soon enough, you’ll know which ones are worth your time, and which aren’t.
When you surround yourself with great people, you can’t help but to want to be more like them. The effect is infectious: you start sharing ideas, working together, motivating each other and enjoying each others’ company a lot more, and it’s absolutely fantastic.
Great relationships are the real secret to happiness.
Investing in the wrong people
Sometimes it’ll take years before you find out that you’ve made a mistake. I like to think that it’s a price worth paying, because when you do find those who are worth it, it will make all the difference in the world.
You don’t always need a great deal of friends—it’s always far better to have a few great ones.
Be selective with what you spend your time on
I’ve wasted a lot of my downtime in the past, and while I still do to some extent, I’m trying to be more mindful of it. I used to waste hours playing video games and watching TV shows, and while people have given me the “it’s not wasted if you’re enjoying it” speech, I’ve come to believe that it’s not true.
I’ve realised that the hours spent playing mindless video games and doing nothing of value turned into a blur of years in which I neglected my family and the precious time I could have spent with them. I had a massive, unwelcome dose of reality when I heard this for the first time:
By the time you leave to college, you’ll have spent eighty to ninety percent of the time you’ll ever spend with your parents
That statement really put a fist through my gut.
I can’t remember where I heard that, I think it was a podcast, but Tim Urban posted a similar statement on his blog, Wait But Why, in the post: “The Tail End”:
“It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.”
It really puts things into perspective.
The next thing I noticed is that while I was enjoying myself with these mindless activities, they didn’t create any lasting happiness. The joy of playing a video game evaporated as soon as it was over, and TV shows had the same effect. In all those years, I had done nothing of any value.
It wasn’t until I had left home for university that I decided I’d had enough of wasting my time with things that added no value whatsoever to my life.
Working towards becoming a polymath
I banned myself from watching tv shows and quit playing video games and something interesting happened. I had to find stuff to do to fill up all this newfound time on my hands so I started picking up old hobbies like playing the guitar and reading books.
I also picked up new activities, like digital art, working out, creating short videos, writing short stories, and working on a couple of business ideas (which failed terribly, but I learned a whole lot from them so no regrets there).
I felt alive and happy, and I knew I was on to something. I kept doing this, but the bad habits picked up again after a while and I slipped back into my old ways. The change was dramatic, but I barely noticed it. I was back to wasting hours on games and TV shows. I gained weight, lost touch with friends and constantly felt like something wasn’t right.
The light bulb moment took ages to arrive, but when it finally did, my life turned around once again, and this time, I started this blog, worked on another business idea (which also went on to fail), finally learned to improvise on the guitar and became a better student and person in general.
I really hope the stuff I’m saying doesn’t come off as bragging, because the core message here is that I learned that I could get a lot of things done if I stopped wasting my time with short term pleasures.
I agree with the phrase “It’s not wasted if you’re enjoying it”, but only if you’re doing something worthwhile. Otherwise, it is wasted. Yes, I did miss the opportunity to become great at a video game and have my skills become the envy of all my friends, but years later, I can safely say that no one would have cared or remembered that today.
Choosing to spend my time well made me so much happier, and while it’s hard to do consistently, I think it’s worth the effort. I’d like to know what you think about this. Have you done something like this yourself? Have you noticed a difference in the quality of your life?
When I started tracking my happiness, I could see the change occurring over time, and quite rapidly. I could visually see the impact of the changes I was making, and it was quite reassuring. It would be awesome if I could hear from you and find out if this is true (or otherwise) for you too!
Play the long game
This one actually took a lot of pressure off my shoulders. I was having a crisis of confidence, not being able to achieve the things I was aiming for. I was getting nowhere with my beginner coding lessons, I was struggling to get a job I wanted, and I felt like I needed to figure things out right then and there.
What’s the rush?
That changed when I watched a Gary Vaynerchuk video, and he asked a very simple question: “What’s the rush?”
I started wondering, what was the rush? Who was I racing and competing against? The thousands of overnight success stories that the media is all too happy to wave in our faces? I’ve been obsessing on becoming a success as quickly as possible that I missed the entire point of getting there—enjoying the process, as Gary puts it.
He’s right, I do love the process. I love the work I put in, and I enjoy learning, improving, and achieving little milestones. The problem is, I forgot all about the process, and that’s when it stopped being fun.
I spend more time watching videos and reading books about becoming successful, that I haven’t done the one thing that’s actually required to get there: Doing the actual work. And that’s going to take time to show results.
Once I figured that out, I felt like my head cleared and I could just focus on keeping my head down and getting back to work on the things I love. Being part of the process is what keeps me feeling happy, because it gives me a strong sense of purpose and drive.
I’m in this for the long haul, and sometimes I have to remind myself that a huge part of success comes from being on the journey itself, and having the fortitude to keep going, especially in the moments when I want to give up.
Learning to be Consistent
This is the second thing I realised about playing the long game. Consistency is the key to doing anything well. Whether I’m trying to learn a new skill, work out, work on a project or a side business, or pretty much anything else, consistency in the long term provides the greatest return on time invested.
I’ve been playing the guitar since I was eight years old. Yet, there are people who started a year ago who are miles ahead of me in terms of skill.
The difference is that I was inconsistent. I would pick up the guitar once every few weeks or so, whereas they practiced every day.
I’m trying to learn from that mistake, and right now, I’m focusing on keeping my nose to the grindstone.
It’s time to play the long game.
How do you find the things you love doing?
I did this by trying many different things, figuring out which ones I enjoyed and then focusing on those. You’ll know you that you’re in the right activity/job/hobby if you experience the state of flow, or being “in the zone”, consistently over a period of time. It’s a state of energised focus, and time just slips away without you noticing.
In other words, it doesn’t really feel like work. Sometimes it might, especially when it gets challenging, but it’s work that you want to do.
Working on these kinds of activities or hobbies really helps me feel like I’ve spent the day well, as long as I do at least one these per day. For me, this can be anything from cooking, to practicing my (very beginner) coding skills.
“I don’t have the time.”
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like this excuse has anything to do with being happy, but I promise it’ll start making sense by the end of this post.
I was using this excuse all the time, and worse still, I had convinced myself it was true. At one point, I was having a conversation with Van, my close friend and training partner, and sometime during the chat, I pulled out the old reliable “I don’t have the time”. He responded with silence.
I’m not sure what it was, but that awkward silence made me realise that I was full of it. Maybe it was because for the first time, someone was actually challenging my excuse.
Somewhere inside, I knew I didn’t believe my own excuse. When I said “I don’t have the time”, what I really meant was “I’m not willing to sacrifice my comfort for this.”
I went to school, I was working construction, I was working out five hours a day, I was taking acting classes from 8 o’clock at night to 12 midnight. I was doing all of those things. I wanted to make sure that out of the 24 hours of the day, that I don’t waste one single hour. Those hours were too precious.
That quote is from an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s how he used to spend his 24 hours. That’s also why he won the Mr. Olympia championship seven times in a row. Can you honestly say that you’re not wasting a single hour of your day?
I can’t, but I’m trying to get there.
The reason I’m quoting Arnold, is because he is the definition of a polymath. According to his Wikipedia page, he’s an actor, producer, businessman, investor, author, philanthropist, activist, politician, and former professional bodybuilder.
He achieved all this by pushing himself well beyond his comfort zone and making the most of the time he had available.
I, on the other hand, have been coddling myself. Eventually, I had to tell myself that if I’m not willing to put in the work, if I’m not willing to sacrifice my short term comfort, then I need to be able to look at myself in the mirror and tell myself that I deserve to be stuck where I am.
This is where I am now:
I’m working on my fitness, learning to code, working on developing a couple of business ideas, improving my relationships with people, along with a couple of smaller goals that you can read about on my Now page. Of course, I expect to fail along the way—none of these things are easy—but I’m going to keep at it.
I’m sharing this publicly because I wan’t to challenge myself. I want some form of accountability, so that the next time you see me in person, I’m going to be an improved version of myself. Now, if I don’t achieve my goals, I’ll be publicly humiliated. How’s that for incentive?
Avoiding discomfort guarantees unhappiness
If you’re wondering how anyone could possibly feel happier by pushing themselves to their limit, spending every moment of their day honing their craft, challenging themselves, and going flat out to work on dreams they may never achieve, you’re not alone.
I often wondered why anyone would choose to work that hard when they could sit back and binge-watch Netflix instead.
I now believe that the way to feeling happier and more satisfied with life is a little counter-intuitive for most people: Seeking out discomfort.
Bear with me.
If you don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone, you’re left feeling unfulfilled. Consider working out—if you don’t push yourself until it hurts to the point that you want to quit, your body simply doesn’t get stronger. Anything less than that is your comfort zone.
This is true for pretty much anything. Take relationships: If you don’t approach that cute guy or girl because it’s outside of your comfort zone, you’ll get nowhere.
Seeking out that discomfort and putting yourself out there is what gets you results, and that eventually builds confidence, a sense of self-worth and achievement, and happiness.
Sharing this post so everyone can see my mistakes and my failures is definitely outside my comfort zone, but I’m doing it because I’m hoping that by sharing this, I can help at least one person. If I can do that, then to me, that’s a resounding success.
Discomfort is partly why I think more people should aspire to be polymaths. It’s far from easy, and there’s a lot of work involved, but while the idea of picking up new skills and spending time learning about new things can seem daunting, you’d be surprised at how much better you’ll feel with yourself.
In fact, I’d say that doing these things can and will significantly improve your overall satisfaction with life.
How badly do you want this?
Eric Thomas once shared a story that contained one of my favourite quotes of all time. I listened to this years ago, and it had such a profound impact on me. Here’s the video if you want to watch it yourself (it’s so worth it):
At the end of the story, he says:
When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.
Have you ever started something, feeling pumped up only to give up a couple of days later? That’s happened to me so many times, and each time it’s because I didn’t want it bad enough. Now, whenever I feel like quitting, I remember this speech, and ask I myself, “How badly do I want this?”.
Positive self-talk is one of the greatest tools you have, because when no one else is around, you’ve got your back. Maybe a little ironically, your greatest enemy is also yourself, because there will always be that voice in your head telling you to give up. That’s when the positive self-talk can really come in handy, to be the opposing voice that keeps you going.
I’ve been through many different public speaking scenarios and there have been moments where I froze, forgot my speech or story halfway through, said something stupid, embarrassed myself, and got laughed at. When I was up on that stage, I had only my own voice to tell me to keep going, battling the little one that was telling me to run off stage and hide.
Taking a moment to be grateful
There’s a reason why a person can have a roof over their head, running water, unlimited food, access to the internet, transportation, safety, community, a healthy body, youthfulness, and somehow still manage to beunhappy. It’s a lack of a gratitude, and a lack of perspective.
If you’re reading this, you probably own the device that’s enabling you to do so. That alone makes you more fortunate that you can possibly imagine. How often do you stop to consider that? If you’re like me, probably not very often, and if that’s the case, let’s work on that.
You can’t be happy if you can’t appreciate what you already have, and sadly, most people don’t and never will. They’re too busy being consumed with what they don’t have, and that’s why they will never have enough.
Think about this for a second, if you achieve a goal or receive something new, how long does that great feeling last? How long do you feel a sense of gratitude? Usually, it fades away quickly and then it’s time to start chasing the next high, and then the next.
In my opinion, chasing happiness is a pointless exercise if you aren’t grateful for what you already have, because no matter what you achieve and how high you climb, the destination will never be good enough to satisfy you.
Here’s to us
I want you to live not just a good life, but a great one. I want you to be able to say that you are truly happy with your life, and mean it. That’s why I’m sharing all of this with you, in the hopes that you will gain something from it, and find your own happiness.
One of the reasons I started writing this blog is because I wanted you to be able to see the steps that I have taken, and the mistakes I’ve made and will continue to make. If you think anything I’ve said above is flat out wrong or if you want to make suggestions, please let me know. I’m more than happy to learn from you and accept criticism.
I’ve had many moments where I felt like I was going nowhere in life, just doing the same, routine things and living the same day over and over. I spent a lot of time feeling stuck. I constantly felt unfulfilled, lethargic, and deflated, because everything seemed completely monotonous.
I think the truth is, I had only myself to blame for feeling that way. I was choosing to feel sorry for myself rather than take action and do something about it.
Thankfully, I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m challenging myself to live the best life I can live. I can look at my own life right now and honestly say that I have a great one, andI couldn’t be more grateful for being able to say that.
I conduct two-week experiments all the time to try and push myself into learning new things. I call these short-term experiments “sprints”, a term borrowed from a framework called “Scrum”, which is extremely useful and I will talk about in an upcoming post.
Basically, at the end of every sprint, I take some time to consider the effectiveness of the experiment, make changes, and think about whether or not it’s worth continuing the experiment. This time, I decided to try something relatively new to me.
How the Experiment Began
I was on Reddit when I came across a unique blog. Its title was “Tracking Happiness”, and it caught my attention because I had been in a rough spot at the time and had been thinking about the concept of happiness and trying to figure out certain aspects of my life.
The author was describing his life in great detail, and had graphs and correlations that very clearly indicated his levels of happiness over certain periods of time. He was quite literally, tracking happiness and analysing it in a precise, methodical manner.
My interest piqued, I decided to learn more about his methods and why he was doing this. There’s an interesting backstory on his blog, which I urge you to check out. He’s been doing this for three and a half years now, and he’s meticulously recorded and tracked his happiness levels every single day.
The idea behind it was to figure out what made him happy, and just as important, what didn’t. This way, he could focus more on the things that increased happiness levels, and avoid the things that had a negative impact on those levels.
I found this very interesting and began to track my own happiness levels for two weeks, just as an experiment. I wasn’t sure if I would be committed enough to do it on a continuous basis, so I thought I’d start small, but I’ve now passed day 50 and have no plans to stop.
What I Learned
Alright guys, this is a pretty long section, so bear with me on this.
Now that I have some useful data to look at, I decided to share what I’ve learned from this experience with you.
I have to say, I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but it was eye-opening after just a few days of consistent tracking. I started to notice little things that negatively affected my happiness and wellbeing. The worst part? I was allowing these things to happen, unaware that I could take control.
Over time, I started noticing trends and realised that I would have to make changes if my happiness levels were constantly low for more than a couple of days. Whenever this happened, I would reflect on my situation and attempt to figure out what was causing the issue. It’s important to do this because each day builds on the next.
To quote Redditor JHawkeye143 who has been tracking happiness for a year now, “Life is incremental, but compounding. While our experience of life is discrete due to sleeping everyday and our consciousness not being continuous, our perception of this experience is a collective of these incremental conscious periods. There is no such thing as “resetting” overnight. Changing your life requires time and effort, but it pays dividends.”
Your experiences make you who you are, and by that same logic, each day of happiness (or lack thereof) affects the next, even if it is in some minor way. If I was unhappy on one day, I would try and figure out the reason behind it. Once I did that, I would work on it, and hopefully fix the problem, so I could work on raising my happiness levels the following day.
This actually reminded me of Steve Job’s famous Stanford Commencement speech. If you haven’t watched it, definitely do, but I’ve highlighted the exact section I was thinking about just below the video.
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like, “If you live each day as if it were your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”
It made an impression on me… and since then, for the past 33 years I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today.”
And whenever the answer has been, “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
– Steve Jobs
This was similar to what I was describing before. If my happiness levels were low for a few days in a row, it was a sure sign that something needed to change.
Tracking my happiness levels reminded me to be more mindful in general, because I received two alerts a day on my phone which would ask me to key in how I felt and asked me for a short summary of why I felt that way. This has become my version of journaling, and it takes less than a minute.
I actually found that I can better deal with my negative emotions once I write down how I’m feeling in the app. I’m not sure why, but I think the physical act of putting your emotions into words actually has a powerful impact on allowing your mind to process the issues, rather than shoving it into a dark corner, only for it to blow up at a later date.
There’s an episode on Joe Rogan’s podcast in which psychologist Jordan Peterson discusses something similar (I strongly recommend listening to all the episodes involving him, they’re absolutely thought-provoking and enlightening).
If you check out the video below, skip over to about 6:50, which is when he starts talking about dealing with the weight of emotions by writing about them, and 12:00 is where he describes how the psychological process works. Although Peterson is talking about a much longer timeframe, I think it has the same effect when you’re doing it for day-to-day issues.
On the flip side, I also have a greater appreciation for the good things that have happened throughout the day. It’s amazing how much we can take for granted, and we tend to have the habit of only remembering the bad stuff that’s happened. It’s so important to consider and be grateful for the good things as well, because when you do that, it can actually raise your happiness levels. A lot of people find “positivity-talk” to be positively nauseating, but it can help.
Once I started tracking my happiness, the app I was using would create a little graph for me, indicating my happiness levels over the past week. The visual effect of seeing bad times pass and good times coming around again has had a powerful impact on me. Nowadays, when I’m having a particularly bad day, I am a lot less depressed than I used to be, because I am constantly reminded that it’s a temporary situation, and it will always pass, eventually.
The other benefit of tracking my happiness was that I started changing my habits and actions. I became far more proactive in terms of making myself feel happier. For instance, I started working out a lot more, and because I’m tracking it, I’m far more consistent. Like Peter Drucker said, “what gets measured gets managed”.
Tracking my happiness also involves me making quick notes about what I did during the day. If I noticed that I hadn’t worked out in two days, I would push myself to hit the gym the very next day.
The added benefit or working out a lot more is that it has also improved my mood and my ability to manage my emotional state. I strongly believe that working out can affect your mental state far more than you would expect.
Tracking my happiness has had a tremendous impact on how I’m living my life. I’ve started becoming more productive and I’m noticeably happier, and I’m constantly making better decisions to improve my wellbeing. If you’ve never done this before, do consider giving it a go.
The only potential drawback that I found was that rating your happiness is a very subjective affair. You have to be honest with yourself and you need to take into account the entire day, and not allow yourself to only think about how you are feeling in the moment of making the rating.
Redditors Weigh In
When I decided to start this two-week experiment, I decided to go on Reddit and invite others to join me, and I actually had the opportunity to interview a number of Redditors after they had completed the experiment, and I asked them about their experience. The responses highlight some important points that I think will help you if you decide to try the experiment yourself.
Have you noticed any improvement in your happiness levels since you started tracking it? Why do you think that is?
My life has changed drastically since beginning this process. I have changed jobs and moved to a new state almost directly because of tracking my life. After realizing how unhappy I was, it was simply determining why and working towards resolving that. For me, it spurned from being unhappy with my job and station in life so I worked to change that.
Are there any drawbacks to tracking happiness that you can think of?
If you discover that you are unhappy, it becomes a daily reminder. In my experience the process of reminding myself of how unhappy I was became a chore and seemed to exacerbate my condition. I think its crucial to be proactive and decide to take action to change your situation in this scenario, or you risk a serious cycle of rumination.
Would you recommend tracking happiness to others, and if so, why?
Most definitely. This has been the most influential thing for my state of mind since graduating college. In a world where we seem to be becoming more concerned with tracking our physical fitness and health, I find it equally (if not more so) important to maintain our mental and emotional health. The first step to proper maintenance of anything tracking its progression and diagnosing causes for outcomes.
My personal logger consists of an hourly activity tracking gant chart, a journal tab, and a happiness tab. The happiness tab is fairly simply: good day, meh day, bad day. I’m a fairly resilient person, and have a hard time qualifying something as a bad day (this was my reassurance to myself that I do not have clinical depression) but through June of this year I was about even split or leaning towards mostly “meh” days versus good days.
This was my tip that I was in a situational depression and something needed to change. If you don’t consider yourself to be extremely happy, I recommend you track your life and find causes for your unhappiness so you can change them. We experience this life day to day, but we can observe these things and change our lives for the better with a little bit of effort.
Would you recommend tracking happiness to others, and if so, why?
Without a doubt!!! From what I have experienced, gratitude and happiness go hand in hand. If I am miserable, then I’m probably taking parts of my life for granted. If I’m happy then I’m focusing on the right areas of my life. Also, I don’t think anyone enjoys being [un]happy. If I notice a trend in bad days, I have to figure out where the problem lies and work on it. Is it my depression creeping up? Is it the people I associate with? Is it the situations I have put myself in?
I also had the chance to ask the same questions to the author of the Tracking Happinessblog himself, and he had some fascinating points to make. Here’s the complete interview:
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from tracking your happiness?
Tracking my happiness has been great for many reasons. The one that sticks out the most is that it allows me to rationally reflect on every kind of period in my life.
Humans are sometimes pretty poor in judging the value of certain events, especially when emotions are involved. By tracking my happiness and the factors that have influenced it, I know exactly what influenced my life at the time.
I’ve learned to use this data to steer my life in the best direction possible. I’m not saying that I’ve turned my life around with a complete lifestyle change, but I have been able to make the best and reasonable decisions possible based on my newfound knowledge. In short, I now know what’s best for me. And I can use that every day to get the most out of my life.
Have you noticed any improvement in your happiness levels since you started tracking it? Why do you think that is?
It’s hard to measure the exact effect of my decisions, since I don’t know what my life would have looked like had I made different decisions in the past. That said, I am currently very happy, and I’d like to think that’s a result of my informed decisions.
For example, my relationship has been conflicted many times – primarely during long distance periods – and we have discussed the topic of a breakup several times. However, we both knew that our relationship was great, and made both our lives happier. So we both decided to fight for what we had. Our relationship is currently as good as it gets, and we’re very happy to have made the decision to stick together, through thick and thin.
Another good example I always refer to is arguably my biggest passion: running. Running is a difficult sport, and a lot of people would probably agree with me. Running takes discipline and endurance. When it’s raining or cold, it’s not always easy to get dressed and step outside. But tracking happiness has learned me one thing: running always makes me a happier and better person in the long run (pun intented ;-)). After a run – no matter how I initially felt – I always feel better. Ever since I started tracking happiness, I have been running a LOT more. I’ve since ran 4 marathons, and continue to run through wind, rain and snow, knowing that it will eventually make me a happier and better person.
Do you think you will continue to track your happiness after the two week experiment?
[I] have been doing it since December, 2013 and still going strong! I plan on doing this for the rest of my life, and want to inspire people out there to do the same! Tracking happiness becomes more and more valuable as you grow older and your life changes and transforms into something else. We need to be able to steer our life in the best direction possible, and by tracking our happiness, we will know exactly what it is that makes us happy.
Do you feel that you were being objective when you were rating your happiness (did you take into account all the factors or just how you felt during that moment, etc)?
This is a difficult and critical question. It is a fact that we are humans and are influenced by emotions, biases and flawed decision making processes. I will never argue that. We are not robots, it’s that simple.
However, tracking happiness is about rationally quantifying a feeling of happiness. This surely must sound very hard, considering what I’ve just said about biases and flawed decision making processes.
But the key here is consistency. As long as you are consistent in using the same scale and method of rating happiness, your data will eventually become valuable.
It doesn’t matter if I rate my day with an 8, while you rate the exact same day with a 6 (hypothetically speaking). As long as the relative difference between happiness ratings remains consistent.
I rate my happiness based on how I feel at the end of every day. I try to include the entire day within this single happiness rating. Of course, I would be naive to think that every single happiness rating is a perfect judgement and totally un-biased without forgetting about certain emotions I’ve had during the day. Again, we are not robots.
Consistency and continuity are very important here. As long as you keep it up, your data will eventually become more valuable and reliable.
Are there any drawbacks to tracking happiness that you can think of?
Would you recommend tracking happiness to others, and if so, why?
I like to imagine a world in which every single person is trying to be as happy as possible, without being influenced by external limitations, such as cultural expectations, peer pressure or jealousy.
We are all different, which means that we all have different reasons to be happy. We all have different happiness factors. But we should all pursue the same goal, and that is to live the most long and happy life as possible.
Some Tips on Tracking Your Happiness
If you’re the kind of person who is interested in the idea of having a structure to your day, morning routines, journaling, etc., you’ll probably find this to be quite beneficial to add to your routine!
In my opinion, I think there are a couple of things you can do to improve the benefit of tracking your happiness, and to increase the accuracy of your ratings.
Track your happiness levels at the same times every day
Think about how you felt when you woke up, and the progression throughout the day
Journaling can be an excellent companion tool to this, and you can look back and see exactly what was making you happy or unhappy on a particular day. This is particularly helpful when looking at trends and deciding to make changes.
Make it easy and convenient. If it’s too detailed or time consuming, you may eventually give up. You can always build up to a more detailed record.
Start with the two-week experiment and stick to it. The data is only useful if you can spot trends.
Before ending this post, I’d like to acknowledge that happiness itself is extremely subjective, and some say that it isn’t the final goal or the most important aspect of life for human beings. It turns into a philosophical debate with no real answer as of yet. If you’d like to weigh in on this, please leave your thoughts in the comments! Personally, I think happiness is elusive if you chase it, and perhaps counterintuitively, you need to stop searching for happiness in order to find it.
Now I know that seems very contradictory to the entire post, but I think that tracking happiness and actively chasing it are two different things. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself and figuring out what brings you enjoyment, so you can focus on those things. Again, it’s subjective, and everyone looks at this differently. Try it out, and let me know what you think!
A quick post today on my thoughts about why many people experience general down cycles in terms of happiness. This is different from depression, although the thoughts in this post could well be applicable to it.
My theory is that the sedentary lifestyle that most people live today has given rise to this issue of feeling unhappy all the time. It’s common knowledge that exercise makes you feel better, but I didn’t quite realise the impact it actually had on my quality of life until I started working out consistently.
I spent the majority of my university life in a state of constant unhappiness. Of course, there were ups and downs, but I’m talking about a general level of unhappiness. There were times when I would be feeling down for no apparent reason whatsoever. I never questioned this, and even thought it was normal. After all, why would you feel happy for no reason, right?
The 2-Week Experiment
At the start of summer, I decided to try a 2 week experiment. I changed my sleeping habit and started waking up at 6.30 every morning and going either for a bike ride or to the gym. At the end of every session, I would feel a natural high that allowed me to go through my day feeling relaxed and happy. I constantly felt lethargic, unmotivated and unhappy, but since I made this change, I’ve never felt better at any other point in my life.
In fact, I enjoyed the experiment so much that it’s become my daily routine. It’s pretty much an automatic process now, compared to before, when I would struggle to motivate myself just to go to the gym.
Working Out Provides the Natural High
Exercise is the secret to happiness. Or at least, it’s a big part of happiness. A potential reason for this is the release of endorphins into your system. Endorphins provide an effect similar to that of opiates – a euphoric feeling, or a natural high. This is the feeling you get after a solid workout session.
I’m sure everyone knows that exercise has been linked to a diminution of stress levels, better health, etc. Before I started the 2 week experiment, I severely underestimated the impact it would have on my quality of life, and working out was always an “option”. I no longer consider it an option. I use my workout as part of the scaffolding for my day.
Mental Health Issues
I think that if society led a more active lifestyle, it’s quite possible that there would be a significant reduction in mental health issues (I don’t know if research has gone into this, at this point it’s simply an opinion based on my own observations and experience). As part of my mental health training, I noticed that a common pattern to recovering from mental health problems was the “Trinity of Happiness” (I don’t think anyone actually calls it that, just me); exercise, nutrition and sleep.
People greatly underestimate the effect that these activities have on them and I think it’s a terrible shame. Part of the problem can be remedied with education, but as usual, this needs to come from within. The individual needs to be open to the idea and willing to try it out.
Essentially, if you work out consistently, you’ll be significantly happier.
Disclaimer: I am not professionally trained in psychology, and these ideas are simply for discussion purposes and to encourage further research.
I think our society leads a lifestyle that makes us highly susceptible to feeling unhappy.
My theory is that exercise could be the remedy for this.
The post workout “high” can help you get through the day feeling relaxed and happier
Exercise is very often underestimated (I would know, I underestimated it), and it has an incredible impact on quality of life
Don’t make it an option, make working out a part of your lifestyle