Why some people will never be happy (and what to do about it)

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At some point or another, we all get caught in the future trap. “If I could just earn X, or achieve Y, I’ll be happy.”

We all know that superficial things (money, status, power) give fleeting, temporary happiness. Yet, I believed that once I achieved the “real deal” (good friends, a sense of community, job satisfaction), I’d experience a lasting increase in happiness.

This was put to the test in 2013. After finding a more fulfilling job, moving to a new city, meeting many wonderful people, and knocking off quite a few items on my bucket list, I expected to feel noticeably happier as I went about my day-to-day life.

That never happened.

Why? Because of a mental quirk that Rick Hanson – neuropsychologist and member of U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s advisory board – describes in this interview with The Atlantic:

The problem is that the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences. We learn immediately from pain—you know, “once burned, twice shy.” Unfortunately, the brain is relatively poor at turning positive experiences into emotional learning neural structure.

When you don’t actively pay attention to the good, your negative memories are in a position to triumph. Over and over and over.

I’m sure this differs from person to person, but I’m quite susceptible to the negativity bias Hanson describes. It’s almost as if I have a leak in my positive memory tank. I’ll remember a negative experience for years, but forget a positive experience within a week, often resulting in a prolonged sense of anxiety and gloom. Can you relate?

In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Hanson talks about this trend in excruciating detail. From his years of research, he’s come to the conclusion that going out of your way to be just as attentive to the positive as the negative can physically re-wire your brain to better hold on to the good. This has a range of benefits, including improved health and emotional well-being.

Techniques for being more mindful of the good in your life have been around forever. Meditation, gratitude journals, mindfulness practices, and more. Apps like Headspace and Calm make it easier than ever to develop a mindfulness practice. Journals like the Five Minute Journal encourage gratitude and positive reflection.

I’ll keep this post brief, with the following takeaway: If you’re like me, and find yourself with a significant negativity bias, do yourself a favor and start working on that this week (yes, this week). Whether by reading Hanson’s book, meditating more often, or starting a gratitude journal, pick your methodology and get to it.

With enough practice, you’ll upgrade your happiness in ways others could never think of doing.

About Jon Guerrera

I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I experiment with finding happiness and fulfillment. I also wrote an e-book. If you like what I write on the blog, you can grab a free copy by subscribing.
  • Debby Weiss Okuneye

    Living life with an attitude of gratitude – always finding something to be grateful for – has helped me through many difficult times and helps me appreciate all the wonderful and positive things that I am blessed with!

  • Fawn

    Super useful to know *why* it is that I should build these habits. Thanks, Jon!

  • Jennifer

    THANK YOU, IT REALLY HELPS.

  • finneycanhelp

    Good advice!

  • I can’t disagree. All I’m noticing is how astonishing it is that we really have to work for remembering the good. What a curse of being alive. But better to know than to continue on not (knowing)

  • Pingback: How To Maintain Your Gratitude Journaling Habit Once And For All | Living For Improvement()

  • Lori Taylor Love

    What do I do when I’m my mother’s caretaker(who has been negative all my life-I’m now 63) and she still is–also has a severe case of OCD–. She drove my father to an early grave and I am a Christian and pray and watch my own behavior (which can be quite difficult at times), She is an impossible-to-please woman and now has dementia. Lord help me(and he does), that’s how I get through my day!