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  • Jason

Happiness in a Nutshell

Updated: Jan 18

For thousands of years, philosophers have searched for and debated the key to happiness. A widespread theory today is encapsulated in psychologist Richard Lazarus' statement:

'happiness depends on the background psychological status of the person...and cannot be well predicted without reference to one's expectations.' - Emotion and Adaptation

In a nutshell, happiness results from reality exceeding expectations. These are the only two factors that matter. For a layman's (and more engaging) explanation, this article explains the detrimental effects of social media to young people's self-confidence.


I've experienced the formula acutely during the course of 2019. After my initial diagnosis and subsequent confirmation, my ocean liner hit an iceberg and sunk to the ocean floor. That ocean liner was my reality. On its own, this wasn't a problem - the problem was that my expectations for the future hadn't changed. I had planned to play cards with friends that night, attend a ball the following week and graduate in less than half a year. But reality took all of it away from me.


That initial gap, between the 'new' reality and what I had expected of my future, was a huge cause for disappointment.


Luckily, this didn't last. Looking back, the most effective antidote to misery was simple, and free. It was to adjust my expectation to match the new reality. By lowering the bar, anything that happened thereafter changed from a gap to a surplus. Here's a visual representation of the formula applied to my life:

A couple of side notes:

- The expectation line is more sensitive to good news than bad news - something in human nature about self-denial.

- In the normal state, my expectation line is always slightly above reality. This is just me - I'm an optimist, and believe that the future will be a good one.

- The lines wouldn't be this smooth and are probably closer to ripples in real life. So there's actually a lot of opportunity for happiness!

You see, there have only been 3 points on this journey where I've been truly unhappy. And each time, my expectation had to be reset. That's the hard part. Everyone should have their own routine. Here is mine:

  1. Be honest with yourself. The first step to weaning off an addiction is to admit that you have one. It's OK not to expose your deepest secrets with others, but don't fool yourself. If you contributed to any part of the problem, now's the time to own up. Ironically, I've always placed an emphasis on health, making sure to sleep early, exercise often and drink water over beer (not literally). Here, I get off scot-free. But even if I didn't, an act of self-penance was a crucial segue to the next step.

  2. Give yourself space. Because the process to attaining point 3 certainly isn't immediate and may take more or less time depending on the severity of the issue and your predisposition to it. That's OK. Take time off. Eat an icecream. Play clash royale. Give yourself some space to process the information. Most big problems usually don't require an immediate response, even if it seems that way. Obviously, if it does, do the above things later.

  3. Accept what is out of your control. Sitting in my little room in a quaint little city five thousand and seventy-eight miles from home, there was nothing I could do to reverse the situation. I was sick. That was that. I could smash some plates, scream out loud or hit my head against the wall but, as the truck-driving, truth-telling old lady in Nosedive said, 'cancer doesn't give a shit'.

  4. Start doing stuff. The internal battle is won, so now take it to the streets. The great thing about eliminating the actions that won't help is that you get a clearer idea of the actions that will. For me, that involved notifying my parents (calmly), booking an urgent appointment with the GP, and deciding when to fly home for treatment. There are a lot of pieces that begin to fall into place once you just start.

  5. Move on. By now, you've done what you could and not done what you couldn't. Learn from the experience, and stop dwelling. Life is full of surprises, and this was just one of them. If you can get back up, then this is just another story for the grandkids.

Happiness is yours to make. Because at the end of the day, while reality is influenced by the environment around us, happiness is a product of our own psychology.