Direction Matters more to Happiness than Position (Maddie’s Progress)
They say that lottery winners, on average, don’t end up any happier a couple of years after their big win. On the other hand, folks that have lost a limb in an accident often report being happier — again, on average — a couple of years down the road.
Seriously; folks that have lost a leg are often happier than lotto winners. Why?
It all comes down to a truth that I’ve been reminded of recently: the trials of everyday life don’t have nearly as big an effect on your happiness as whether you believe that things are getting better. The direction of life change is more important than where you are right now… or to put it another way, it makes all the difference in the world whether you think your life will get better and better in the future.
Here are two examples I’ve lived lately.
1. The Purple Hand
At the end of January I broke my hand. The cast they put on it had a fiberglass “web” running over the soft fleshy part between my thumb and index finger, as they usually do. After a couple of days, that started cutting into my thumb pretty good… but for lack of options I did my best to ignore it.
Three weeks into six-weeks of healing, I took a serrated kitchen knife to the webbing.
Aaaaaaaaah! Now that’s relief…
For the next week I was barely bothered by the rest of the cast, even though it was still rubbing my index finger fairly badly (hence the tape in the picture) — I just kept remembering how much better it was to have that webbing gone. (And I knew the cast would be gone soon.)
When the cast did come off, my world experienced a similar lift. Sure, the hand hurt… and I still couldn’t climb… but my new wrist freedom was such a huge step in the positive direction that it lifted me for weeks. And since I could feel things healing up, I continue to be reminded that things are getting better and better…
2. Maddie’s Growth Chart
For the past 22 months we’ve been fighting to get Maddie to gain weight. Long story. This chart says a lot:
She’s been under the 1% of weight for just about all of her life. It’s hard to eat when your GI system is under-developed, and it’s hard to develop your GI system when you can’t eat…
From month 12 through months 23 she gained approximately nothing… just slowly slipped off the bottom of the growth chart.
Those were 11 very difficult months.
It’s not hard to let one particular life rut pull down your whole mental frame. When the present isn’t changing, why would the future be any better (irrational thought this is, it’s not hard to understand). Of course the best way to make sure the future sucks is to stop trying to make it better… but let’s move on.
Finally, over the past 6 weeks or so, things are starting to click. See that uptick I circled in green? That is the single most exciting thing I have ever seen in my life. No exaggeration. All of a sudden the future is looking bright… there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t a train coming our way.
Once more, even though things are still challenging the direction of change makes it all feel OK.
The Lotto Winner and the Amputees
So what’s the deal with these sad lotto winners and the happy amputees? From what I’ve read, it comes down to much the same thing.
Sure, the lotto winner might still be rich (might not, often enough), but is their life getting better? In fact, they often feel like the best thing to ever happen to them is in the past, and it’s a long slow slide down from here.
Whereas the folks that lost a limb have one of the biggest challenges (mostly) behind them… they’re getting by and hopefully getting better, and they tend to see the future as better still.
The big takeaway for me is that you can easily use this to hack your whole mood. Rather than complain about the weather, find one thing that is within your control and work on improving it… revel in the glow of this one little area of your life moving on up, and you almost can’t help but see the future as rosier.
Then it gets even better.
When this sense of things getting better in one area spills over into a positive outlook on the future, it gives you more energy and lets you notice and take advantage of other opportunities, which ends up causing things to actually get better and better in other areas.
can does affect reality.