The Happiness Model

In his book, Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar came up with what he called the happiness model. The model consists of four archetypes that illustrate how we think about happiness:

  1. The first archetype is HedonismThis is when we act in accordance with the idea of ‘seek pleasure and avoid pain.’ This is when you opt for the pizza instead of the grilled chicken, or you don’t study for your upcoming exam and play video games instead. This is a situation when we seek pleasure in the present moment, but we end up sacrificing the future to some extent. On a more extreme level, this is when you embrace the ‘you only live once’ or the ‘seize the day’ mentality and focus solely in the present even when it can negatively impact the future.
  2. The second archetype is the Rat RaceThis is the opposite of hedonism as it focuses on future gain and sacrificing the present moment. This is when you opt for the grilled chicken and vegetables instead of the pizza and focus on studying for your upcoming exam instead of hanging out with your friends. On an extreme level, this is when you live under the idea that happiness is a destination. It’s when you say “When I get that promotion, or get into my college of choice, I will be happy.” However, of course, even if you get that promotion or into college, your goal changes and you want the next thing on your list.
  3. The third archetype is Nihilism. This is the worst outcome as you act in such a way where there is present detriment AND future detriment. This is when you have the pizza, but you don’t enjoy it or when you are playing video games and finding it very unfulfilling. This state manifests usually when you are feeling hopeless, unexcited, and/or apathetic.
  4. The fourth archetype is HappinessThis is when you opt for the grilled chicken and vegetables, but you turn the chicken into a parmesan that you love. This is when you study all day so that you can hang out with your friends at night. There is present gain, but also, there is future gain.

Below is an illustration that describes these archetypes. As you can see, there are four quadrants and each archetype’s placement is based on how it affects the present and future:Happiness-Model.jpg

You might think that we should strive to live in the happiness quadrant and avoid the trap of other quadrants, but that is only partly true. The reality is that whether we like it or not, we will spend time in each quadrant. It is absolutely unavoidable, so we shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to achieve something that is unrealistic.

The key is balance, moderation and timing.

Every now and then, you’re going to opt for pleasure now without considering the future. That’s okay. Nothing wrong with having the pizza even though you might feel a bit stuffed after or feel bloated. But should you have it five days in a row? Of course not. Sometimes you’re going to skip class to play games, and that’s fine too. The key is moderation. Similarly, there are going to be times where you need to sacrifice present happiness for future gain. You will need to not go out with your friends after work to pick up your daughter from school. You will need to stay late at work to finish an assignment. But is it an everyday occurrence? Do you keep telling yourself that you’ll be happy as soon as you get that next big break? On occasion though, perfectly okay to sacrifice now for later. Just don’t make it a habit.

Being in the happiness quadrant, of course, is the ideal. You want to maximize the time here. What are the activities that are good now and the future? Find those things. Make them a part of your daily life. For example, if you find a job you love that compensates you fairly, that’s something for the present and future. That’s the ideal. If you like a sport, and you know that it’s good for your health, do that instead of playing video games.

Nihilism, you might think this quadrant is something to avoid at all costs. Well, you can’t avoid it. You’re going to have down moments. The best thing you can do is acknowledge that it is perfectly okay to have those moments. Accept that it is okay to be in that quadrant from time to time. If you do that, you adopt a healthier mindset which makes it easier to get out of that quadrant.

Final words…

Simply put, (a) maximize your time in the happiness quadrant, (b) focus on moderation and balance with the other quadrants.

The ABCDE method for positive change

The idea of implementing positive change in your life is actually quite simple. Want to lose weight? Start eating healthy and exercising. Want to become a music composer? Start composing music. Want to find a better job? Look for one. The idea of implementing positive change is straightforward. The actual process, however, is not. More often than not, when it comes to implementing positive change, you already know what you need to do. However, despite knowing what you need to do, you often fail to do it. You don’t go to the gym. You don’t start that blog. You continue to waste money on luxuries that you cannot afford.

So what exactly is going on here? We know what we want to do, and we know what we need to do, yet we do not do it. There must be something getting in the way.  More often than not, it’s a mental barrier. Something is wrong with our mental wiring that prevents us from taking action. The good news is that we can rewire our brains and change the way we think, and this can help us turn our thoughts into action.

One method that is used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the ABCDE method. ABCDE is an acronym where “A” stands for activating event, “B” stands for belief, “C” stands for consequence, “D” stands for disputation or distraction, and “E” stands for energization or effect.

“A” stands for Activating Event

Activating event refers to a trigger in the environment or an event that occurs. You get into a fight with your best friend. You cheat on your diet. You bump into an old friend at the grocery store. These are all examples of triggers. As you can tell, the activating event can be positive, negative, or neutral.

B” stands for Belief

The activating event triggers a belief. Our beliefs are derived from past occurrences in our lives, and they are largely automatic and habitual. We may not even be aware of how they influence us. You may hold a belief that to be successful, you need to be perfect or stick to a plan 100% of the time. Alternatively, you may hold a belief that being perfect is unrealistic and that small setbacks are inevitable.

Many of our beliefs are strongly rooted within us and can be stubborn and difficult to change. They’ve been reinforced over and over again by our external environment and then by our internal thoughts. Some of these beliefs are good and constructive, while others are bad and destructive.

C” stands for Consequence

When an activating event occurs, it triggers a belief which causes us to feel a certain way and heavily influences what we do next. It’s the result of when you combine A and B.

ABC Combined

To a large extent, the activating event, the beliefs, and the consequences are all automated. Even if we don’t consciously focus on them, they will still happen. It’s how we are programmed. Below are a few examples of what this looks like. You will notice that the activating event is almost always the same, but based on the belief (positive vs. negative), the consequences are different:

Example 1a:

  1. Activating Event: Your friend hasn’t responded to your text messages in the past two days
  2. Belief: You think that your friend is not interested in talking to you.
  3. Consequence: You get upset and decide to have a few drinks to feel better

Example 1b:

  1. A: Your friend hasn’t responded to your text messages in the past two days
  2. You assume your friend is probably busy.
  3. C: You don’t give it much more thought and go on with your day.

Example 2a:

  1. A: You ask your sister a question, and she responds rudely
  2. B: You think she’s disrespecting you
  3. C: You get angry, yell back at her, and it results in a big fight

Example 2b:

  1. A: You ask your sister a question, and she responds rudely
  2. B: You assume she has had a stressful day
  3. C: You let it pass, give it some time, and ask her how she’s doing later on.

Example 3a:

  1. A: You’re jogging and you trip on something and fall. You sprain your ankle.
  2. B: You assume that you cannot train for the marathon anymore
  3. C: You give up

Example 3b:

  1. A: You’re jogging and you trip on something and fall. You sprain your ankle.
  2. B: You’re not thrilled about the setback, but you acknowledge it was a freak accident
  3. C: You continue to eat healthy, you focus on recovery, and when you get healthy in a few weeks, you continue your training.

How to change your beliefs

As you’ve noticed through these examples, it is our beliefs that influence these consequences (or outcomes). Some of those negative beliefs are stubborn, but the good news is that you can change them. The very first step to changing your beliefs is to become aware of them. Start to identify your ABCs. Similar to how I did above, think of a few activating events you’ve had this past week. What beliefs did you associate with them and how did that influence the consequences (your reaction and behavior after the event occurred)?

If you are trying to implement positive changes, but have been unable to do so, try to figure out why through the ABC framework. Keep in mind that an activating event can also be something that did not occur or something you did not do (e.g., not going to the gym, not waking up on time). Once you’ve mapped out a few of these ABCs from your past week, I’d encourage you to do that at least 1-2 times a day for the next few days. Get into the habit of trying to transition from ‘automatic’ mode to ‘manual’ mode.

Once you’ve become aware of your thought process, you’ll start to identify patterns and problems in your thinking that you want to resolve. That’s where the “D” and “E” part of ABCDE comes in.

“D” stands for Disputation

Disputation is when you identify a belief that you want to change and you attack it. You dispute it. Counter the pessimistic and/or irrational belief with a more optimistic and rational one. In his book on learned optimism, Martin Seligman states that there are four tactics that you can use to dispute your beliefs:

  1. Evidence – Show to yourself how your belief is factually incorrect. More often than not, you will realize that you are blowing things out of proportion. When possible, try to quantify the evidence to make it more impactful. For example, let’s say I cheated on my diet one day and consumed 1,000 more calories than I wanted to. My belief might be that I’ve broken my diet or failed, but in actuality, 1,000 calories equates to less than 1/3 of a pound gained. When looking at it that way, one singular day did very little to undo the progress I have made over a week or a month.
  2. Alternatives – Identify alternative explanations to justify the activating event. There can be multiple causes for the event. For example, if your friend hasn’t responded to your messages in two days, it’s easy to think they don’t want to talk to you. However, maybe they broke their phone. Maybe they’re working overtime this week at work and then coming home and taking care of the kids. Maybe they saw your message when they were in a meeting, but then forgot about it afterwards. There are a million other possible reasons.
  3. Implications – What if the negative belief that you have is correct? For example, what if you failed an exam and you know it is your fault because you deciding to hang out with friends all of last week rather than studying? When you know the belief is accurate, the best thing you can do is to focus on implications. For example, one failed exam does not mean you’re stupid. It doesn’t mean that it’ll keep you from getting accepted into graduate school or from getting a job. When you think about it, many negative occurrences that happen on a day-to-day basis have very little implications in the long run. Take for example the SATs. Think about how important they felt when we were in high school. However, now, years removed from high school, we look back and smile in amusement at how those were the simple days and how that exam had a very little impact on our lives.
  4. Usefulness – The last tactic you can use is to determine whether or not the belief is constructive or destructive. Maybe you hold a negative belief that is true, and the implications are also big. If that is the case, you need to ask yourself if the belief is constructive or destructive. In other words, is it useful? In his book, Seligman provides an example of a technician doing a bomb demolition who comes to the realization that the bomb could go off in any minute and kill everyone around him. The belief is true and the implications are huge. However, that added pressure on him is not necessarily useful especially if it leads to increased nervousness and decreases focus in that situation. In this situation, it is better to (a) focus on what you can do, and (b) consider having that internal dialogue later when the situation (or your emotions) are not as severe. Even if the situation is not as severe, you can still try to focus on what you can do and have the internal dialogue later when you’re calmer.

“E” stands for Energization

Energization refers to reflecting on having successfully dealt with negative beliefs. Therefore, when you have a negative belief that you were able to successfully dispute, you reflect on the implications and how that resulted in a more positive outcome. This reinforces this idea of disputing negative beliefs, and it also energizes you.

Final Words…

The key to the ABCDE method is to (a) become aware of your destructive thoughts, (b) challenge them, and (c) replace them with more constructive thoughts. You could use this same approach to stop negative behaviors and/or implement positive ones (more on that another day).

I wouldn’t say it’s feasible to do this for an extended period of time, but at least for a few days, I would encourage you to actually write down your ABCDEs. If you find yourself thinking destructively or struggling to implement a positive change, open up a memo and answer these questions:

  1. Activating Event: What happened (or what did not happen) that has me feeling negatively?
  2. Belief: What internal beliefs are causing me to feel/act this way?
  3. Consequence: What resulted from this activating event and belief?
  4. Disputation: How can I counter my beliefs? What would disprove my beliefs?
  5. Energization: What has resulted from me disproving my destructive beliefs? How do I feel? How am I acting?

Do this a few times a day for 2, 3, or 5 days. If you have the discipline to do it longer, do it longer. You’ll notice that after some time, you begin to do this automatically in your head. The ABC are automated as usual, but the “D” and “E” also become automated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re excited about Friday, something might be wrong…

Friday is great. For most of us, it’s the last day of the workweek and the beginning of the weekend where we can be relax, be lazy if we want, and actually do the things that we enjoy. We can stay at home, or we can go out. We can spend time with family and friends rather than our manager or boss. However, if we’re excited about Friday, and we spend the greater part of our week in anticipation of Friday, then do you wonder that something might be wrong?

Think about it.

We’re happy on Friday night, Saturday, and the greater part of Sunday. Sunday night comes around and we start dealing with the Sunday night blues. We’re dreading the fact that our weekend, our mini-vacation, is over. We come to the realization that we now need to start preparing for the worst part of the week – Monday. On Sunday night, we’re sad that the good part of the week is over and now the bad part of the week is about to begin. Then comes Monday and we try to survive. On Tuesday it’s a little easier to survive. On Wednesday, we’re somewhat adjusted to the week and feeling okay because it’s hump day and half the work week is over. Thursday is also okay because it’s almost Friday, but Friday needs to get here soon! On Friday, we jump for joy because it is FINALLY Friday!

Our whole work week revolves around waiting for Friday night. However, is 57-71% of our week so bad that we’re just waiting and waiting for the moment to arrive where that part of the week is over? And we expect to live 40+ years like this where from Sunday night to Thursday we’re just waiting for Friday? Here’s an excerpt from a few talks by Gary Vaynerchuk that describe the problem with Friday:

To live your life where you love Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday, and despise Monday through Thursday or Friday morning… it’s devastating to me because you’re wasting too much of your life, and I’m trying to put pressure on the conversation to say if you love Friday that much, then you really need to look at Monday through Thursday

If you start your week being sad, and it progressively gets better, you have a problem. We spend way too much time in our lives doing our jobs. When you’re spending most of your life working, it’s important that that thing is on point. It’s a math game. If you’re spending 83% of your time, 72% of your time, 64% of your time on something you hate, that’s devastating.

We basically live to work. If you’re not happy, where are you going?

Final Words…

Let me say this – being excited about Friday is not necessarily a bad thing. We should be excited to have more time for ourselves, our families, and our non-work related interests.  However, if you’re excited about Friday, but you are dreading Monday, then THAT is a problem. If you sleep eight hours a day and work 40 hours a week, you’re spending about 36% of your waking hours at work. You can probably add in an additional 10-15% for overtime, commute, and when you’re not at work but thinking about it. That’s almost half of your waking hours every week.

We’re never going to be in a situation where we’re 100% happy or a 100% satisfied with our work life, and sometimes we might even have to do a job that we do not like. However, if you’re so eager for Friday and not about Monday, I strongly encourage you to find what you love and pursue it, or find a way to transform what you do into something you love (or at least find bearable). If you can do that now and it’s feasible, then do it. If you can’t do it now because it’s not feasible, find a way to make it feasible.

It’s easy to fall into the trap and say to yourself “I just don’t like work” or “I am in a situation where I can’t leave my work and find something else even though I dislike it,” but if you don’t make a change, you’re going to be spending almost half of your waking life for up to 40+ more years miserable and just waiting for Friday. Find a way to make it happen. Either transform your work or find better work.

Happy Friday…!?

 

Find your ideal self

In Positive Psychology, there is a concept called the “ideal self” or “best possible self” which refers to creating a picture or visualizing yourself at your best. Many research studies have found that when you visualize your ideal self, it increases your mood, increases optimism, and is associated with decreased illness.

This makes sense.

It promotes a positive mindset. Rather than worrying about the future, you focus on the potential for your future to be better than your present. Also, similar to visualizing yourself cross the finish line, it gives you a temporary boost of motivation and encourages you to work towards achieving your goals.

If you want to try the formal intervention that has been developed and validated by researchers, here is how you do it.

Best Possible Self Exercise:

  1. Start off by brainstorming and writing down some sentences that describe what your ideal self looks like in the future. Focus on attainable goals and try starting the sentences with “In the future, I will…” Organize your brainstorming by writing about these three domains of your life:
    1. Personal (how your ideal self is physically, spiritually, and psychologically)
    2. Professional (how your ideal self is in terms of position, accomplishments, level of expertise, occupation, skills, etc…)
    3. Relational (how your ideal self is in regards to relationships and contact with loved ones, friends, colleagues, etc…)
  2. Using what you created in number one, write a detailed and coherent personal story. It does not have to be super long, but it should be realistic and make sense.
  3. Perform a 5-minute imagery exercise where you imagine the story you wrote. Perform this imagery exercise once a day for as little as four days or as much as two weeks.

In this exercise, you are generally given about 20 minutes to complete steps 1 and 2. Here are some excerpts from the prompt that is given to participants:

Your best possible self means imagining yourself in a future in which everything has turned out as good as possible. You have worked hard and you have managed to realize all your life goals. You can envision it as satisfying all your life dreams and development of all your best possible potentials… think of and write down your goals, skills, and desires you would like to achieve in the far future for each of the three domains, and finally merge these into a personal story like a diary.

The problem with this exercise (and its solution):

Before I discuss the problem with this exercise, I would like to highly encourage you to give this exercise a try. You don’t have to follow all the steps, but I would recommend at least spending a few minutes to perform the imagery exercise and imagine your ideal self. Go out for a walk, put on a nice soundtrack in the background, and visualize. It’s a form of introspection and helps to put things into perspective in terms of where you are now and where you want to be in the future.

However, there is just one problem with this exercise — it gives you a high and a taste of a positive future, but it does not bring you any closer to it. Don’t get content with the momentary positive feelings it gives you. If you want my opinion, here are the three steps you should take for this exercise to be successful:

  1. Visualize your ideal-self
  2. Use the positive emotions and temporary motivation it gives you to create an action plan to achieve that ideal future
  3. Execute the plan

 

 

 

 

 

Do you really want it?

I often hear people say they have certain goals they want to accomplish, and yet their behaviors say otherwise. For example, you say you want that promotion, yet you continue to arrive to work late and take extended lunch breaks. You say you want to become a lawyer, yet you are hanging out with your friends two days before a big exam. For those of you whose actions don’t agree with your goals, my question to you is this — do you really want it, do you kind of want it, or do you feel you’re supposed to want it?

I really want it.

I think there are very few things that we truly want. If we really wanted something, we would be willing to put up with the struggle and adversity associated with it. If I truly wanted to be healthy and get in shape, then I would go out for a run instead of watching TV. I would tolerate the soreness from exercise and eat blackberries instead of brownies because I am intrinsically driven and it means that much to me.

In economics, there is a term called opportunity cost which refers to the cost or sacrifice you make for choosing one option over another. When I choose blackberries over brownies, the opportunity cost would be the short-term enjoyment that I get from eating a brownie or a cookie. When you choose to work overtime, the opportunity cost would be everything else that you could be doing at that time (e.g., spending time with family or friends, exercising, watching TV).

When you really want something, you feel that the gain from pursuing that goal is greater than the opportunity cost associated with it. Alternatively, you may feel that the opportunity cost of not pursuing your goals is greater than the gain you would get from doing something else. It doesn’t matter how you look at it. At the end of the day, if you really want something, you’ll go out and try to make it happen.

I kind of want it.

I think a majority of people’s goals fall into this category. We kind of want it, but maybe not as much as we want other things. For example, I kind of want to be healthier, but honestly, I enjoy the comfort of my couch and TV more than I enjoy going out for a run. I’m also a foodie so I’d rather go for the brownies than the blackberries. I’d even rather work an extra hour or two at work than go out for a run. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you’re happy with just sitting on the couch rather than working out, then by all means, sit on the couch. Now here is when this becomes a problem:

  • You choose to sit on the couch and watch TV rather than going out for a run, but then you also complain that you’re not as healthy as you want to be. Every choice we make has consequences associated with it — both good and bad. If we want to be happy with the choices that we make in our life, we need to accept that this is just a fact
  • You do not even want to sit on the couch and watch TV, and at best, you feel indifferent when watching TV. However, you still would rather watch TV than go out for a run. When we are not 100% committed to a goal, we tend to procrastinate and do things that require less energy instead. The book, Finding Flow, introduces a concept called ‘activation energy’ which states that we require a certain amount of energy to start an activity. Activities that are easier in nature (e.g., watching TV) or activities that we really enjoy (e.g., sports, hanging out with friends) require less activation energy whereas activities that we do not enjoy as much (e.g., exercise) require more activation energy. Because we have only a finite amount of energy, we often will opt for activities that require less energy.

So, what can you do when you kind of want something but are not 100% committed?

  1. Just accept it. Like I said, if you’re happy watching TV instead of working out and do not mind being a little out of shape, then do it without any guilt. If you would rather read a book than go out with friends, that’s fine!
  2. Find a way to decrease the amount of activation energy required. You do not need as much activation energy when you are doing something you enjoy. For example, rather than going to the gym, I opt to play sports such as basketball and baseball because I enjoy them more. I forget I am exercising and focus on the competition and skills development aspect of it instead.
  3. Make things easier for yourself. This is similar to #2 as this also decreases activation energy. Identify the things that get in the way of where you want to be. Perhaps you’re not focused on studying because you can’t get off your phone. If that’s the case, give your friend your cellphone and make sure she doesn’t give it back to you for three hours.
  4.  Do some soul-searching. Why do you even kind of want it? Why do you care about it at all? What’s driving you? What is the cost of not doing it? Why do you want that promotion — is it because of the prestige, the salary, or personal satisfaction? Whatever it is that even partially drives you, fixate on that part. If that is not a strong enough motivator, I would recommend reconsidering what you truly want.
  5. Reset your expectations. Everyone would love a mansion and three fancy cars, but not everyone is willing to put in 80 hour work weeks for 30 years to get it. If you want that mansion so bad, then put in the 80 hours a week and you will likely get it someday. However, if you want to have a nice work-life balance, live a family-oriented life, and work only 30 hours a week, then you might need to reset your expectations on that mansion. What is the opportunity cost of striving for that mansion?

I feel I am supposed to want it.

Unfortunately, a lot of people’s goals also fall into this category. You have these goals in mind that you think are yours, but they’re actually driven by external factors. For example, when you’re young, you are told by your parents that you need to become an engineer so that you can make a lot of money and live a lavish lifestyle. If you truly feel that way, great! Good for you. The problem is that many people do end up becoming engineers, making a lot of money, and living a lavish lifestyle, but that’s not what they really want. Alternatively, they keep trying and trying to become a successful engineer, but are unable to do it because their heart is not in it.

Just think of it, of how many of our goals and ambitions are driven by what other people tell us is appropriate and okay. So many people are miserable because they feel obligated to strive for things they don’t even care for. Here’s a simple tip that can make a big difference – if someone wants you to do something for yourself, but you do not want to do it, don’t do it. Think of how many people have a negative self-image of themselves because they are told to look a certain way. Think of how many people are pursuing careers they do not even like because they were told that is the only way to not end up on the street. My question to you is this – why? If you do not want to do something, and you are willing to accept the potential consequences that come from not doing it, then why are you putting pressure on yourself to do it?

As Gary Vaynerchuk often says, there is this negative stigma associated with grown adults living in their parents’ home. People are afraid of what their friends or high school buddies might think of it. Because of the fear of what other people might say, these people end up working at jobs they dislike or continue to live in debt rather than moving back home for a few years with their parents who they love. Stop caring about what other people think. We have enough clarity and motivation issues on our own. We do not need to also worry about others and what they think about the choices that we make or don’t make.

Final words…

As I said, there are very few things that we truly want. However, there are many things that we kind of want, or things we think we should want. For the goals you are truly passionate about, I believe you will put in the effort and work to achieve those goals. For the goals that you kind of want, I think it comes down to reducing external barriers, finding ways to increase intrinsic motivation, and doing a cost-benefit analysis on whether or not it is worth pursuing that goal. With goals that are driven by others – just tune them out.