“I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.” – Dalai Lama
Do you feel that your happiness is affected by the external events that happen around you or TO you? Many people do.
However, I’m now going to show you WHY external factors that affect happiness are only temporary.
To summarise the findings, happiness is determined by your state of mind. Simple right?
Case Studies Reflecting both Positive and Negative External Events
I’m about to outline two separate case studies that you would assume would drastically affect your happiness level. I’ll also show you why the individual with the negative external event can even end up happier than the individual with the positive external event.
These case study ideas come from the Dalai Lama’s book titled ‘The Art of Happiness‘ (he copied my idea of The stAart of Happiness)… 😉 I’ve overlaid them with my own thoughts and ideas and I’d also love to hear yours.
Case Study 1) Positive External Event
There is a woman who has a dream of being able to retire early one day. She works extremely hard and is very successful along the way. In fact, not only does she get to retire early, she gets to retire SUPER early… At age 32!
The woman had built up a very successful business and with good fortune (the external event), another company decided to acquire her business for a large sum of money. Of course, at age 32 she couldn’t believe it! This was her ticket to retiring early. She had enough money to be able to comfortably support herself and her family for the remainder of her life. As you would expect, she was on a massive high! Her happiness levels were sky high.
Case Study 2) Negative External Event
There is a man who is living a comfortable and normal life. He has a loving family, goes to work as most people do and lives a good life.
However, one day he discovers he’s not feeling to well. He goes to his doctor and does a blood test. A few days later he gets a phone call from the doctor (the external event):
“Hi, I have some news that I need you to hear and understand. I have had a look at your blood test results and noticed something was not normal. I looked at your second sample and it confirmed what the first sample showed me. I’m sorry to say, but you have contracted HIV and you are now HIV positive”.
As you can imagine, this man was absolutely devastated. Who wouldn’t be? He sunk to his deepest low in years, if not ever.
Who Do You Think Ends Up Happier?
Well, it may not be as easy as saying who ends up happier. But we can take a look into how each individual has their happiness affected by these external events in both the short and long-term.
Both of the individuals in the case studies have a base level of happiness. This is your called your ‘neutral state’. If you’re getting about your daily life on a normal day then you would most likely be at your base level of happiness.
The external events do actually have a significant effect on the happiness levels of both individuals. However, the key point to note is that this effect on happiness is only temporary.
The lady who retires early has a higher state of happiness. Whereas, the man diagnosed with HIV has a lower state of happiness.
Over time, however, both individuals return to their base level of happiness or back to a neutral state of mind.
If this was to be displayed on a graph it would look something like the below.
The reason that I have the event itself as having a smaller impact then the post-event is due to the fact that as we experience an event we can feel discomfort (as in Case Study 1) or perhaps denial (as in Case Study 2).
Obviously, each individual will experience a different impact on their happiness levels based on their prior experiences.
Why do both cases return to their base level of happiness?
Well, it’s quite simple. You get used to a certain situation.
The woman who retires will get used to retirement to a point it’s no longer the excitement or thrill for her.
The man who has contracted HIV fully accepts and understands that he has the disease and returns to focusing on living his best life.
How Can The Negative Experience Make Someone Happier?
Now, I mentioned up front that I will explain how a negative experience can actually make someone happier than a positive experience.
This is all based on the changed condition of the individuals mindset and outlook, and only happens in the longer-term, but it can and does happen.
If we take Case Study 1, how do you think the woman who retires feels after 3 years? 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?
Although she had aimed and planned to retire early and this was what would make her extremely happy, over time if she were not to set herself some further goals and have some purpose or meaning to her life, she would become complacent, potentially bored, potentially get into drugs and potentially end up more depressed than she had ever been in her life.
This is all hypothetical, but at the same time, it’s realistic.
What do you notice about a lot of the celebrity stories? Or perhaps lottery winners?
It’s exactly this. With the short-term happiness gained by wealth, it can create longer-term damage.
Now, what about Case Study 2?
The man who contracted HIV can accept the fact that he has the disease. His outlook on life completely changes. He focuses more on living in the present. He is more grateful for the people in his life, his surroundings. He appreciates life more than he has ever before in his life.
And now, can you believe it, he is actually the happiest he has ever been. His relationships with his family and friends are at their strongest. He is living each day like it is his last. He is pursuing has passions and his dreams like he never has before.
If I were to continue the graph above, it may look something like this.
To summarise this article, it is in the choice you make every day and NOT the external events around you that creates and sustains happiness in your life.
Happiness is the ultimate achievement of life.
However, happiness needs to be sustained. Short-bursts of happiness are great, but also don’t lose sight of the bigger part of your life.
And if you’re ever faced with a bad experience in your life, remember the story above. Everything works out in the end, and perhaps a bad experience may just have been the very best thing for you in your life.
I lived abroad for 6 years while abroad I was homesick crying nearly daily to return home.After 6 years I did but after few weeks started missing the other country and after 3 years I still think to go back and that if I go back I will feel happier.But you are totally right .If I go back will be happy at first and then I will start feeling homesick again.We feel happy until we achieve something then we get use to it and we think something else will make us happier.
Hey man this is super insightful made me feel so blissful reading this and i know 99 percent pf people see life as a external happiness game, thanks so much.
Love the design and branding of your site. As a baby boomer, I have made so many mistakes in my life and the time that I felt the happiest, was when I felt in control of my life. I get this now by having daily, monthly and yearly goals. It keeps me positive and optimistic
Thanks for the kind words on the site!
I love the fact that you’re seeing a huge difference in your life from setting goals… this is what it’s about about! Proof that this stuff works 🙂
Sorry – I’ve no idea why the first post didn’t show at first – so I re-did and and now I’m hogging the whole comment section! *face palm*
Such a hog! 🙂
Great post Brendan – It appeals to the geek in me! I love a good post about happiness with some graph action
Seriously though the points you make are so true – so much of our happiness depends not on the events that occur but in our response to them. Whilst at the time I’d have probably given anything to avoid the pain of the challenging times I’ve had in life, with hindsight they were the events that helped me to grow and develop the most. They also helped to develop my resilience and self-confidence – once you’ve successfully survived or even thrived through a challenge it doesn’t faze you in the same way again.
Great article Brendan- totally appeals to the geek in me! I love a post on happiness with some good graph action 🙂 I think that reserach like this shows us just what’s possible for us as humans – that post traumatic growth is possible and we have a choice how to respond to a challenging situaiton. I know that whilst I would never have wished for the challenges I’ve faced at the time they happenned – in hindsight they’re the periods that have helped me grow the most. Not only that, surviving tough times sends us a message that we’re tougher than we might have thought. It’s one of the gifts I’ve found of getting older – less things phase me because I konw I’ve survived tough times in the past so can again. As you say, it shows us that our attitude is everthing. We can choose to bounce upwards.
Loving the geek in you!
Sometimes an external event that seems to be extremely negative can end up being the best thing that’s happened to you in your life… as you say, the learning, the challenge, the new outlook all can have a huge impact and shake-up of your life, all for the positive.