One question I get a lot is, “So you’ve been doing this Happiness Project. Are you actually happier?”
The answer is YES. But that doesn’t mean that I’m happy all the time, or that I’ve reformed all my bad habits that make me unhappy.
For example, yesterday, I lost my temper with the Big Man. Spectacularly.
I was furious at him. My anger wasn’t about anything interesting (it never is), but the root cause was my feeling that he wasn’t being helpful enough on a major family project, and even worse, he wasn’t appreciative enough of what I was doing.
Those cursed gold stars! I crave them, I demand them!
I’d been feeling slightly annoyed for a few hours, and when the storm broke, I ran through all the classic lines that you’re not supposed to say during a fight:
I made the gesture that I’ve recently realized is my “tell” for anger – rubbing the heels of my palms against my eyes. I think I may actually have stamped my foot.
The Big Man didn’t get angry in response. He never does. In a way, this is good, because it takes two to fight. In a way, this is bad, because his calm makes me feel like he’s just standing there, waiting for me to finish. Also, the minute I stop feeling furious, I start feeling guilty – which, of course, I also blame on him. If I’m not careful, my feelings of remorse reignite my anger…
It’s not a very productive cycle.
My Happiness Project didn’t keep me from losing my temper. But it did change how I reacted after I’d lost my temper.
As I was winding down my outburst, my catchwords and Twelve Commandments started flashing in my mind: “Let it go,” “I love him, just as he is,” “No calculation.”
I remembered the phenomenon of “unconscious overclaiming,” in which we unconsciously overestimate our contributions relative to other people’s. For example, in one study, when students in a work group each estimated their contribution to the team, the total was 139 percent.
It occurred to me that while I was angry at the Big Man for not being grateful for what I was doing, did I tell him how much I appreciated his dealing with all the vacation logistical details? Nope.
The most helpful thing I remembered was to “Lighten up.” I made a joke, I let the tension dissipate, I gave him a long hug – because I happen to know that you should hold your hug for at least six seconds to optimize the flow of mood-boosting chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin.
So although my Happiness-Project work didn’t allow me to avert my outburst, I did manage to recover much more quickly. I’m hoping that if I keep working on myself, I’ll be able to avoid the outburst altogether.
Many people believe in the “catharsis hypothesis” and think that expressing anger is healthy-minded and relieves feelings. Not so. Studies demonstrate that expressing anger only AGGRAVATES it.
This is sure true for me. When I allow myself to fly into a fury, I end up feeling much angrier, and much worse (and so does the Big Man). When I manage to stay calm, my feelings remain milder.
Once again, I realize that the secret is to live according to my Twelfth Commandment: “There is only love.” So hard, but it’s the way to happiness.