Breaking Constraints: What To Do When Happiness Plateaus
I went from being stressed to happy after making this one mindset shift. I couldn’t believe how simple it was. I’ll tell you the main idea here so you don’t have to waste years of your life trying to figure it out.
But first, let’s talk about…
Thanks to decades of behavioral science research, we know that human beings require growth in four areas of our lives in order to be happy. They are:
- Deeper meaning / higher purpose
Growing in all of these areas simultaneously, even if that growth is slow, is the key to long-term, sustainable happiness. That’s really all it takes (easier said than done). Yet, we have to have all four; being perfect or near-perfect in 3 of 4 won’t make the grade in Happiness 101.
I’ve structured my life in a way that allows me to focus on each of these four areas, every day, with a set of habits that force me to grow and stretch. Tracking these habits has had a positive impact on my life, not the least of which was consciously appreciating all the things I was already doing to progress forward. One thing I hadn’t expected from all this tracking was to see how different habits affect each other.
For example, when I don’t maintain the “relationships” habits – professionally networking, staying in touch with friends and family, talking to attractive strangers – I tend to slack on higher purpose habits as well.
Why does this happen?
When we aren’t living up to our fullest potential in certain areas, it creates a background sense of anxiety. This anxiety weighs down the “gains” made in other pillar areas.
“[E]ven if you’re not paying attention to your nutrition and overall health levels, even if you’re not constantly thinking about it, in the background you feel it. You know, on some level, when you’re not where you want to be.
This is doubly or triply true for anyone who has ever been at a high level in an area and then fallen off — former athletes that stop doing fitness and start eating poorly have it gnaw at them even stronger than most. But everyone knows, to some extent.
Same with living paycheck to paycheck, or being in debt, or having a year or two pass without your career or finances improving. It’s not bothering you all the time, if you’re not thinking about it. But deep down, you know. Of course you know. It’s there, silently.” – Sebastian Marshall
If we don’t step up and taking right action in one area, that anxiety lingers. If it lingers for long enough, our brains will find a way to get rid of it.
This can happen in one of 3 ways:
- We take a hard look at where we’re fucking up and take immediate, proactive action towards our goals in that area; or,
- We take more action, but toward the wrong pillars.
- We don’t take action, and, consequently, all the pillars suffer as a result.
More often than not, #2 is the strategy I default to most. Maybe these scenarios sound familiar:
- I miss a day at the gym because of a new business opportunity, then rationalize missing more days to continue spending more time and energy on the project, even as my body craves for a workout.
- I go to a conference and start meeting lots of people, and as a result I feel good and then stop meditating. I opt to continue to network and socialize, despite a total lack of balance that would come from meditation.
What’s happening in both of these situations is that, when faced with diminishing utility of a particular activity, I continue to push on that activity rather than maintain balance the habits I know will bring happiness.
ELI5: what is Diminishing Marginal Utility?
Marginal utility is the benefit from using a good or service once. Diminishing marginal utility happens when you use the same good or service more than once and it has less benefit each time.
An oft-cited example of diminishing marginal utility is income. If we’re poor or living paycheck to paycheck, making more money is going to make us a lot happier (lots of marginal utility). However, once we’re making a decent salary (somewhere around $60-75,000 per year – studies vary), making more money won’t make us that much happier.
More examples from Wikipedia:
- beyond some point, further doses of antibiotics would kill no pathogens at all, and might even become harmful to the body.
- to satiate thirst a person drinks water but beyond a point consumption of more water might make the person vomit,hence leading to diminishing marginal utility
- it takes a certain amount of food energy to sustain a population, yet beyond a point, more calories cannot be consumed and are simply discarded (or cause disease).
Using that last example – food consumption in a population – we can see how generally eating more has been a boon to the human race for a long time. With billions of people still living in poverty, more food in a population is still a good thing.
However, in the post-industrial First World, more food is not such a good thing. We’re one of the fattest countries in the world. The major killers in the United States are all chronic diseases: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, each of which can be caused or triggered by poor dietary choices. It goes without saying, Americans don’t need to eat more; today, the marginal utility of food in the US is zero or less than zero.
Going All In
Marginal utility also diminishes on a micro-level. It’s easy to “dive head first” into different areas of life and tell ourselves that doing so makes it okay to ignore others. We get swept up in the emotions of some new opportunity, then forget to maintain those habits that brought about the opportunity in the first place.
A classic archetype is the businessman who doggedly climbs a corporate ladder but ignores family life. He (or she) avoids any emotional vulnerability, thinking that a ruthless focus on work is a sufficient excuse not to do the thing that, deep down, he knows is right. In fact, many historical figures succumb to this avoidance behavior:
“One of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness. Such men make this cosmos and its construction the pivot of their emotional life, in order to find the peace and security which they cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.” – Einstein
It’s fascinating to me that even Einstein – one of the smartest men of the 20th century – was unable to maintain a healthy, balanced life. How could this be so hard?
You may be thinking, “oh well it was Einstein after all, that’s the way many geniuses operate.” Perhaps, but is it outside the scope of “genius” abilities to treat your family with kindness and love? (qualities that Einstein rarely expressed for his wife and son. Interestingly, Einstein spent the greater part of his scientific career doggedly pursuing an intellectual dead end, trying to find a Unified Field Theory.)
The point is this: to be happy, we need balance in a minimum of those four key areas: health, wealth, relationships, and higher purpose. As we move through life, we encounter setbacks and limits in different areas. If we don’t address them, it makes it very difficult to improve in any of the other areas.
This matters – a lot. If happiness depends on growth in all four areas – health, wealth, relationships and higher purpose – and slacking in one area brings the others down, how do we know when it’s time to shift focus?
The Theory of Happiness Constraints
A chain is no stronger than its weakest link.
The theory of constraints is a management philosophy used to increase productivity in big companies. The aptly named theory says that any system is limited by a small number of constraints. There is always at least one constraint, and the philosophy uses a process to find the most-limiting constraint and fix it before worrying about anything else, thus abiding by the old notion “a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.”
In The End of Jobs, Taylor Pearson explains how the theory affects decision-making in business:
If you’re trying to grow a business, there’s always a primary limit preventing that. If you have an amazing product and no one knows about it, improving the product won’t help it sell more.
A common example of the theory of constraints – one that many of us can relate to – is in the realm of health and fitness. Have you ever resolved to get in shape, bought a membership, started working out day after day, but found the results lacking? I’ve been there, many times.
As anyone who’s ever lost a lot of weight or gained a lot of muscle knows, exercise is just one part of the equation. Good sleep hygiene, a proper diet, and an emotional support system are all necessary conditions for losing a lot of weight (and keeping it off).
While you’re going to the gym six days a week, you’re going at 5am, which means most days you only sleep five or six hours if you were up late the night before. You also treat yourself to a scone from Starbucks after every workout. An hour running on the treadmill will burn 400 calories. A scone from Starbucks has 400 calories, which means you’re not going to lose any weight. Any hormonal benefits of exercise are being counteracted by the hormonal problems caused by a lack of sleep. You’re spending more and more time exercising when the limit isn’t exercise.
If you fix your sleep and diet, then you’ll get better results even with less exercise. By giving up the scone and getting an extra couple hours of sleep every night, even with a very modest amount of exercise, you start to see the pounds drop off. Instead of spending two hours in the gym everyday, an hour in the gym every other day suddenly yields better results because you’ve addressed the appropriate limits.
The point is, in any system, whether it be in business or life, we encounter limits that hold us back from reaching the goal. This applies to something as straightforward as losing weight, or as complex as building rockets.
What I’ve learned is that, when the goal is lifestyle improvement (re: happiness), the limit will always be in one of the four areas (usually the one I’ve been ignoring).
Being aware of this, I can quickly dig down and find the one constraint that is limiting progress in the other areas, and effectively move forward, get on with life, and feel much happier as a result.
When limits are addressed – and broken – in one area, creative energy is freed up in all other areas. That looks like the solid line, stair-stepping from one area to the next, identifying (and breaking) limits along the way.
If a limit in one area – say, health – is allowed to linger, then continuing to focus energy and attention in another area – say, wealth – will have no additional marginal utility (when the goal is overall happiness and well-being). That looks like the dotted line.
What to do
Next time you set life goals, think hard about which goals will actually lead to happiness. Ignoring certain areas of your life for some future payoff in other areas is not a path to happiness – we must have growth in all four areas. Will doubling, tripling, or 10X-ing your wealth make you happier if your health or relationships are put on the back burner? Don’t rationalize an answer here – be honest.
Set goals in each area of life, but don’t think that excessively focusing on one area will somehow circumvent the need to grow in all areas.
If you’re feeling depressed, anxious or just unhappy for an unusually long stint, take a step back from your daily activities and ask: what have I been ignoring? Immediately go fix that, and then re-evaluate how you feel. If you’ve broken a constraint to happiness, you will feel better and can get back to your regularly scheduled programming.