Laughing Away the Little Miseries

by Rossin2 min read13th Nov 20187 comments


Personal Blog

Note: This falls under the category of self-help advice, the usefulness of which tends to be variable between individuals. This technique has noticeably improved my day to day feelings of well being, but people are often very different and your mileage may vary.

It is notoriously difficult to increase your long term happiness. The psychology literature has coined the term ‘happiness set point’ to describe the fact that people seem to stay around the same level of happiness despite major events in their lives that one might naively expect to make them more or less happy. The classic examples of this effect are that lottery winners aren’t nearly as happy as they thought they would be and paraplegics aren’t nearly as miserable.

Studies of identical twins raised apart show that the “heritability of the stable component of subjective well-being approaches 80%”, according to David Lykken and Auke Tallegen at the University of Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research. Further, they claim that, “Neither socioeconomic status, educational attainment, family income, marital status, nor an indicant of religious commitment could account for more than about 3% of the variance in well being”.

If it is extremely difficult to permanently increase your general feelings of well-being in the long term, then perhaps we can do better by focusing on the short term. David Lykken recommends this sort of approach, advocating that one find ways to engage in frequent small pleasures to stay bouncing above one’s default happiness levels.

This makes a great deal of sense (and if you're interested he does have a book on the subject, though I didn't find it a particularly enlightening read apart from the points I have already mentioned) but what he does not discuss as much is avoiding the things that pull you below your happiness set point, which I believe are just as important.

It is incredibly easy to allow some utterly trivial event to significantly worsen your day. Whether it is social angst from an awkward or ambiguous interaction, anger from being cut off in traffic, or crushing despair because something you worked hard on failed, there are many things it would be better not to get upset about, but these unwanted emotions are often hard to avoid.

Just realizing you are irrationally emotional often fails to actually make you feel better, at least in my experience, and berating myself for feeling a certain way would often make me feel even worse.

I find that recognizing the silliness of being upset over something that is really not that important and getting myself to smile or laugh about works quite well at relieving negative emotions. To elaborate, I began by trying to notice when I was getting upset, and then I would look for a reason the situation was actually funny (so many situations of annoyance, stress, and social angst are) and then laugh or at least smile about it. This technique did feel a bit forced at first, like I was faking not being upset. But it still was able to dispel the negative spirals of thoughts that might have ensued and turned a minor negative event into something that ruined my day from a hedonic standpoint.

And as I have practiced this reaction, it has become sufficiently ingrained that when I begin to feel some sort of unreasonable anger or social angst I now often find myself grinning before I can even consciously address it. And because the response occurs before conscious thought, the technique rarely feels forced in the slightest.

Sometimes I will even come out of a situation that I previously would have seen as negative feeling happier than I did before it because I am so pleased that I am not feeling bad about it or because I see that it’s actually really funny.

In this way, I avoid dropping below my average feelings of well-being and feel happy more of the time.


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When I was in the military, my platoon and I started to play the Silver Lining Game. The way to play was simple: when something bad or unpleasant came up, you present a consequence in the best possible light. Sometimes this was useful in helping to focus on the positives, but mostly it was things like "Oh man, I was having a hard time deciding whether to play video games or watch a movie after work. Now that I am patrolling the drop zone all night, I don't have to decide - silver lining!" In this way we used our own bad luck to get laughs.

Forcing a smile or laugh can be an instant circuit-breaker for me. I first heard about it in the context of the facial feedback hypothesis, but I'm pretty that didn't survive the replication crisis, so go figure.

A related mental contortion: Minor misfortunes often make for amusing stories in the fullness of time, so you might as well skip ahead to finding it funny right now.

For me the time-sensitivity part was a big deal that I ran into early in my childhood. Basically, that when something makes you feel bad you think "what will I think about this in a day/week/year". Usually the answer is something along the lines of not even remembering, or looking back on it as a funny or interesting story. It did much to improve my wellbeing and give me a sense of perspective about my problems.

My biggest problem with this way of thinking, more generally the "outthink your negative emotions" is that you can end up putting off some bad social signals. A few years after this as a kid I remember getting a detention in class and afterwards the teacher asking me why I didn't seem put off at all. I naively responded saying that the punishment wasn't a big deal since I wouldn't care about it in a week anyway. Suffice to say, that wasn't the response they wanted to hear, and to some degree with good reason. Not feeling bad about stuff means you have to be extra careful that you don't turn your risk/mistake-aversion down too much.

I'm definitely a fan of this mindset, though I think there are some caveats that are worthwhile to explore.

I wrote up a response based on some of my own experiences with living this way here.

I like this framing.

A version of this I’ve tried with some success is, instead of laughing, giving myself a metaphorical pat on the head for being a good little rationalist and noticing my own silliness. This seems to be self reinforcing in the same way as laughing is.

I think I’ll try the laughter version and see which one works best for me.

It is possible to dramatically increase your happiness set-point.

see this video in particular:

This was very interesting. There seems to be a trade off for these people between their increased happiness and the ability to analyze their mistakes and improve, so I am not sure I find it entirely attractive. I think there is balance there, with some of the people studied being too happy to be maximally effective (assuming they have goals more important to them than their own happiness)