Happiness And The Fish: An Experiment

Originally published in Exit Left Magazine.

On my 10th birthday in the dining room of my childhood home, after the candles were blown out and a wish was made, my older siblings presented me with a gift. Beneath the coloured paper and a card hardly read were my first two CDs (Truth be told, I owned Backstreet Boys’ Millennium and, ironically enough for this article, Prozzak‘s Saturday People, but I don’t often admit to that). Those CD’s were Beautiful Midnight by Mathew Good Band and Our Lady Peace’s Happiness… Is Not A Fish That You Can Catch. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I preferred the former to the latter. Happiness is an album I come back to often, and not just for the music. The title, even from a young age, captured my attention. It became a mantra to me in my teen years whenever sadness struck. Not that I understood it’s meaning then. Something about it just calmed me. Naturally, when deciding to do an experiment on how to create happiness in life, the title, like a boat in the current, came drifting back to me.

I wouldn’t say I’m depressed. Moody? At times. Brooding? Maybe in a Bruce Wayne kind of way. Begrudgingly content would best describe most days, never too thrilled about the current state of things. A part of me blames the music I listened to in my eyelinered teenaged years that made misery seem so appealing. Or maybe it’s the immediate gratification my generation has gotten from the internet that has made it so we cannot be happy unless we are being entertained. It could just be a chemical imbalance. I don’t know. All I know is I’ve been this way for quite some time and thought it might be time for a change.

I decided to try an experiment on myself. For 30 days I would follow a self-made, decently-researched regimen that would lead me towards a more fulfilling lifestyle. My goal was not only to become a happier person, but hopefully to learn a lesson about life that I could share with others. Most people can hardly wait to spout off advice on how to be happy. There are thousands of books, videos, lectures, and articles on the subject in all forms of media from before “media” was even a word. Since money is one of my problems, and I’ve been told it can’t buy happiness anyway, I decided to do all my research online and in a way that the general public would if they themselves were feeling low. Google it. I simply googled “How to be happy” and looked through every result on the first page, because if it isn’t on the first page of Google, it might as well not exist. The majority of posts were “Top (insert number) ways to be happy” type lists. I skipped one because it claimed to have over 100 ways to be happier, and I don’t trust like that. I had 9 sources in total, which I’ve linked to at the end of this article.

From those 8 sources, I compiled a list of about 87 things that supposedly would make me a happier person. Obviously, I had to trim that down substantially. There were many things on the list that were not possible for me to do on a daily basis, like wear yellow, treat myself, or, to my dismay, have sex. Some were just kind of stupid, such as “Be optimistic”. Thanks for that gem. Of course, there were many suggestions that appeared on multiple lists, if not in exact wording then by definition, and because of this, I tallied up the repeaters and picked out the most popular, assuming that meant legitimacy. I also chose based on what I thought were doable on a daily basis. Of the 87, I narrowed it down to 10 rules I would have to follow everyday.

Below is the list of rules I followed for 30 days with a brief explanation of each. Most of the rules on the list are, in modern times at least, well known paths towards happiness. I gravitated towards those because they seemed most likely to work. I won’t go into the science behind them, but if you would like to read up on it, I’d recommend this article by Alexandra Duron or this one by Jeff Haden.

The Rules

1. Get More Sleep:
I must sleep 8 hours per night.
2. Exercise and Eat well:
Pretty self explanatory. Not sure why I grouped these two together, but I felt like they go hand in hand.
3. Meditate:
At least 10 minutes daily, increasing by 5 minutes per week.
4. Show Gratitude:
Write out something I am grateful for in that day, and one thing about life in general.
5. Maintain and Create Good Relationships:
Make new friends, keep in contact with the old, try for more face to face interactions.
6. Stop Complaining:
Stop giving negativity a voice.
7. Get Outside:
I will go outside for at least 20 minutes a day.
8. Glass Half-Full:
Take something negative from the day and turn it into a positive.
9. Smile:
Fake it till you make it. Smile until you’re happy.
10. Pick a Skill and Master it:
Work on a chosen skill for minimum 1 hour a day.

These were the 10 commandments I lived by in order to, hopefully, after the 30 days, arrive in my own personal heaven. I kept a daily journal of my life, as well as listing which of the 10 rules I followed that day. I tallied up what I did and kept a score out of 10. I also kept track of my mood during the day and in the evening in order to see if there were any correlations between my happiness and following the daily rules. My day and evening moods were also scored out of 10. I conducted the experiment between February and March.

I won’t bother writing out my daily ramblings or scores from the month, because that would make for a boring read. Instead, I’ll just tell you what worked and what didn’t.

What worked for me.

Get More Sleep: I found that if I slept for around 8 hours, I was more affable, positive, and calm the following day. If I slept for anything less than 7 hours, then I would spend the day red eyed and sluggish. Anything more than 10 hours and I was groggy and miserable, mostly because I felt like I wasted time.

Exercise and Eat Well: While I didn’t see much physical change in the 30 days of following a meal plan and working out 4-5 times a week, I did end up feeling more confident about myself mentally. For the first three weeks I hated having to free up an hour and a half to get to the gym, but after every work out I felt immense pride. It’s nice to feel like you’ve accomplished something in the day, and the gym was always that something. I also believe that working out helped me sleep better at night.

Maintain and Create Good Relationships: The days I actively hung out and engaged with my friends (I say actively as opposed to passive small talk with room mates or co-workers) were days that I felt happier, if only for the time I was in their company. It didn’t matter what we did, just seeing friendly faces and laughing and conversing was enough to fill me with positive vibes. I also attempted to send messages to people I hadn’t spoken with for some time, but not as often or to as many people as I should have.

Pick a Skill and Master it: For this I chose writing. Any time I feel like I’ve put forth an effort into what I love, my mood brightens. I wish that I completed this more often than I did. The days I did not write were the days with my lowest mood ranking. But on the days I did write, even when the writing itself was terrible, I felt proud of myself for having been productive, which made me happier.

What didn’t work for me.

Meditate: Meditating was the least followed rule on my list. I find it very difficult to sit still for any long periods of time. I just can’t shut my mind off. I do believe that meditation, if done right, would work. I used the guided meditation setting on my Calm app, and found that after the first few sessions, I would stop listening to the guiding voice and I would let my mind wander, which in turn, frustrated me and, often times, would cause me to stop midway through. My meditation needs practice. It’s not something I plan to give up, but for this experiment, it didn’t help.

Show Gratitude: Halfway through the month I began to struggle with this one. While at first it felt easy, I would later repeat points already written down in previous days, and wondered if there were so little in life to be grateful for. I would sit for minutes staring blankly at the blinking cursor line, willing my brain to come up with something I was grateful for that day. More often than not I forced myself to write something even if I didn’t fully believe it. Perhaps it was good to force it, but it didn’t feel right. I think my problem was that I looked too narrowly at it. If there is a next time, I might try showing gratitude for the little things, like sunshine or a good song. Those would add up quickly.

Stop Complaining: Not giving a voice to negativity was supposed to stop it from having any power. Eventually, the negative thoughts should have subsided. This was, at least, the goal. It didn’t work out that way. I cut back exponentially on my complaining, and I think the area it helped most in was my relationships with others. Often when I complain to people, I regret it later, as the problems are never that big or life threatening. They’re mainly the small annoyances of life that everyone goes through and everyone hates hearing about. So when I stopped with the complaints, I didn’t later have to regret what I said. What I didn’t find, however, was an absence of negativity in my thoughts. Perhaps this is because my brain is trained to think negative. After my 30 days were complete, an article about negative thinking made its rounds on social media, which has inspired me to keep trying to correct my thinking.

Get Outside: This one I believe would work if it were summer or if I lived somewhere more temperate. Toronto in February and March can be pretty miserable. Often, the only time I went outside was the walk to work or to the gym. Even on those 10 minute walks, my head would be held down in an attempt to hide my face from the cold and the wind. But on the sunny days when I was able to walk with my head held high, I found it hard to be sad. Something about the sunshine and warm weather is enough to put a smile on your face. This particular experiment made me a believer in seasonal affective disorder, which I might look more into next fall/winter so I can avoid the cold season blues.

Glass half full: I’ve already mentioned that positive thinking is not my strong suit. I thought that maybe putting a positive spin on a negative might help, but much like showing gratitude, much of the time I forced it. While some of the positive spins worked well (“Lonely walks have the best soundtracks”), or even put a smile on my face (“Leo won the Oscar. The glass is full, baby”), nearly half the days I just couldn’t do it. Again, this is a brain training thing, and I assume it would take more practice.

Smile: At first I liked this one because the effects were noticeable immediately. Just smile and bam, things felt a little better. However, I found this had diminishing effects.

I suppose the ‘science’ behind it is that you’re attempting to trick your brain into thinking you’re happy. Again, it’s that fake it till you make it mentality. Not long into my incessant smiling I began to think, aside from how creepy I must look, that it might have the opposite effect. Wouldn’t smiling through the negative thoughts have an effect on when you’re smiling from happiness? If I kept smiling through the sadness, then wouldn’t smiling when I’m happy eventually conjure up negative thoughts? I’m not sure, but the thought made me paranoid. Eventually, smiling for the sake of smiling just stopped having any effect.

My Results

Of the 30 days…
– The “Rules” I followed daily ranged from 1/10 to 9/10 with an average of 7/10
– My mood during the day ranged from 3/10 to 7/10, with an average of 6/10
– My mood in the evening ranged from 4/10 to 8/10, with an average of 7/10

I found there was some correlation between the number of rules I followed in the day and my level of happiness, but it also could be inconclusive. In retrospect, I didn’t document my thoughts as thoroughly as I should have. Looking back on my notes and journal, it’s hard to tell whether my mood influenced what rules I followed, or if the rules I followed influenced my mood. Did my bad mood during that specific day stop me from going to the gym, or did not going to the gym cause my bad mood? I never thought to take note about it at the time. What I did find, however, is that my happiness levels were invariably higher in the evening. I could conclude then that doing this experiment throughout the day helped me at night, but again, it seems mostly inconclusive. It could just be that at the end of the day I was able to unwind after a long day of work and stress. To test this thoroughly, I would need a control group. I would have to monitor my mood for 30 days while not following any of these 10 rules, but that would be nearly impossible. I would have to eat junk, not work out, not see and or speak to any friends, stay indoors watching trash, and never sleep. Actually, that doesn’t sound half bad.

I believe the biggest downfall of the experiment was that 10 is too big of a number. To tally up the amount of time to do each of these 10 things would be minimum 4 hours a day, with the additional 8 lost to sleep. Then to factor in work and life, it would leave no time for anything else. Seeing a bad tally at the end of the day always made me feel guilty, as if I weren’t trying hard enough. This was counteractive to my goal. From the get go I was setting myself up for failure. If I had limited it to 5 rules or less, then perhaps the experiment would have turned out differently.

In Conclusion…

Am I happier since completing my 30 days? No, I wouldn’t say so. Am I any more miserable? No, certainly not. I’ve had good days and I’ve had bad, just like every day before the experiment, and just like every day going forward. So what, you ask, did I even take away from this? How can you, the reader, justify the time spent reading 3000 words of lazy pseudo science only to leave with no conclusive results?

I’ll tell you.

I’ve learned that happiness is indeed not a fish that you can catch. It is not something you can touch or hold. It is not some trophy to be won by completing some silly 30 day experiment, or reading click bait lists on the internet. Happiness is not something you can just acquire and then you’re done, you have it, and you no longer have to worry about it. So what is it? Well, for me, it was the experiment itself, and not the end results. Or, if you prefer, it is the fishing, not the fish.

You can either spend your time on the water being miserable that you haven’t gotten any bites, or you can find happiness in the ritual. The slow rock of the boat, the sound of the waves lapping against the shore, the gentle breeze blowing up your sleeves, and the rising sun causing your cheeks to blush. Our Lady Peace was right; happiness… is not a fish that you can catch. Happiness is enjoying the act of fishing whether or not you get a bite, because let’s face it, you won’t always catch a fish.

My Sources
Duron, Alexandra. “25 Science-Backed Ways to Feel Happier” Greatist.
Haden, Jeff. “10 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Incredibly Happy” Inc.
Heyne, Alexander. “How to Be Happier Without Really Trying” Tiny Buddha.
Parton, Steven. “The Science of Happiness: Why complaining is literally killing you” PsychPedia.
Ruben, Gretchen. “10 Ways to Be Happier” Real Simple.
Rudolph, Kelly. “How to Totally Master the Art of Being Happy in 6 Steps (Or Less!)” Your Tango.
Valeo, Tom. “Strategies for Happiness: 7 Steps to Becoming a Happier Person” WebMD.
“How to be Happy: Tips for Cultivating Contentment” Mayo Clinic.
“3 Ways to be Happy” Wikihow.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s