Hitting your Happiness Deductible

There are good years. And there are bad years. Years when everything is going right. And years when you can't catch a break. 

Years when you confidently walk down the street playing air guitar belting out Journey's Don't Stop BelievingAnd years when you mope along the sidewalk whispering the lyrics to One is the Loneliest Number.  

What's interesting, at least for me, is the good years and bad years usually come down to one or two things that drive the overall narrative. For example, in 2008 if you lost a ton of money in the market crash, it didn't really matter what else was going right. There weren't many people saying, "I lost all of my money, BUT you wouldn't believe the sandwich I had yesterday." The one bad thing - be it a death, sickness, heartbreak, financial stress - sours everything else. 

On the flip side, if you're having a great year, everything becomes amazing. Every bite of food. Every breath of fresh air. If you look over in a traffic jam and everyone is honking their horns, yelling, banging their heads on the steering wheel except for that one person who is singing and dancing; that person has hit their Happiness Deductible. Barring some major Game of Thrones type of plot twist, they are set up for the rest of the year. They will continue dancing through traffic. 

Which is why, if you hit your Happiness Deductible, you need to go all in on that year. Book a trip. Buy the house. Buy a kayak even if you've never kayaked before. Just do it. They say buying stuff won't make you happy, which I think is true, but I think there's a lesser known part two of that expression: "Buying stuff won't make you happy. However, you should like totally buy stuff when you're happy." When we hit the Happiness Deductible, we should all be like Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation proudly announcing to his family, "With this bonus check, I'm putting in a swimming pool!" 

This is especially true for couples. Timing it out where both partners are having a great year in the same year is no easy feat. It’s like a solar eclipse. So, when those magical years do come, absolutely live it up. Don't waste a second when you've hit your Family Happiness Deductible. 

Where we get into trouble is when we start to buy stuff or do things in the sad years as a pick-me up. When we think going on the cruise will turn things around. Or a week off the grid hiking through nature will center us. Or a nice steak dinner with a bottle of expensive wine will soothe our soul. I would argue against all of those moves simply because the bad thing will follow you around like the Babadook. The cruise will make you seasick. Every mosquito will find you on that hike. Things will feel even worse at the dinner because now you're looking down at a $100 steak thinking, "Wow, if this doesn't even make me happy, then I'm really screwed." Leaving us still sad and now with less money; which makes us even more sad. 

My argument is that, during the bad years, rather than a "pick-me up" we actually need a "leave-me-down." Wallow a little while longer in the suckiness. We should change "Don't kick a man while he's down" to, "Just keep kicking." It’s not a matter of “glass half-full" or “glass half-empty" it’s about emptying the glass altogether.  

The perfect example of how a great thing won't elevate a bad year is in the movie Sideways when Paul Giamatti's character, who is having an absolutely terrible year, pours his most prized possession (a 1961 Cheval Blanc) into a Styrofoam cup at a greasy diner. Is there any chance he enjoyed that wine? Not at all. It would have tasted like pure sadness. But, had he hit his Happiness Deductible, completely different story. In that circumstance, a glass from the cheapest boxed wine would have tasted like the 1961 Cheval Blanc. 

So, how do you know what type of year you’re going to have? Do you wait til March? November? Last day of December? My Medium Rare suggestion is to use the 4th of July as your evaluation point. It's the perfect test. One, because you are right at the halfway point of the year, giving you enough of a sample size to make a fair decision. Two, because fireworks are a perfect judge of internal happiness. In a good year, you look up, smile, put your arm around your date. Hell, you might put your arm around a stranger, you're just that happy. 

In a bad year, you look up, you check your phone. Alright, when are they gonna wrap this up. You look around at people taking videos and Snaps of the fireworks and you start to feel grumpy. Those are terrible videos. No one wants to watch a video of a firework. Just put the phone down and enjoy the fireworks, alright! Enjoy them like I'm enjoying them! See how happy I am! And then you take a sip of wine from a Styrofoam cup and realize, “Ah crap, this is a bad year isn’t it?” 

After the 4th of July test, if it's been a great year, time to go all in. Book the flights. If it's been a crappy year, then just let it ride out as a bad year. Give up. Not on life, not on the decade, just the year. Have you ever seen someone in the office walk back to their desk with a plate of cheese cubes and a glass of hot water? That person has given up on the calendar year. And that's the right decision! 

Because by giving up on the year you naturally start to squirrel away money. Your friends ask you to come to a happy hour and you say no, I can't. Because I'm not happy. Your birthday comes around, "Happy Birthday!" Nope. Not this year. Pharrell blurts out, "Because I'm happy, clap along if you feel--" and you reply, "Alexa, next." 

But then finally, finally, December 31st, arrives. The last few seconds tick away on the bad year and what's the first thing everyone shouts? "HAPPY New Year." Yes. Yes, indeed. The score is 0-0 again.

Why does this work? Because happiness ends up being more about the contrast than anything else. What I mean by that is let's say you are a star quarterback for Notre Dame. Big man on campus. National celebrity. Having the time of your life. If the next year you are a third-string quarterback in the NFL, it's going to feel like a significant drop in happiness level. But when you look at the big picture, that person is making more money than they ever have, more money than 99 percent of the country, they've reached the lifelong goal of playing in the NFL, it's something that would—in theory—make any aspiring football player in America happy, except for the one person actually going through it who is left comparing their current situation to the ultimate happiness he felt the year before. 

Another example, think of the way sports teams choose to rebuild. It's better to blow things up and start over than try to maintain an average or slightly above average team. There's nothing worse than being a fan of a consistently mediocre squad. One that's middle of the pack, sometimes makes the playoffs, sometimes doesn't. Management is better off telling the fans, "Hey, we're gonna make some trades, we're going to suck for a couple of bad years, but we're building up young talent and, in a few years, we're going to be great."  

The reason? happiness is in the contrast. If your team went 15-67 last year and then jumps to 30-52, there's a lot to be happy about. But if the team improved from 40 wins to 42 wins, from mediocre to still mediocre, there's nothing to celebrate. Not enough contrast to get excited about. To move this outside of the world of sports, that's why the jump from $30,000 a year to $45,000 a year feels so significant but a raise from $58,000 to $60,000 feels like you're being short-changed. The brain looks at the $2,000 bump from the year before, it doesn't take a step back and say, "Wow, I'm making twice the amount I was three years ago."

Emotions don't really run off of the big picture. That's why the worst thing to say to someone who is having a bad year is something like, "You should really count your blessings," or "You should really be grateful. You have this and this and this." The bad year is not the time for that. Those thoughts only come naturally once you've hit the Happiness Deductible. The only thing you want to count in a bad year are the days until Christmas. 

Contrast also shows up in the form of expectations and comparison. The comparisons being either to where we were the year before or where we are compared to the people around us. Expectations: What we expected that year to be. And, because of this, one popular piece of advice is to lower your expectations and then everything instantly seems better. “Low Expectation Mondays.” I don't really agree. I think we can continue to set our sights high, continue to shoot for the stars, but just remember—when we finally do hit those ambitious marks—to go all out. Throw a party. Go to all of the happy hours. Go on the trip of a lifetime. 

And, if we don't hit the Happiness Deductible, it's no big deal. Time to get out the plate of cheese cubes. Pour a glass of hot water (or Styrofoam wine). Start squirreling away some money.

Because hey, there's always next year...

I'm calling this series: "A Medium Rare Trip to Italy." October will be mostly Medium Rare philosophy posts like this one with a little bit of a vacation theme (for example: next week is about why "Relaxed people stress me out," arguing that trips work best when one person plays the role of Type A, the other Type B). November will shift into more of an account of each city, places to go, stories, maybe throw in some photos. 

If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, just enter your email address in the box below or email me directly at chris@mediumraresizzle.com. Thank you for stopping by and see you HERE next Monday!

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