This Simple Theory Will Help You Understand Happiness

And boost your empathy skills

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Habits are fascinating. Ever since I read The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, I became increasingly interested in human behavior and everything that had to do with our thoughts, actions, and the reward pathway that ultimately controls our decisions.

Duhigg’s book is an absolute must, as it provides several real-life stories that illustrate the relevance of both positive and negative habits and how we unconsciously reinforce certain patterns and behaviors with our repeated actions.

I recently heard another theory that went a step beyond and aimed to explain what makes people tick, and why we are often unable to understand behaviors that are different from ours. The idea comes from , one of Spain’s most successful entrepreneurs. Oller founded, among other companies, an online learning platform focused on entrepreneurship and digital marketing, has written several business books, and is regarded as one of Spain’s most influential business leaders.

“Peaks of Happiness”

Mountains and valleys
Mountains and valleys
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Oller names his concept, which has short vs long-term rewards as its central tenet, “the theory of the Peaks of Happiness”, and he explains it in these terms:

*Note: these are not exactly Oller’s exact words. I have edited his quotes for clarity, but the central message is accurately conveyed. You can listen to the whole interview with Oller (in Spanish)

“There are different actions. Some will generate a short-term reward, and others will bring the opposite because they are hard to carry out in the moment.

The instant gratification actions are as simple as eating an ice cream, having a drink in a social setting, playing videogames for a long time because of the incredible dopamine kick it generates, etc.

You shouldn’t completely avoid these actions, but rather understand how they work: once you get that immediate reward, you then get back to the ‘real world’ and your ‘average’, general happiness decreases lightly. Understand the price you pay when you perform this kind of actions.

The other actions work the opposite way. Hitting the gym for an hour is the opposite of instant gratification: it is hard, you get tired. But when you are done, your general level of happiness increases lightly, because you feel accomplished, you are happy with yourself.

Here is where your identity starts to change. Actions like working, learning, reading a book might not seem rewarding at first, but they usually come with a long-term satisfaction.

There is a point in which non-instant gratification actions become instant gratification actions. Your brain realizes you hit the gym every day, and makes a connection between those workouts and your level of happiness increasing. You start liking working out or reading much more than any short-term reward action. This is when you enter the virtuous cycle of your life.

It is a moment in which people don’t understand why you are doing all of this, why you like things they don’t. This is because they interpret that if they were doing these activities, they wouldn’t feel rewarded. They are just on a different level, on a different frame of mind, so they are unable to comprehend behaviors different from theirs, from what brings therm short-term reward.”

Person looking through glasses
Person looking through glasses
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Oller’s theory instantly resonated with me, and I think you will relate to it as well. There are actions, “stuff” that you do consistently and have a passion for that people just don’t get. This comes to show just how everything is a matter of perspective and getting used to new, “unconventional” habits.

Let me illustrate all this with a couple of examples:

Whenever I bring up that I work out almost every day right after waking up at around 7–7:30 am, I can’t begin to tell you how often people give me an answer similar to these:

“Wow, you must have an incredible force of will.”

“I can’t imagine how hard that has to be.”

“I am just not capable of doing that.”

“I need at least 15 minutes more in bed before doing anything.”

The same happens when I tell people I don’t drink.

“Is it not boring for you to be at a party and not drink?”

“Isn’t it hard for you to be the only one not drinking?”

“I need to have some alcohol to socially open up, and it helps me stay awake and active longer through the night.”

The truth is I don’t have an extraordinary force of will or feel bored at parties. I behave this way because it’s built into me, because it brings me rewards that are more fulfilling than short-term bursts. I am so used to these habits that it is not hard for me to stay consistent. It is the reality I am currently most familiar with, I’ve made sure they are in my comfort zone. It would actually be harder for me to switch to not working out or to start drinking.

The people giving me these answers are all just using different sentences to echo the same thought:

“That sounds absolutely awful and completely different from my routines, habits, and thought processes — which I feel comfortable with and I see no need to change — so I would be miserable if I tried it.”

Notice the word “need”. We always need less than we think, but we’ve just become so used to certain things that we have created an illusion or a perception of need, when in reality we can thrive without that element (obstacle) that all it does is keep us from perhaps taking the next step we actually need, like those 15 minutes in bed or that drink at social gatherings.

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The people saying this are not necessarily lazy. They just don’t understand or know about the increase in happiness and well-being that these habits bring to other people (and potentially to themselves once they try it). To them, in this case, working out first thing in the morning or not drinking is a foreign language, uncharted territory.

So next time someone tells you about their routine and you think you’d be uncapable of carrying it out, be aware of the Peaks of Happiness Theory and try to understand that this person finds a certain happiness increment in those seemingly unattainable or “extraterrestrial” habits.

More importantly, we should never label anyone as “lazy” just because their routine or habits are seemingly “worse” than ours. Keep in mind that person might just be unwillingly trapped in the highly challenging loop of immediate reward, or even more probably, that her Peaks of Happiness journey is completely different from yours.

This will help you be more empathetic and have a better understanding what might make that person happy.

Sports, communications, and personal development enthusiast. I seek interesting concepts and ideas and try to put them into simple words.

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