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How Happiness Works

…and why you should care about being happy now while you’re unpublished

[I have decided to share with you the workshop I recently gave called Happily Unpublished.  This post and the next several will be excerpts from the workshop because I really wanted to share all this stuff with all of you who couldn’t be at the workshop!]


Everything we want to have or do in life, we want because we believe it will make us happy.

  • Getting married.
  • Having kids.
  • Picking certain jobs (even if we don’t like them, we continue with them because we believe having a paycheck will make us happy).
  • We diet or exercise because we believe being healthy and fit will make us happy.
  • We want more money.
  • We want to be published.


But how many of you know people who have many, if not all, of those things and are still unhappy?

What this means is that things/events outside ourselves can’t make us happy.

There are several reasons for this:

Reason #1:  Every one of these situations can change or end.  Whatever we can get, we can lose. Marriages can fail, children can be troubled, we can lose jobs and all our money. We can be fit and healthy and suddenly be diagnosed with cancer.

And we can have a really great writing career going and have it all fall apart.

So if you’ve counted on any of these things bringing you happiness, what happens to that happiness if you lose them?

Reason #2: External experiences which we believe will “make us happy” have less impact, intensity, and duration than we expect them to have.

There was a scientific study that I learned about from Dan Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness), which asked people how much of an impact to their happiness they thought either winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic would have on them.  Of course, they thought winning the lottery would be amazing and make them ecstatically happy for the rest of their lives and that becoming paraplegic would ruin their lives and make them completely UNhappy forever and ever.

Then they studied people who had ACTUALLY had these events occur.  What they discovered was that, over time, sometimes as little as months or a year, these people nearly always returned to whatever level of happiness they had been at before the event.

Generally happy people, after becoming paraplegic, went back to being generally happy people after the initial shock and trauma dimmed. Their lives were different, but not dramatically less happy than before.

People who were generally UNhappy prior to winning the lottery found themselves returning to their former level of unhappiness after the excitement of winning the lottery faded.

In each of those cases — winning lottery or becoming paraplegic — despite how people may have imagined the impact, intensity and duration of the event, it was always much less than what they imagined.

The Return to Normalcy

There’s a psychological term for this phenomenon, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness:  Hedonic adaptation.  We adapt to whatever our situation is no matter how wonderful or bleak it seems at first. It becomes kind of a “new normal.”

It might not seem like such a great thing to get used to the good things that happen to us to the point that they become commonplace (and, dare I say it, boring?), but it is actually really good news when bad things happen. We have the ability to regain happiness after a disaster.

I think we can all come up with examples of this happening in our own lives or the lives of people we know. An event occurs that either makes us tremendously happy or unhappy, but eventually that fades or becomes the norm. On our wedding day, for example, we are amazingly happy and are sure that feeling will last forever…but even if the marriage lasts a very long time, we don’t generally spend every day of that marriage 25 years later glowing the way we did on our wedding day.

Or have you ever had a kid who feels that getting a puppy will make them happy? “Please, Mom! Can I have a puppy? I’ll be happy forever and ever and ever and I’ll never ask for another present as long as I live!”

And, hey, that puppy does make them happy…until time goes by and they realize that the puppy requires feeding and walking and a huge amount of attention when they’d rather be playing video games. Pretty soon the kid goes back to feeling generally how they felt happiness-wise before they ever got that puppy.  And that promise of never asking for another present as long as they live?  LONG forgotten.

The happiness of “getting the puppy” isn’t sustained over time.

Putting this into publishing perspective, our expectation of how much being published will “make us happy” is much bigger than the actual affect it has on us over the long haul.

Getting “The Call” will definitely bring us extraordinary happiness at the time, but eventually, being published will be the norm.

Someone who spends a lot of time on the New York Times Bestseller list (like Nora Roberts, for instance) probably doesn’t still walk into every bookstore and stand in front of the shelves that hold all her books and take cell pics to send to friends, like those of us still new at this publishing thing. She probably doesn’t throw champagne parties every week when her books attain (or retain) their place in the top 10. Even as successful as she is, it probably feels pretty normal to her by now.

Published authors eventually discover that being published requires feeding and walking and a huge amount of attention when they’d rather be playing video games.

The initial happiness of “getting published” won’t be sustained over time…and we’ll return to the level of happiness we had before being published.

Which, for most of us, is right where we are right now.

This isn’t meant to discourage you. No one is trying to burst your dream bubble.  What it’s meant to do is show you that it’s your expectation of how much happier you’ll be after you’re published that makes you unhappy now.

So, I’m assuming that, if you’re here at The Happy Writer, you’re feeling some unhappiness about being unpublished. The question is, then, after you become published, do you want to return to this same level of happiness/unhappiness?  Because that’s likely to be exactly what happens. This is your baseline.

Thankfully, happiness is a choice.  You have the option of improving your level of happiness now so that you can sustain that happiness throughout your writing career.

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