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Your mind plays tricks on you.

Three tips to trick it too & feel happier.

October 2020 by Gertje Vanhoutte 

Every now and then I have a little freak-out about my decision to become an entrepreneur. I am learning a lot and - according to feedback I received - having a positive impact on my peers. However, in financial terms, all my peers seem to be doing so much better than me! I tend to brush off positive reactions from people in my network as I’m assuming they are just trying to be nice. The truth is, it’s very easy to lose sight of my own success measures. And that is because of some annoying features of our mind. Let me summarise, and more importantly, share three lesson in how I’m trying to address them:

Ensure your mind uses more realistic reference points

Our mind thinks relative to reference points, but it just uses whatever reference point we can get. Our neighbours, colleagues, social media, TV…

We see all these amazing successful people in the media, but they don’t match the reality of the average person (although COVID-19 has helped on that front). When we scroll down our social media feeds we compare our own experiences against a small, highly curated and very positive set of images that others chose to share. And the more extreme things we see, the more unrealistic our standards become. Research has shown that this makes us less satisfied with what we actually have and who we are. It messes up our judgement of what we really care about in our careers and in life

And even though we know that most of us only share our best side to others, we still can’t always help being less susceptible to it. For example, take the G.I. Joe Fallacy: We know $19.99 is only 1 penny less than $20, but we still perceive it as significantly less. Our mind’s strongest intuitions are often totally wrong and factually incorrect.

So we need to force a better filter on the information we let ourselves see. For example, I’ve deleted certain people from my social media feed that make me feel negative about myself. Especially when I’ve observed concretely that their real life is not anywhere close to the image they portray. I’ve also buried the addictive apps in folders on my phone so I’m less prone to quickly scroll in a flash of boredom. I’ve also set daily time limits for how long I can use them. There are many more tricks out there, but these seem to be working for me.

Be mindful of the great things in your life

Another challenge we face is that we get so quickly used to amazing things and it becomes the new normal. Yes, it is great the first time they happen (e.g. when you get your dream job or that expensive watch). The emotional effect it has on us reduces over time and it raises the bar of what we want next. What works better is to focus less on buying great stuff and invest instead in (shared) experiences. Or to use those new material possessions to build great memories with other people (e.g. use that cool hamper for family picnics when exploring new green parts of town). You will also enjoy things more when you come back to certain great experiences occasionally rather than frequently.

Adding variety is important as the same routine gets boring quick enough (a big challenge during lockdown).

And then savour those experiences. Take a moment and be mindful as it’s happening (e.g. daily family lunch). And even if you missed it, you can make a habit of going back over your day each night for example, and replay the good stuff in your mind. Also, here variety in what you’re grateful about is key to continue to trick your mind with this technique.

I’ve become more conscious to specifically share my appreciation with others too. Because receiving gratitude can make people feel valued and can motivate them to be more generous. It strengthens personal relationships. Taking time to experience gratitude, studies show, can make you and the other person happier and even make you healthier.

During COVID-19 I’ve come to appreciate more the great little things in life that I used to take for granted, like my daily freedoms and get-togethers. The act of being just about to lose something, is the moment where you really tend to appreciate it.

Dare to try

We tend to overestimate the emotional impact of things in two ways: their intensity and duration. We think the experience will feel amazing and last forever (or the opposite). For example, I was afraid to take steps to become an entrepreneur because: what if my business would fail? That would be a disaster and end my career as I know it! However, I confronted this bias of my mind and went ahead anyway. We have a whole suite of psychological traits (that we may not know we have) that force ourselves to feel better. Worst case, I deliberately told myself: I’d lose some money, learn from it and try again.

It is this bias that can make us afraid to take on new challenges that are risky, and leads us to mispredict our own potential. But dare to try. You’ll do better than you think. Perhaps in unexpected ways. I may, or may not, become a successful entrepreneur in financial terms. But what the journey so far has shown me is that I’ve had so many happier moments because of it. I know my brain is wired to choose the easier path. At the same time, it is also wired to crave novelty and excitement. I’ve dared to try it as an entrepreneur and had to face some of my own biggest fears. 

It was my birthday a few weeks ago, and my husband pointed out that it had been my year of courage. I love that. According to Aristotle you will never do anything in the world without courage. What better success measure can there be! 

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