Learning to be happy

(Even with tinnitus raging in your head)

In this blog I’m going to be talking about how we can do ourselves a huge favour in our tinnitus life by learning to be happy.

For many of us, happiness is something that we have to learn and re-learn multiple times over in our life. It’s a choice.

I’ll pause here a moment and make it very clear that I’m not suggesting in any way that clinical depression can easily be cured by just learning to be happy. So, if you are under a physician’s care for depression, please don’t interpret what I am saying as being dismissive at all.

But for those of us who struggle with general low mood, anxiety, or the multitude of negative emotions that we can experience while living with tinnitus, there is more we can do to help ourselves feel better than we may realise.

Yes, tinnitus will still be there. But we might feel less miserable about our life than before. And that’s got to be a win, right?

So, let’s look at what might be holding us back from being happy (and, yes, I can tell you from personal experience, it is possible to be happy even when you have a 747 jet preparing for take-off in your head!).

1. We make happiness conditional

First off, we often put conditions on being happy. We say to ourselves, I’ll be happy when…

• I get a better job
• I have more money
• I have children
• The children have flown the nest
• I’ve lost 10 pounds
• My tinnitus is cured…

Rather than choosing to be happy now, we’re instead choosing to postpone being happy until we achieve a future goal.

But what if that goal never arrives? For example, what if we never see the cure for tinnitus in our lifetime? That could leave us spending many years, even many decades, leading unhappy lives. What a waste!

We don’t stay happy

Let’s say we did achieve that big goal and finally allowed ourselves to be happy, what then?

Most of us would imagine that winning a large sum of money would make us happier. We might dream of paying off our mortgage, helping out family and friends, and going on that dream holiday. Yet research 1Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Jano-Bulman, R. (1978) Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917-927. Accessed 20/09/21 found that people who won the lottery were no happier long-term compared to people who hadn’t. Additional studies show the same with other improvements in our circumstances.

These studies strongly suggest that while a cure for tinnitus would certainly leave us floating on a cloud of happiness initially, that level of happiness would not be long-lived. Why? Well,

  • that young guy next door who revs his motorbike at 7am would still make us annoyed,
  • we’d still be irritated by that co-worker who sniffs all the time,
    our Uncle Malc would still bore us with the same anecdotes at every family gathering, or
  • the kids would still leave Lego on the floor (ouch!).

And let’s not forget the big stuff that could go wrong. We might be made redundant, or experience grief, or, less dramatically, simply realise that it wasn’t tinnitus itself that was making us unhappy.

And, as time goes on, and other bits and pieces of our body don’t function as well as they once did, they would become the new focus of our attention. And we’d start to think we would be happy when they got fixed.

So, with a tinnitus cure likely being many years in the future, and science telling us that even if our tinnitus was cured, our initial happiness wouldn’t be long-lasting, is it still wise to hold off being happy until that cure comes along?

Don’t get me wrong, if a cure does come along, I’ll be elbowing you out the way (not very British I know)! But while we’re waiting, I want a happy life now.

2. We’re programmed to remember the bad stuff

There’s something else, something many of us aren’t even aware of, that can also have a big part to play in how happy we are…if we let it!

Our negativity bias (also known as positive-negative asymmetry, if you want to impress your friends) means that in any experience we are more likely to notice and remember the negative things that happened rather than the positive things. Our brains are programmed to pay more attention to the bad stuff than anything else.

Where does it come from? The negativity bias is believed to stem from the same part of our human development that triggers the fight, flight or freeze response. In every era of our existence we have had to make quick decisions about whether someone approaching was a threat. Millennia ago that might have involved deciding whether a tribe of people that suddenly appeared on the horizon were going to attack our settlement. In the 21st century we make a similar judgment when a hooded figure walks towards us on a dark street. In both situations the negativity bias tells us to assume the worst for safety’s sake.

Negativity bias does have a useful part to play in our life, for example in that scenario on a dark street. The challenge for us lies in the fact that our brain applies it to every situation we come across.

Let’s see what that might look like in a life with tinnitus:

You’ve had a great evening out with friends. But your tinnitus made it hard to hear conversation from time to time. And at one point you completely misheard something that was said, leading to your friends laughing good-naturedly at your mistake. When you get home you keep replaying that mistake and your embarrassment over and over in your mind. You were out with your friends for 4 hours and had a wonderful time for 3 hours and 55 minutes. But the negativity bias means that your entire memory of that evening is focused on that embarrassing 5-minute episode.

Does that sound familiar? That’s the negativity bias at work.

How to be happy

Now we know two reasons why we might not be happy right now:

  1. we’re putting happiness off until we have a tinnitus cure (or another amazing change in our circumstances), and
  2. whenever we do have a pleasant experience our brain tends to focus on, and remind us of, any negatives that happened. So, what can we do about it? How can we learn proactively and intentionally to be happy?

Learn more in next month’s blog!

[1] Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Jano-Bulman, R. (1978) Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917-927. Accessed 20/09/21