The Ultimate 8,000-Word Guide to Creating Joy on Demand

Part 6 of 9

How Habits Work

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg reveals the three-part neurological loop at the heart of every habit: Cue, Routine, and Reward. In another book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear builds on this loop with this version: Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward.

Both loops work the same.

Charles Duhigg's Habit Loop (Source:
James Clear's Habit Loop (Source:

Both loops work the same.

First, there is a trigger in your external environment or internal state (the Cue). Then, your brain craves a change in state so it performs an automatic behavior (Craving + Response/Routine). And finally, you get a reward for completing the routine (the Reward).

How does this relate with joy?

Oftentimes, our Cues are stressors in life. Our Response/Routine is any behavior that causes us to detach from our circumstance because we desire a change in the uncomfortable state. And our Reward is a “false pleasure” that doesn’t serve us in the long run.

We are all designed to escape pain. And we’ve built habits to do just that.

Lets break this down.

Here are some Cues that might trigger a person to do a habit:

  • Feeling bored at work.
  • Feeling angry at your spouse.
  • Feeling resentful at a friend.
  • Feeling overwhelmed with a project.
  • Feeling tired before bed.

Notice anything with the Cues? They are all feelings, which are first born from our thoughts. More on that later.

When we feel a stressor like this, we might engage in the following Routine/Response:

  • Check social media.
  • Procrastinate.
  • Emotionally shutdown.
  • Fall asleep.
  • Watch Netflix.
  • Take drugs or other substances.
  • Overeat.
  • Overdrink.
  • Scroll on the Internet.
  • Isolate.
  • Lash out at someone.
  • Engage in self-pity.

The list could go on and on. These Routines/Responses have us disengage from life because we want to escape the negative emotion. We crave a change in our state.

The problem with these Routines/Responses is that they deliver a false pleasure. A false pleasure is anything that delivers a quick blast of dopamine, but doesn’t serve our well-being.

Dopamine is the brain chemical of reward and happiness. Oftentimes, when we drink wine, overindulge with food, scroll on social media, etc. we get a blast of dopamine in our brain. But doing these activities are not essential to our well-being, hence why they are called false pleasures. More times than not, we end up feeling worse about ourselves after we do these activities.

Once you understand this cycle and how it affects your emotional life and results, a dangerous problem presents itself.

The Unhappiness Cycle™

The Unhappiness Cycle is a pattern of behavior where our desire to escape negative emotions with distractions or false pleasures actually strengthens our stressors. In other words, the more you try to suppress negative emotions, the more you increase your stress and negative affect.

Here’s how it works:

The Unhappiness Cycle

First, you experience a neutral circumstance (or stressor).

Then, the neutral circumstance produces a thought which is measured by your mind as negative.

This negative thought then produces a negative emotion which triggers you to want to suppress or escape it.

You then engage in a distraction or a false pleasure. Your brain rewards you with a big blast of dopamine and you are temporarily happy.

Here’s the problem: the more you seek to escape the emotion and reward yourself with false pleasure, the more your brain craves these big blasts of dopamine that do nothing for you.

Instead, it creates a habit where you only know how to feel better by escaping the negative emotion, which doesn’t make you feel better in the long run.

It’s a cycle. You’ll eventually experience the stressor again, which will produce the negative thought, which will repeat the trigger, which will result in a false pleasure. And then, the cycle repeats.

The result of following the Unhappiness Cycle is what I call Compound Cynicism. The more you engage in this pattern of behavior, the more your cynicism builds on itself.

Cynicism compounds. Why? Because constantly escaping the emotion with a distraction or false pleasure teaches you nothing about how to increase your tolerance of the stressor. The stressor’s effect on your life only intensifies.

As you follow this pattern of behavior, you produce cynicism, which says life is hard and you can’t handle it. This compounds and eventually leads you into the Cynical category.

Science proves that the Unhappiness Cycle only intensifies the stressors.

Consider this study from James Dillard at Penn State University and other researchers who studied pregnant women vulnerable to the Zika virus in the United States. Dillard and the other researchers found that women who tried to suppress their fears only experienced higher levels of fear later, which then prompted them to engage in more emotional suppression. It created an intensifying cycle which only caused them to escape life more and more.

The Unhappiness Cycle only produces Compound Cynicism. As you compound your cynicism, you end up in the Cynical category.

Fortunately, it’s possible to compound your joy as well.

The key to increasing your joy in life is to break the Unhappiness Cycle.

Once you break the cycle, you produce Compound Joy. Your joy continues to build on itself as you learn to show up more for that negative 50 percent of life.

Science also proves that Compound Joy reduces the impact of stressors.

In one study, researchers found that emotional acceptance promotes better psychological health because it helps people experience less negative emotions in response to stressors. Another study also found that emotional acceptance protects people from intensifying negative emotions and producing depressive symptoms.

Breaking The Unhappiness Cycle and compounding your joy is how you end up in the Joyful category.

So how can we break free from The Unhappiness Cycle and compound our joy? To understand this, we need to break down why people are caught in this cycle.
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