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The Joyletter

Do you have an upper limit problem?

Published 5 months ago • 3 min read

Hi Reader,

When things get good in your life, does something bad always seem to happen?

I used to think that this was just bad luck. But recently I've realized that this pattern can be a sign of something called an upper limit problem.

The idea, coined by psychologist Gay Hendricks, is that each of us has a certain tolerance for happiness. When something happens to exceed that threshold, we often engage in unconscious, self-sabotaging behaviors to bring our happiness back down to a more tolerable level.

It sounds counterintuitive, right? Happiness is the thing most of us are seeking. How could there ever be too much of it?

One reason has to do with self-worth. If you don't believe you're worthy of a certain amount or kind of happiness, getting it creates cognitive dissonance. Your unconscious mind thinks, "I don't deserve this!" To resolve the tension, it has to find a way to get rid of the excess good stuff.

So you worry obsessively, making it impossible to enjoy your success. You're careless with money or pick fights with your family. You expect the other shoe to drop, and with all your attention fixated on it, there it goes.

The alternative is to get more comfortable being happy. To believe that you actually do deserve joy and push your upper limit.

Earlier this week, I wrote about how I'm doing this in my work. I used to believe that my work would always fall just short of my goals, and guess what? It always did. Stopping the self-sabotage has started with a question: What if this project turned out beyond my wildest dreams?

You could ask this question about a relationship, a creative aspiration, or any other goal. If you're anything like me, it probably feels pretty uncomfortable. But doing this exercise brought my upper limit problem into the daylight: my difficulty with even imagining total success meant that my compass was always pointing a few degrees shy of true north.

I was raised with the belief that I should manage my expectations, that it's better to be pleasantly surprised than aim high and be disappointed. All my conditioning runs against such explicit aspiration.

But it's liberating when you realize that the thing standing between you and joy is actually yourself. All you have to do is figure out how to get out of the way.

Joyfully,

Ingrid

One Thing

Notice when joy feels uncomfortable

We tend to think of joy as light and easy, but there are plenty of times when a moment of joy brings up resistance. Some part of us wants to feel the joy, but another just won't let it in.

This might look like habitually reaching for your phone in a joyful moment, seeking distraction from the joy. It might mean fault-finding — looking for problems when things are good. It might mean bracing and being on guard for loss.

Noticing your habitual strategies for dampening joy can ultimately help you find more of it.

For more on the ways we hold back from feeling joy and what to do about them, see here.

In Search of: Colorful Still Life Artists to Follow on Instagram

For me, still life is the most joyful genre of art. I think it's because still life paintings are all about bringing attention to the mundane moments in everyday life — the ones that are easy to overlook, but can bring tremendous joy.

This week on the blog we have a collection of 10 still life artists who use vibrant color in their work. Give them a follow to add some color and delight to your feed.

Read the post here

1 / Maggie Cowles / 2 / Kate Lewis / 3 / Phoebe Stone / 4 / Michael McGregor

Delightful Discoveries

For the past few weeks I've been sharing a loose collection of things I've been reading, pinning, and sharing in this spot, rather than just one highlight. If you like this format, feel free to hit reply and let me know!

Quote of the Week

“The true secret of happiness is taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”

— William Morris

The Joyletter

by Ingrid Fetell Lee

Designer, bestselling author, and founder of the School of Joy. I help people find more joy in life and work through design. Join more than 40,000 readers who receive our weekly treasure trove of science-backed tips, delightful discoveries, and inspiration for living a better life.

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