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The unhappy feedback loop

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The unhappy feedback loop

Scott Miker

In systems thinking, the concept of the feedback loop can be used to gain insight into what is happening in a situation.  Feedback loops are everywhere and surface often in our daily lives.

One such feedback loop is discussed in an article from Psychology Today titled Miserable and Middle Aged? Is something Wrong with You? by Pamela B. Paresky, Ph.D.  She says, “When people are not content with life, [Jonathon] Rauch explains, they can start to feel unhappy about being unhappy.  Then being unhappy about being unhappy makes them feel even worse, and the feedback loop creates a downward spiral, leading to an ever deepening hole of dissatisfaction.”

When it comes to feedback loops, we can gain a lot of insight into a systematic situation that others often ignore.  In order to improve this feedback loop situation, we have to do something differently.  We have to change the structures, processes, mental models etc. to help us move in the opposite direction.

Jonathon Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve, Why Life Gets Better After 50, argues that understanding that experiencing something is common and normal is often enough to break the feedback loop.  So he wrote a book to shed light on this for people experiencing a mid-life depression. 

But what about those who fall into this feedback loop but aren’t just going through a mid-life lull? 

We can still break the feedback loop.  It might take more than discovering some information on what is going on.  We may need to actually take small steps that start to break the loop.  Looking to systems thinking we might get a few ideas of what we can try to escape the feedback loop trap. 

One systems thinking strategy to tackling a feedback loop is to add a delay to the feedback loop to slow it down.  We can start on a journey to achieve something.  We can start a workout program; we can start an educational path towards a new degree or certificate.  We can tackle life’s challenges head on knowing that, in time, we will start to have more success by working hard now and sacrificing our leisure time now for a brighter future. 

By putting off an immediate expectation of happiness, we accept our discontent and start building something that will hopefully result in future happiness.  From a systems stance, this levels off our current level of happiness, putting a delay in place that can prevent the growing unhappiness.  The delay is temporary but can be enough to jumpstart some new behaviors before you get too depressed about your current situation.

The systems perspective gives a lot of great insight into common systems structures.  While systems thinking tends to surface much more often in business strategy, business operations, engineering, and leadership, it can be adapted to many areas of life.

The systems and habits approach to improvement uses this way of thinking and adjusting to focus on areas of our personal life.  It helps us grow and achieve our goals.  It helps us find new ways to reduce complacency and increase contentment.  It helps us become who we want to be, rather than who we become when we simply go through life taking the path of least resistance. 

For the full Psychology Today article, click here