Posted On:
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: Happiness is a Function of...

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Two plush, yellow happy face emojis sitting in a tin box that has many, many different emojis painted on it.

Hooray! It’s once again time for Coach Tip Tuesday!

This week’s tip is one of those that is more about real life, but as I often say, athletes are real people with real lives, so I think that it makes sense to talk about the “real stuff” in addition to the “sport-specific stuff.”  I firmly believe in coaching the entire human who hires me, not “just” the athlete.  Attempting to coach just the athlete would be like trying to coach a shadow.  It’s very real, but it is only a piece of the entire reality.  I would not be acknowledging that person for who and what they are, for each athlete I coach is a very complex and nuanced human that is much more than the sport they engage in.

After watching the turmoil that the world has been experiencing this year, I’ve been doing a bit of a self-study on happiness and what “being happy” really means.  After years of listening to people lament their long commutes, hate their stressful days at work, wish that they had more time at home, and wish that they had more time to do the recreational activities that they enjoy, I witnessed something radical this year.  This year, a majority of folks ceased commuting, got more time at home, and had more control over their daily schedules.  And yet, people are more unhappy now than they were before, and the data backs this up.  Since 2019, 23% more American adults are reporting that they are feeling depressed and anxious.

As I started this self-study on happiness, a theme kept popping up in every book, article, and podcast I listened to:

Happiness is a function of expectations minus reality.

Maybe this phrase is cliché, but I really like it because it’s concise and, in my personal experience, it’s accurate.  It’s why people say things like “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”  We build things up to be one way in our minds; in the above example, many, many people thought that being home more, not commuting, and having more control over their schedule would make them happier.  And yet, when they were given exactly what they expressed that they wanted, they became less happy.  The reality of the situation didn’t meet their expectations, and thus, they didn’t experience happiness; they experienced the opposite.

This actually works in reverse as well. If someone delivers bad news to you, but then withdraws it, you feel a sense of relief, which often leads to a feeling of happiness. A good example of this: Imagine that you went to your favorite bakery seeking your favorite cupcake. The person in front of you in line buys the VERY LAST ONE. You feel disappointment, which converts to sadness because you expected to get that particular cupcake today, and now you need to choose something else. But, wait! The wonderful baker brings out an entire tray of your favorite cupcakes! Hooray! You feel relief, and then happiness. You might even shed tears of joy.

Science shows us time and time again that our human brains are actually really horrible forecasters.  We often overproject how good something will feel, but we also do the opposite; we often overproject how bad we will feel if something terrible happens in our lives.  The reality is that our brains cannot exist forever on either end of these spectrums; the brain/body wants to return to homeostasis, or a balanced feeling.  This is why feelings of extreme happiness fade with time, but feelings of extreme sadness do as well.

While the current state of things is what prompted me to write this, my advice is the same, no matter what the current world situation is: aim to recognize that it’s impossible to be happy all the time, and also simultaneously recognize that sad feelings won’t last forever, either.

This week’s tip further deviates from my other tips, because I won’t be leaving you with any grand suggestions of what you can do about this.  I don’t think that happiness is something that converts easily (if at all) into actionable tips.  

What I can do is ask you to be aware that happiness truly is a function of your expectations minus the reality that actually exists.  When you encounter a situation where you don’t feel the way you expected to, aim to acknowledge how you are feeling and what set of circumstances is leading you to experience the emotions that you are experiencing.  Sometimes, once we do this work and self-reflection, we are able to manage our expectations to better align with realities in the future.  Like so many things, awareness is the first step, and in this case, it could be the first step into being happier overall. :)


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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