How NOT to be frustrated by failure: Don't celebrate your losses

by Steli Efti

Here’s a little happiness hack for entrepreneurs: don’t celebrate your failures. You’ve probably already heard you should celebrate your successes, to make sure you and your team cherish and enjoy your victories.

I think that’s great advice … in theory. I just find it hard to practice. I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life, and I’ve had my fair share of successes and failures, ups and downs.

And the one thing that stayed consistent through all of it was this: failure hurts much more than success delights.

It turns out I’m not the only one who’s wired this way. Many entrepreneurs I speak with can relate to this phenomenon.

The negativity bias

It’s a universal human characteristic: Bad is stronger than good. That’s the gist of a study Roy F. Baumeister popularized.

  • Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found that losing $50 is much more upsetting than it is pleasing to gain $50. This is what the loss-aversion theory is about. We value gains and losses differently.
  • Researchers also found that having a bad day often had a negative impact on the following day, whereas having a good day did not carry over to the following day. Even if the bad and the good are experienced with equal intensity, people tend to carry only the bad over to the next day, and let go off the good.
  • Another study found that we react more intensely to bad odors than to pleasant odors. Just try walking past a garbage truck and smelling a flower or freshly baked cookies. You prefer the latter one, but the first one affects you so much more.

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Why do we focus on the negative by default?

It seems our brains are wired this way. Negative experiences get processed by our implicit (emotional) memory almost instantly. Positive experiences, on the other hand, take about 5 to 20 seconds to begin to register in implicit memory.

Look at it from an evolutionary point of view. People who are “more attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased the probability of passing along their genes,” said Roy Baumeister in the article “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”

5 against 1

If you just let your brain do what it’s used to doing, and you’re just like most people, there’s an unfair fight going on in your mind. Baumeister’s research shows that it takes, on average, five positive experiences to balance out the impact of one negative experience.

The good news: You’re in charge

Fortunately, knowing this, you can use your mind in a way that makes you happier, and lessens the impact of negative events. You have a say in what your brain pays attention to—you're not a passive recipient of the feelings your brain hands you. 

And that’s exactly what this happiness hack is about. 

Thinking "I should feel happier" didn’t make me feel happier

When I didn’t celebrate my successes as much as I thought I should, and then tried to force myself into being happier about it, it almost had the opposite effect. Rather than making me happier, it took away from the little joy I got out of it. I felt like I failed at being happy about it, and even experienced a pinch of guilt.

Given that amplifying the joy of success proved difficult, how about doing something else, instead of just trying harder?

Could I turn the “emotional volume” of failure down when some part of our operation didn't move the vision for our inside sales CRM forward?

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Could I train myself to care less about failure, not be so affected by it?

Turns out this worked a lot better.

It’s easy for me to tell myself this after a period of bad results.

If you ever catch yourself getting frustrated with failure, just tell yourself this:

It’ll pass, another week will come, another month will come. Let’s not get all worked up about this problem, let’s just solve it and move on. If I don’t celebrate my successes, I’m not going to celebrate my failures.

Like a Buddhist monk, you can let go of these negative feelings the moment you become aware of them. Watch them disappear in the distance, get washed away by the rain. (It's much better to use your imagination for positive purposes than to imagine how everyone will hate you because you didn't perform).

There’s no point in punishing yourself with bad feelings when you fail to perform. Nobody gains from that. Burning your emotional energy on frustration is a waste—it takes away from the focus and energy you need to move forward, find creative solutions and grow your business.