So, there I was, enjoying a 14-day hiking trip in Ireland, and one of my Gremlins caught up with me: Miss Crabby Pants. I didn’t think Gremlins could swim across the pond, and I hadn’t packed her in my suitcase. Yet, there she was, all crabby and out of sorts, buckled in next to me.
She fumed about our spot in the cramped backseat. We sat wedged next to a suitcase. One traveler in our group of seven had exceeded the agreed upon baggage limit. She fumed about the beer cans clanking behind her head, which another traveling companion was accumulating as trip mementos. She fumed about the plumbing problems of the place she’d last stayed.
For the last nine days, I’d been surrounded by sunshine, fresh air, outstanding scenery, good friends, and had spent nearly all daylight hours hiking, an activity I adore. Just yesterday, we’d hiked the Maumturk Mountains, scrambling up the steep, green slopes of the rolling range, reaching various summits – lunar-landscape peaks covered in enormous rock slabs and masses of shattered white quartzite. On the decent, we veered next to cliff edges, picking our way through rocky crags, following sheep tracks made while they grazed the hillsides. The slopes were a sea of purple heather, mountain thyme, and damp bog grasses.
So, why the sudden turn into Miss Crabby Pants? How did I go from feeling good one day to manufacturing a stream of complaints the next?
We each have individual happiness set-points based on nature and nurture: our gene pool, messages we received in childhood, and our teenage experiences. Life events also have a way of disappointing us, confirming that it doesn’t pay to get too happy, excited, and optimistic. As a result, a part of ourselves is afraid of enjoying positive energy for any extended period of time.
It turns out I was suffering from what is affectionately known as The Upper Limit Problem (ULP), a common phenomenon. Gay Hendricks, author of The Big Leap, noticed the pattern and coined the term. ULP-ing is to enjoy a period of feeling really good; then do something to mess it up. Or, put another way: reach our happiness limit (or set-point).
Reaching Our Upper Limit of Happiness:
I had hit my upper limit. My Gremlin was delighted to bring me back down to a “normal” happiness level by manufacturing complaints designed to dampen my mood.
Most of us have had this experience, but lacked a term describing what was happening. However, once we learn an Upper Limit Problem exists, we are able to understand when and how we impose happiness limits on ourselves.
For example: Think about the last time you began a healthy eating or exercise program. You might have called it “lack of will-power” when you binged on chocolate or stopped going to the gym, but it was also an ULP. It was a way to bring yourself back into your comfort zone: feeling unhealthy and unenergetic.
Or, consider relationship ULPs: One moment you’re enjoying a positive, healthy, satisfying weekend, but then, on Sunday night you find yourself in an argument over something really trivial. You might attribute the spat to being tired, but in all likelihood, you reached your happiness set-point, the one believing harmonious relationships are unattainable.
I’ve realized my grumpy, dark-cloud Gremlin likes to materialize when I am in the midst of a ‘pinch-me-this-is-my-life’ moment, like a two-week hiking trip in Europe.
Once the car was parked and suitcases were distributed, I went for a beachside walk to watch the sunset and ask myself the following questions (and I invite you to consider them in your own context):
Questions to Help You Exceed Your Upper Limit:
Can I let the annoyances go and choose to live in harmony?
Am I willing to increase the amount of time, every day, that I feel good inside?
Am I willing to bask in feelings of contentment and satisfaction, and be okay with those feelings?