Jiu-Jitsu Happiness

Jiu-jitsu is hard and at times demoralizing. Failure is routine because none of us have perfect jiu-jitsu. Having an optimistic outlook on life and jiu-jitsu helps, but even the most optimistic can be beaten down by waves of hardship. Proper perspective in jiu-jitsu helps, but that is only a way to ensure any day to day failures can be used in a positive way. What we really need is a long term method for improving our jiu-jitsu outlook without either accepting long term stagnation or quitting altogether.

To do this, we can look at some psychological concepts that help explain how some people can overcome all the obstacles to achieving a BJJ black belt and beyond, while others either quit or lose their desire to advance through the ranks. The fist concept is the Hedonic Treadmill or Hedonic Adaptation.

Hedonic Adaptation

The Hedonic treadmill, put simply, is the tendency for humans to habituate to circumstances regardless of positive or negative events. There is a tendency to return to a set level of happiness. In the context of jiu-jitsu, getting that new belt or gold medal is a great feeling, but inevitably you go back to your daily training and daily successes and failures. You have that which you desired, but it doesn’t necessarily fundamentally alter your outlook on jiu-jitsu.

For the optimist or someone with a higher hedonic setpoint/happiness level, these are just steps towards perfecting their jiu-jitsu, even though it is an impossible task. For the pessimist or someone with a lower hedonic setpoint/happiness level, the impossible task leads to some interesting results that may explain a variety of jiu-jitsu perspective problems.

The Problem of Learned Helplessness

How many of us have rolled with a black belt and felt like no matter what we did, we were always going to come out on the losing side? Literally 100% of us when we were inexperienced. I have rolled with countless people who see a black belt on the other person, and it disables their normal jiu-jitsu. Experience says that the roll is only going to go one way, and we are effectively helpless to alter the outcome other than perhaps slightly delaying the inevitable. I even encounter this to a small degree as a black belt when I roll with black belts who have significantly more experience than me.

This state of mind can be described as “Learned Helplessness”, which has quite a bit of research behind it. For our context, learned helplessness effectively solidifies a negative outlook on your jiu-jitsu based on past experience.

“Forever a [x] belt”

I’ve seen many jiu-jitsu students who appear content to remain at a particular level. Alternatively this is also expressed as a “I never seem to get better than so-and-so, so why try so hard?” Although there has to be many reasons for these thoughts, the end result is choosing to stagnate or only weakly pursue getting better. It is one thing to set priorities in life that are more important in jiu-jitsu, but entirely another issue when your training is purposely less focused and effective because of a problem with hedonic adaptation/learned helplessness.

The Unhappy View of Jiu-Jitsu

Learned helplessness is a state of focusing on the negative elements of the past. Anticipating stagnation in jiu-jitsu is focusing on the negative elements of the future. Any time I see someone who has a tendency to focus on the negative, they also tend to have a correspondingly low happiness setpoint. This can be a major stumbling block in jiu-jitsu as we are literally constantly confronted with failure in big and small ways. If we don’t have healthy coping mechanisms to deal with inevitable ji-jitsu failures, our most likely course of action will be to quit something in which we once found joy.

Through my own experience, what I have seen in others, and what research into happiness suggests, I believe there are methods we can use to help us compensate for the problems with our jiu-jitsu perspective. Although I was unaware of just how much research is available on this topic, it turns out the my general approach to life and jiu-jitsu already set me up for happiness and success in jiu-jitsu. I’ll explain both my approach as well as what the research says.

Mining the Past

The first angle that can be taken to adjust your happiness setpoint is simply to be thankful. This sounds ineffective at first, but part of what this has done for me and others is to specifically realize just how far you’ve gone in jiu-jitsu. This basically an instance of counting your blessings. On your first day, you were understandably not good at jiu-jitsu. After your second day, you literally have twice as much experience at jiu-jitsu than you did the day before. That’s a pretty cool thing to be grateful for, even so early on! When you become a blue belt, you have left the ranks of beginners and you can legitimately make a claim that you “know” jiu-jitsu. That’s very cool, too! The alternative is to look at the setbacks you’ve had, or how poorly you do against the upper belts and project a sense of failure on your training.

The past is where you should be mining concrete accomplishments and positive aspects of your jiu-jitsu, both big and small. Reflecting on where you were and how far you’ve come gives hope that if you have come this far, why not further? The cliché that if you are training you are doing better than the people on the couch is basically a form of this type of thinking.

Investing in the Future

The second angle deals with the future instead of the past. The approach is effectively the same: focus on the positive. Realize that one day you will be able to do all the things that the upper belts are doing to you. In fact, the people who are most likely to continue training after the first few classes are the ones who fail spectacularly and come up smiling because they can see that if someone else can do this amazing technique to them, they will be able to learn it and enjoy the same kind of success.

A fascinating way of focusing on the positive is imagining your “best possible self”. Research indicates that this specific method of focusing your efforts on increasing your success and happiness is very effective. One way we can do this is to imagine that if all of our training goes according to plan, then we know we will get to the black belt level – not just in an optimal amount of time, but also with a shape to our effective form of jiu-jitsu that is uniquely ours.

I knew from the first day that I walked into the academy that I would one day be a black belt. I had no way of knowing how long it would take, but my “best possible self” would be a black belt instructor that had consistently trained for up to 10-12 years, trained hard when in class, and studied hard when home. Everything I did from the first day was in service of becoming that “best possible self”, and not only did I achieve all of that, but I also did it in less time than I anticipated. In effect, I became my best possible self by taking my best possible self seriously.

Happiness is in the Process

If you are a high happiness setpoint person, then setbacks in jiu-jitsu and the long term process of becoming a true expert in jiu-jitsu probably don’t phase you. You likely already have the habits that research suggests cultivates a higher happiness setpoint. This essay is meant more for people who find themselves temporarily happy with that stripe, belt, medal, or cool new move, but quickly return to a baseline of feeling negative about their jiu-jitsu.

When you have a thankful and positive view of your past, and an optimistic focus on your best possible self for the future, you are better able to handle the inevitable setbacks and even re-purpose failures as a positive part of your learning process. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the benefit in cultivating a positive and optimistic outlook based on wiring your brain to appreciate your jiu-jitsu progress and making a reality out of the process towards your best possible self.

In other words, to be happier in jiu-jitsu, eliminate negative thinking (and statements) about your past and future. Moving forward, picture what you think is possible if you put serious effort into your jiu-jitsu. This doesn’t mean ignore your job or family. It means that with your current set of priorities and responsibilities, just what is possible in a year, five years, or ten years? Your coach can help you shape your view of your best possible self, and I encourage you to take advantage of their desire to help you achieve what you can do.

Having a higher happiness setpoint provides both contentment with what you have achieved, as well as drive for achieving even more. Make a serious effort to rewire how you interpret your past and project your future. There is solid science that says that even if you don’t have a very good happiness setpoint, it’s absolutely possible to cultivate a higher level of happiness in both life and jiu-jitsu.

Just as there is a natural variation in happiness setpoints between people, there is a natural variation is how people react to the process of  becoming an expert in jiu-jitsu. I have seen all types succeed or quit in jiu-jitsu. The fastest quitters are those that can’t get past a focus on failure. The ones who have trouble bouncing back from injuries or breaks from jiu-jitsu are the ones that have trouble with their happiness setpoint. If you are in a mental place where jiu-jitsu does not feel like it’s going to make you happy or you find yourself anticipating failure, and you know that at one time you were happy with jiu-jitsu, then take these proven methods of rewiring your happiness setpoint to adjust your view of your past and future. Utilize your coach to help you see the past and future in a more positive light. After teaching technique, I view adjusting people’s perspective on jiu-jitsu as my next most important task as a coach.

Rewire your view of your past and future to increase the happiness and contentment you experience now. If you see someone else chasing temporary joy on the Hedonic Treadmill or falling into Learned Helplessness, use the science behind increasing the happiness setpoint to help them break free of a negative mindset that interferes with their jiu-jitsu progress. Encourage gratefulness and a best possible self.

More reading:

There are many other aspects to happiness that we can look at and apply to jiu-jitsu, but I chose to focus on the perspective people have on past and future, as this is independent of introversion/extroversion or other social aspects. The topic of “happiness” is a very interesting one to research. Here are some more articles I encourage you to read.

The Science of Happiness: A Positive Psychology Update

Qualitative analysis of the Best Possible Self intervention: Underlying mechanisms that influence its efficacy. (Carrillo, Alba & Martínez-Sanchis, Marian & Etchemendy, Ernestina & Baños, Rosa. (2019). PLOS ONE. 14. e0216896. 10.1371/journal.pone.0216896.)

How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves


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