The Most Important Contributor to Happiness

In our search for happiness and its close cousins, well-being and life satisfaction, we’ve seen that it’s complex. In a previous post, we noted 20 research-based practices that lead to happiness.

Which are the most important? Which have the most influence on our enduring happiness?

Relationships.

 

Happiness and Relationships

“No man is an island.” -John Donne

Connecting with others gives us a sense of worth, meaning, and belonging. When we’re in close relationship with others, we’re more likely to receive support when we need it most (and to provide it when others need it).

According to many researchers, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness for most people. Those who are happiest generally devote a great amount of time to their family, friends, and colleagues, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.

In her book, The How of Happiness, professor Sonja Lyubomirsky writes:

“The centrality of social connections to our health and well-being cannot be overstated…. One of the strongest findings in the literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers. It’s no surprise, then, that investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier…. Happier people are exceptionally good at their friendships, families, and intimate relationships…. people with strong social support are healthier and live longer.”

What’s going on here? Are people with close relationships happier? Or does being happy make us more likely to have close relationships with lovers, family, friends, and colleagues?

Both, it turns out. “The causal relationship between social relationships and happiness is clearly bidirectional,” Lyubomirsky writes. “If you begin today to improve and cultivate your relationships, you will reap the gift of positive emotions. In turn, the enhanced feelings of happiness will help you attract more and higher-quality relationships, which will make you even happier… a continuous positive feedback loop… an upward spiral.”

There’s more: social relationships give us a positive experience in the moment, but they can also strengthen and deepen relationships over time, further increasing our happiness and sense of life satisfaction.

 

The Happiness of a Lifetime

A remarkable collection of studies of mental and physical well-being has been going on for many decades, tracking people over their entire adult lives. The Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School is a longitudinal study—started more than 80 years ago—of 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939–1944. It has run in tandem with a study called the Glueck Study, which included a second cohort of 456 disadvantaged inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945.

Writing about the Harvard Study of Adult Development in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects have been evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and in many cases personal interviews. Researchers gather information about their mental and physical health, marital quality, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and more. The study and its results are described in several books by George Vaillant (a psychiatrist and professor who led the study for decades).

What were the main findings? That the people who were happiest and healthier reported strong interpersonal relationships. When asked what he learned from the study, Vaillant wrote:

“Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

 

Learning from the Happiest People

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. This was the first-ever study of the behavioral and personality correlates of high happiness in people. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Health?

No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent was the strength of their social relationships. The findings:

“The very happy group differed substantially from the average and the very unhappy groups in their fulsome and satisfying interpersonal lives. The very happy group spent the least time alone and the most time socializing, and was rated highest on good relationships…. All members of the very happy group reported good-quality social relationships…. Our findings suggest that very happy people have rich and satisfying social relationships and spend little time alone relative to average people…. We do not know if rich social lives caused happiness, or if happiness caused rich social lives, or if both were caused by some third variable…. Social relationships form a necessary but not sufficient condition for high happiness—that is, they do not guarantee high happiness, but it does not appear to occur without them…. there appears to be no single key to high happiness that automatically produces this state…. High happiness seems to be like beautiful symphonic music—necessitating many instruments, without any one being sufficient for the beautiful quality.”

 

More Evidence about Happiness and Relationships

In his book, The Happiness Curve, award-winning journalist Jonathan Rauch wrote:

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life…. The truest form of wealth is social, not material.”

The finding that happiness is sweeter when shared isn’t only known by researchers. Many of us have an intuitive sense of this. According to a Charles Schwab 2020 survey of 1,000 Americans aged 21 to 75, Americans indicated that relationships are the most important factor for their overall happiness. According to the survey, 39% of respondents ranked relationships as the top driver of overall happiness, compared to 27% reporting health, 17% saying money, 14% saying money, and 3% saying career.

This makes sense from a biological perspective. Most scientists who study happiness agree that there’s an evolutionary basis for our desire to form and preserve social connections. Social bonds, of course, help us survive and reproduce.

“…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener

 

Happiness and Relationships during the Pandemic

Given that we’re now about two years into a global pandemic that has resulted in lockdowns, social distancing, and tectonic changes to our lives at home and work, what do we know about happiness and relationships during the time of covid-19?

The World Happiness Report 2021 included a chapter on “Social Connection and Well-Being during COVID-19,” by Karynna Okabe-Miyamoto and Sonja Lyubomirsky. Highlights from that chapter:

  • “over a century of research has proven how crucial social connection is for well-being.”
  • “…social factors and social behaviors—including the quality and quantity of people’s social relationships—have also been shown to protect well-being during the pandemic.”
  • a 2020 survey in Austria found that those who had larger social networks (more social connections) reported less worry and stress during the pandemic lockdown.
  • the greater perceived threat of the covid-19 virus was linked to greater everyday acts of kindness in response.
  • a 2000 U.K. study of more than 50,000 adults found that having poor social support was associated with severe depressive symptoms.

According to this research, protective factors for psychological well-being included: feelings of connectedness, quality of relationships, positivity resonance (shared feelings of positivity and caring for one another), quantity of relationships, and prosocial (helping) behaviors such as volunteering and charitable giving.

“Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the flip side, risk factors for distress and unhappiness included: engaging in distancing, loneliness, poor social support, and abuse.

 

Social Support at Work

Since work comprises a large portion of our waking hours for many of us, what do we know about work and relationships?

In his book, The Happiness Advantage, author and researcher Shawn Achor calls social support “your single greatest asset.” He points to research on more than a thousand highly successful professional people who were interviewed as they approached retirement.

When asked what motivated them the most throughout their careers, the top response was work friendships—above the responses about financial gain and individual status.

 

The Problem with a Lack of Social Connections

A lack of social connections is harmful to our health, can lead to depression, and can be just as deadly as certain diseases, according to researchers. Also, social support has as big an effect on life expectancy as things like smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, and regular physical activity.

And as we look back on our lives, we may come to regret not honoring and valuing our relationships. Three of the top 5 “regrets of the dying” that Australian palliative nurse Bronnie Ware famously identified in her work with people in the final weeks and months of their lives are directly related to social connections:

Regret #2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret…. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

 Regret #3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others…. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

 Regret #4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying…. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.”

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work—and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families—starving one of the most important parts of our life.”Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?

We should also recognize that close relationships can also be a source of great pain in our lives. Pain from hurtful encounters. From broken trust. Pain from disappointment, and from loss.

Sometimes the pain is redeemable and can be folded back into love. Other times not.

But still relationships are a powerful source of meaning, growth, and love for us.

 

The Problem of Loneliness

Loneliness is a big problem these days—and not just in our time of social distancing and remote work.

According to a Guardian article, about 20% of people report that loneliness is a “major source of unhappiness in their lives,” and about a third of Americans 45 and older report being lonely.

The problem is aggravated by workaholism and the increasing prevalence of screen time in our lives, from streaming services to email and social media. The evidence is disturbing. Average daily digital content consumption is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.

 

Actions for Nurturing Our Relationships

Since relationships are so important, and since loneliness is such a big problem, we’re wise to reflect on what we can do to nurture our relationships at home and work. Here’s a punch list:

  • Making time for relationships and investing in them. Avoiding the traps of perpetual busyness or workaholism that pull us away from family and friends.
  • Being vulnerable and sharing our inner life, including our hopes and fears, with close family and friends we trust.
  • Showing support for our family, friends, and colleagues during their times of need.
  • Being loyal to them.
  • Expressing support and positive emotions, including appreciation, affection, and admiration.
  • Celebrating good news with family, friends, and colleagues.
  • Managing conflict appropriately, including raising important concerns or disagreements (instead of letting them fester) while handling them appropriately (i.e., with empathy, genuine interest in their perspective, and avoiding triggers like contempt and stonewalling).
  • Sharing physical affection, including hugs and pats on the back.

Life and work are all about relationships. Are you doing enough to maintain your close connections with the people you love, care about, and work with?

 

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 Postscript: Quotations on Relationships and Happiness

  • “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.” -Brene Brown
  • “You can spend a lifetime being curious about the inner world of your partner, and being brave enough to share your own inner world, and never be done discovering all there is to know about each other. It’s exciting.” -John Gottman, Eight Dates: A Plan for Making Love Last Forever
  • “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” -Dorothy Day
  • “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls… work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will never be the same.”- Brian Dyson
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” -Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago)
  • “I’ve had a wonderful and successful career. But next to my family, it really hasn’t mattered at all.” -Lee Iacocca
  • “The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist to support the ultimate career.” -C.S. Lewis
  • “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.” -George Moore
  • “Family is a way of holding hands with forever.” -Noah benShea
  • “Invest in friends. There is no other instrument that pays such high returns…. We need each other, but perversely we neglect each other. Every day we have an opportunity to exercise friendship, to make huge returns on a tiny investment, but foolishly we relapse into sleep and forgetting. Please take my advice to heart—forget bonds, forget stocks, forget gold—invest in friendship.” -Ronald Gottesman
  • “The worst solitude is to be destitute of sincere friendship.” -Sir Francis Bacon
  • “A Friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.” -Abraham Lincoln
  • “Some friends leave footprints in your heart.” Eleanor Roosevelt
  • “A society of genuine loving friends, set free from the self-seeking struggle for personal prestige and from all unreality, would be something unutterably priceless and powerful. A wise person would travel any distance to join it.” -Elton Trueblood
  • “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” -Winnie the Pooh
  • “Research has shown that among the benefits that come with being in a relationship or a group, a sense of belonging clocks in as the most important driver of meaning.” –Emily Esfahani Smith, in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). He co-founded the Vail Alliance for Purposeful Living. Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: happiness, life satisfaction, wellbeing, relationships, social connectedness, personal growth, personal development, positive psychology, Harvard Study of Adult Development, loneliness

What Leads to Happiness?

We all want to be happy—and for those we care about to be happy.

Here’s the problem: we’re unclear and often badly mistaken about what will bring us happiness.

We’re inundated with messages from family, friends, ads, and social media about what will make us happy. Most of these messages are wrong.

The result:

What we think will make us happy is different from what actually makes us happy.

 

What Is Happiness?

To understand what’s going on here, we should back up and clarify what we’re talking about. What is happiness?

Turns out it’s not so simple to define. Why? It’s complex, and there are many related factors: wellbeing (a good condition of existence with health, happiness, and prosperity), life satisfaction (how we feel about our lives overall and our future), pleasure, and more.

There are even different types of happiness:

  • Hedonic happiness: happiness achieved through experiences of pleasure and enjoyment
  • Eudaimonic happiness: happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self in the world.

 My favorite definition of happiness (because it’s so comprehensive) comes from University of California, Riverside psychologist and happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky:

Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

 Don’t stop there, though. Decide for yourself what happiness is for you. And then turn your attention to the next step: what leads to it?

 

Determinants of Happiness

The question of what leads to happiness presumes that we have agency over it. That’s actually the source of some debate.

Enter “happiness set-point theory,” the notion that our happiness level is determined primarily by our genes and personality traits. According to this theory, our happiness remains relatively constant throughout our lives and we inevitably return to a relatively stable “happiness set point,” regardless of circumstances. (Note also the related notion of hedonic adaptation, in which we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred.)

 

Many researchers have questioned this happiness set-point theory. Some have noted that it really speaks to a fixed range of potential happiness and wellbeing, not a single set point.

In their prominent article, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade developed the “sustainable happiness model” (SHM), which posits that we have more agency over our happiness levels. They noted that happiness is “governed by three major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”

They went on to give preliminary estimates for the “approximate percentage of the variance that each of the three factors accounts for in cross-sectional well-being, as suggested by past research”:

  • genetics account for about 50% of the population variance in happiness
  • circumstances account for about 10%
  • activities and practices account for about 40%

This “happiness pie chart,” as it was dubbed, had important implications:

“Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky

This was encouraging for those of us seeking to influence our happiness (which is, well, all of us).

But then the plot thickened. Some researchers critiqued the paper. In response, two of the original researchers, Lyubormirsky and Sheldon, revisited the “happiness pie chart” in a response via a 2019 follow-up paper.

They stood by their main findings but recognized that the 40% estimate for activities may have been an overestimate and noted some important nuances. First, the three factors mentioned (genes, circumstances, and activities) aren’t isolated factors. Clearly, they influence each other. For example, our genes can influence our tendency to engage in certain activities, like exercise, that influence our happiness. And our circumstances and activities can influence whether genes are expressed, depending on the context of our lives.

Also, the percentages given were preliminary estimates—never meant to represent precise numbers for individuals but rather how much of the differences in happiness among people generally come from different sources. Individual results and factors will vary. “Like all pie charts,” Lyubomirsky noted, “ours was a gross oversimplification.”

But let’s not lose the forest for the trees. Here’s the bottom line:

“Although the pie chart part may have outlived its usefulness, we stand behind the central premise of the SHM, and the supportive research it spawned. Happiness can be successfully pursued, but it is not ‘easy.’” -Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky in their 2019 follow-up article

It shouldn’t surprise us that there are nuances, given the complexity of happiness and all its influences. So how does this speak to how we should live?

 

Different Types of Lives

In his book, Authentic Happiness, influential psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman notes different types of lives we can aspire to:

  1. The pleasant life: the successful pursuit of positive feelings
  2. The good life: using our “signature strengths”—those character strengths (like courage, diligence, and teamwork, with each person having their own unique set) that are most essential to who we are—to obtain “abundant and authentic gratification,” which comes when we invoke our strengths and virtues, as when we achieve “flow.”
  3. The meaningful life: using our strengths to serve a larger purpose, such as raising our children, contributing to our community, or fighting for an important cause.

 

 

Most of Western society is organized around pursuing the pleasant life. But of the three, Seligman reports, pleasure is the most fleeting.

“For centuries, traditional wisdom has been that simply seeking pleasure for its own sake doesn’t really make you happy in the long run.”Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology, Florida State University

Seligman notes that to live all three types of lives—pleasant, good, and meaningful—is to lead a “full life,” which he describes as “experiencing positive emotions about the past and future, savoring positive feelings from the pleasures, deriving abundant gratification from your signature strengths, and using these strengths in the service of something larger to obtain meaning.”

Helpful stuff. But we’re still back to the question: What leads to happiness (and a full life)?

 

Actions that Boost Happiness

According to an ever-growing body of research, there are many things we can do to bring happiness to our lives—and to increase our sense of life satisfaction. Here are 20 effective ones:

  1. Regular exercise and physical activity: moving our bodies regularly, ideally with some vigor. Since our mind and body are connected, our physical activity can have powerful effects on our moods. Exercise has several spillover benefits:
    • helping us unplug from our devices
    • getting us outside more
    • helping us sleep better, which is essential for everything we do
    • releasing endorphins, which give us pleasure
    • reducing anxiety and stress
    • giving us feelings of mastery or motivation, and sometimes getting us into a state of flow
  1. Acts of kindness, caring, service, and generosity: caring for others can help us be happier and healthier, as long as we also engage in self-care and don’t overcommit, burn ourselves out, or care so much that we get lost in the problems or despair of others.
  2. Purpose and meaning: having a sense of why we’re here and what gives us a sense of deeper significance and connection with something larger than ourselves. This doesn’t have to be grand or complicated. It can begin with worthy activities: engaging in activities that feel meaningful and based on virtues like character and generosity. When we show up as a good person living purposefully—serving others, forgiving people, giving back, being grateful for what we have, and contributing to something larger than ourselves—we end up feeling happier and more fulfilled. It can be parenting or grandparenting—or volunteering, mentoring, or day-to-day acts of service. And it can entail meaningful work, community building, religious worship, or spiritual connection and growth.
  3. Relationships with others: connecting with others helps us feel love. It gives us a sense of meaning, self-worth, significance, and belonging. It also means we’re more likely to receive support when we need it most (and to provide it when others need it most). According to many researchers, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness for most people. Those who are happiest generally devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.
  4. Goals and Aspirations: having a deep commitment to lifelong goals and ambitions (like parents teaching children their values), ideally “self-concordant goals” (ones that are intrinsically interesting and congruent with our identity). This gives us things to work toward and look forward to. It’s highly motivating, especially with intrinsic aspirations, not extrinsic ones (where the motivation is to seek rewards or avoid punishments). Note: Goals should be challenging, but not too challenging (lest we get deflated for failing to achieve unrealistic goals).
  5. Authentic expression of self: being true to who we really are and avoiding the traps of wearing a mask, people pleasing, or caring too much about what others think.
  1. Anticipation: having something to look forward to (e.g., a vacation, date nights, wedding).

“We need the sweet pain of anticipation to tell us we are really alive.” -Albert Camus

  1. Gratitude: being thankful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved wellbeing, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and health. Activities such as daily gratitude journaling or writing gratitude letters to those who’ve helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects, according to the research.
  2. Experiences: enjoying encounters and activities that are engaging and fun. Tip: consider spending money more on activities (e.g., live shows or social dinners), not so much on things (clothes or gadgets).
  3. Learning and developing: learning new things and boosting our skills and capacities engages our curiosity, challenges us, helps our brains make connections across domains, and gives us a sense of confidence and accomplishment.
  4. Meditation and mindfulness practices: activities that help us experience focused attention and achieve a heightened state of awareness can contribute significantly to our happiness and wellbeing. This includes stopping and noticing what’s going on around and within us. It helps us get in touch with our feelings and experience them (which is much better than avoiding or suppressing them, which can be toxic). And it helps us focus on the present instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
  5. Person-activity fit”: engaging in activities that feel enjoyable and natural to us, and that are aligned with our personality, goals, interests, and values. It also means not doing things out of guilt or due to outside pressures or expectations.
  6. Seeing the positive and reframing the negative: look for the good in things and practice optimism when imagining our future. According to researchers, humans have a negativity bias—over-focusing on negatives and underappreciating positives. It’s important to reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (e.g., for learning and growth).
  7. Journaling: Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help us create meaning from them. (The same can be true for talking through our feelings with others.)
  8. Resilience in the face of adversity: invoking our ability to withstand challenges and bounce back from difficult events, showing poise and strength in the process. Since suffering is part of life, we must learn how to deal with it—and ideally grow and learn in the process.
  9. Savoring: fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, thereby extending them. Living in the present moment and appreciating what we have.
  10. Self-care: taking actions to preserve or improve our health and wellbeing, including during periods of stress. We neglect this at our peril, as it’s foundational to the other things.
  11. Strengths: knowing and doing the things that we’re good at, including knowledge, talents, and skills. Ideally, we design our lives and work around them (and working with others who have different strengths), as opposed to harping on our weaknesses.
  12. Intentional and effective use of time: intentional planning and deployment of our time, such that our actual use of time approaches our ideal use of time. How much of our precious time are we wasting?

“Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  1. Variety: mixing things up and breaking old patterns. Even with good things that we enjoy, we can fall into ruts and lose motivation. Our brains enjoy new stimuli. As the saying goes, “Variety is the spice of life.”

“…the pursuit of happiness requires selecting self-appropriate and eudaimonic-type activities (rather than chasing after positive emotions directly); investing sustained (rather than desultory) effort in those activities; and also, practicing them in a varied and changing manner (rather than doing them the same way each time). By such means, people can create for themselves a steady inflow of engaging, satisfying, connecting, and uplifting positive experiences, thereby increasing the likelihood that they remain in the upper range of their happiness potentials.” -Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky

Here’s the good news: there’s much we can do to boost our happiness and wellbeing. The point isn’t that we have to do all of these happiness-generating activities. Why not try some new ones? And why not design your days more intentionally?

In the end, our happiness is up to us.

 

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Postscript: Relevant Theories

  • Eudaimonic Activity Model: suggests that engaging in growth-promoting (eudaimonic) goals and intentional behaviors helps people satisfy their basic psychological needs, which results in elevated happiness and wellbeing.
  • Hedonic Adaptation Prevention (HAP) Model: describes the different ways we tend to become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and settle into our happiness baseline as if nothing had occurred. (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2012)
  • Sustainable Happiness Model (SHM): a framework for research on how to boost and maintain happiness over time via intentional behaviors and other interventions.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). He co-founded the Vail Alliance for Purposeful Living. Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: happiness, sources of happiness, sustainable happiness, happiness set point, eudaimonia, life satisfaction, wellbeing, personal growth, personal development, positive psychology, good life, purpose, meaning

Why Happiness Is the Wrong Goal

Let’s face it. We’re obsessed with happiness:

Am I happy?

I just want to be happy.

I want my kids to be happy.

Why doesn’t my job make me happy?

Why doesn’t my relationship make me happy?

We tend to view happiness as the point of life.

Sounds reasonable. But it turns out to be counterproductive.

Happiness is the wrong goal.

To understand why and how, let’s back up and examine what we’re talking about.

There are many ways to think about happiness. We often think of it as feeling contentment or pleasure. But there’s more to it.

An excellent definition comes from happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky (also a psychology professor):

Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky

Here we see that happiness can include two important elements:

  • the current experience of positive emotions like pleasure and joy
  • an overall sense of life satisfaction, with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose

In the U.S., we have a long tradition of reverence for happiness. Even the Declaration of Independence noted our unalienable right not only to life and liberty but also to “the pursuit of happiness.”

This isn’t only an American phenomenon. The World Happiness Report has been published for a decade now. The United Kingdom began measuring national wellbeing ten years ago, following the Kingdom of Bhutan in Asia, which had already been measuring not only gross domestic product but also “gross national happiness.”

 

The Larger Context of Happiness

One of the challenges with achieving happiness is that there’s a lot to it. It comes with many associated feelings and related notions, including: circumstances (positive or negative), contentment, flourishing, fulfillment, joy, life satisfaction, meaning, mood, quality of life, self-actualization, self-evaluation, success, and wellbeing. Phew!

To understand happiness, we also need to think about unpleasant feelings like sadness, disappointment, anxiety, depression, neuroticism, rumination, and more. That brings up the related issues of adversity, adaptation, and resilience. Clearly, happiness isn’t just about beaches, butterflies, and rainbows.

What’s more, how we think about happiness has changed dramatically over time. Nowadays, we seem to have lost important ideas from ancient times. Enter “eudaimonia.”

 

Eudaimonia—A Deeper Form of Happiness

Many ancient Greek philosophers focused on what they called “eudaimonia.” It’s commonly translated as “happiness” (and sometimes as “wellbeing” or “human flourishing”), but the roots of the word literally mean the condition of “good spirit.”

What they meant by eudaimonia goes well beyond our modern notion of happiness. They meant happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self in the world. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was the term for the highest human good. It included fulfillment of human nature in an excellent way. He wrote that eudaimonia entails “doing and living well.” In other words, living a good life.

Here we encounter an important difference: eudaimonia is about habits and actions, whereas the way we think about happiness today is about feelings and mental states. This is actually a long-running debate between the hedonistic tradition (seeking pleasant experiences and avoiding unpleasant ones) and the eudaimonic tradition (living life in a full and deeply satisfying way, in accordance with virtue and excellence).

To the ancients in the eudaimonic tradition, a good life is the quest of a lifetime. It’s something you work toward every day, through your actions, mindsets, and relationships. Today, must of that seems lost.

 

Stoicism and Happiness

In Stoic philosophy, achieving eudaimonia requires the practice of virtue (rightful action in the world).

The idea is that we can only flourish by living an ethical life, practicing certain virtues (like courage, wisdom, justice, and moderation), and living in accordance with nature. Through right thinking and virtuous action, we can become emotionally resilient to negative events and misfortune.

We can develop self-control and mental strength to overcome harmful emotions that result from errors of judgment. This can help us be free from unproductive emotions like anger and envy.

 

Buddhism and Happiness

Buddhism focuses on liberation from suffering, including overcoming craving and helping us accept life’s irrefutable truths. It encourages compassion, loving kindness, and a desire for the welfare of all beings.

Buddhist practice includes cultivation of attention and fostering a state of awareness, nonstriving, and detachment (or nonattachment).

A higher aspiration is nirvana, a state of everlasting peace through the release of worldly suffering.

Clearly, there are many paths and practices, old and new, related to happiness.

 

Happiness amidst Difficult Circumstances

While some view happiness as a pleasant state free from suffering, pain, or negative circumstances, a closer look reveals that happiness can sometimes depend on such things.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche urged us to recognize the value of difficulties in life, including suffering and unhappiness, since things of great worth can sometimes only be earned through difficulty and struggle.

A 2012 study by Jonathan Adler and Hal Hershfield found that mixed emotional experience (that is, concurrent positive and negative emotional experience, like happiness and sadness) is associated with and precedes improvements in psychological wellbeing.

The issue here is whether to express or suppress negative emotions (like sadness or grief) when things are difficult. One model (called a “co-activation model”) recommends “taking the good with the bad”: “when experiencing the loss of a loved one, allowing positive memories to be experienced alongside sadness could potentially lead to a healthier bereavement process.”

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” -Kahlil Gibran

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about the “adversity hypothesis,” which holds that people need adversity and setbacks to reach the heights of personal development, strength, and fulfillment.

Most people have heard about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but not as many know about “post-traumatic growth”: positive psychological change after struggling with stressful and challenging circumstances. This can occur when we cope well with adversity and turn it into something valuable (such as life lessons, wisdom, or serenity).

Adversity can strengthen relationships by invoking vulnerability and opening our hearts to each other. And it can lead to feelings of love, connection, and gratitude for the help and caring provided. Haidt notes that it can also reorder our priorities (away from the future and toward the present, and away from ourselves and toward others).

It turns out that happiness isn’t about having positive experiences and circumstances and avoiding negative ones (though it’s hard to fault people for striving for that).

Are we really going to cede our happiness to the fickle Fates and precarious fortune, according to whether things happen to be going well in our life?

Some of the things that bring us deeper happiness, wellbeing, and an overall sense of life satisfaction include adversity, pain, and suffering, as long as they include avenues of deeper meaning or connection.

 

The Wrong Goal, The Right Goal

Happiness is the wrong goal. And so is success. And wealth. Beauty. Fame. Power. Prestige. Comfort. Pleasure.

These aren’t bad. They’re just destined to disappoint. They won’t make us happy.

A better goal, I think, is to live a good life. A life of vitality, connection, and contribution, as Jonathan Fields advises in his book, How to Live a Good Life.

A life of purpose, close relationships, and serving others. A life in which we learn, grow, and develop integrity, wisdom, and resilience.

A life of joy and savoring. A life of caring and action in the world to make things better, with others.

What does a good life mean for you?

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Postscript: Quotations on Happiness

  • “You must try to generate happiness within yourself. If you aren’t happy in one place, chances are you won’t be happy anyplace.” -Ernie Banks
  • “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, not because they never found it, but because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.” -William Feather
  • “Happiness is the indication that man has found the answer to the problem of human existence: the productive realization of his potentialities and thus, simultaneously, being one with the world and preserving the integrity of his self.” -Erich Fromm
  • “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” -Helen Keller
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” -John Milton (from Paradise Lost)
  • “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it under his feet.” -James Oppenheim
  • “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” -Lucius Annaeus Seneca
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” -Dennis Waitley

 

Definitions of Key Terms

  • Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky
  • Subjective wellbeing: how we experience and evaluate the quality of our lives, including frequent positive affect (the extent to which we experience positive moods), infrequent negative affect, and cognitive evaluations such as life satisfaction. Sometimes distinctions are made between different types (e.g., mental, physical, economic, and emotional wellbeing).
  • Life satisfaction: how we feel about our lives overall and our future. It’s a measure of wellbeing assessed in terms of mood, satisfaction (with relationships and achieved goals), and our perceived ability to cope with the challenges of daily life. Here, researchers note the difference between “affective happiness” (felt in our momentary emotions) and “evaluative happiness” (our sense of our entire life).

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, facilitator, and speaker on life design and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for Gregg’s newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: happiness, fulfillment, life satisfaction, subjective wellbeing, eudaimonia, Stoicism, Buddhism, personal growth, personal development, positive psychology

The Great Re-Evaluation

The pandemic has called the question about our work—about how it fits into what we want in our lives. It’s made millions of us stop, look around, and wonder.

Enter the Great Resignation.”

In September, 4.4 million Americans (about 2.9% of the national workforce) left their jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In August, it was 4.3 million. About 4 million in July. (In September 2020, the number was about 3.3 million.) According to research from Visier, the annualized resignation rate of about 25 percent.

According to a Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 workers around the world, 41 percent of workers were considering quitting their jobs or changing their profession this year.

“When we come into contact with life-threatening events, we tend to reflect on death and consider whether we are happy with our lives or whether we would like to make changes to them. The pandemic forced (people) to take stock of their lives and gave them the opportunity to reimagine it.”Anthony Klotz, the professor at Texas A&M University who coined the phrase “Great Resignation”

 

Why Are People Resigning?

The Great Resignation isn’t a monolith. The vastness of this phenomenon obscures the complex and intensely personal set of factors driving it among individuals.

There are often several reasons people leave a job—a complex interplay of factors. Some common reasons:

  • Dissatisfaction with manager
  • Dissatisfaction with pay
  • Insufficient recognition (according to the Gallup Organization, 65 percent of people don’t feel appreciated at work)
  • Lack of respect or dignity at work
  • Poor working conditions
  • Lack of social connection with colleagues
  • Feeling like a small cog in a large machine
  • Lack of meaning at work
  • Disconnect with personal values
  • Burnout

During this pandemic, many resignations have been driven by fear of catching Covid-19 or by frustration with organizations not taking worker safety seriously enough—and by staffing shortages that have placed extra burdens on workers over a long and stressful period.

For some, the pandemic has stoked resentment about lack of care and support, about poor treatment, and about dangerous working conditions.

For others, it has reignited curiosity about other options or motivation for a dream job.

 

Varying Resignation Rates

Within the larger context of the Great Resignation writ large, resignations have varied greatly by industry and sector. In August 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 65 percent of the total resignations came from food and hospitality. Indeed, 6.8% of workers in the food service sector quit in just that month—the highest of any sector. (Service industries tend to have higher resignation rates.)

The health care sector has also seen high resignations rates (not surprising due to the strain these workers have been under for so long during the pandemic). Resignations also increased in the tech sector but decreased in the manufacturing and finance sectors.

According to a global analysis of more than nine million employee records from more than 4,000 companies:

  • “Resignation rates are highest among mid-career employees” (between age 30 and 45), “with an average increase of more than 20 percent between 2020 and 2021.”
  • Resignations decreased for workers aged 20 to 25 and for workers in the 60 to 70 age group

 

Different Situations

We should keep in mind the differences between people who were forced to quit due to the need to take care of children while schools were closed, or due to terrible or dangerous working conditions, versus those who chose to quit so they could pursue something better, such as higher pay, an ability to keep working remotely, a dream job, a new venture, an early retirement, or a career break. According to a July survey by Digital.com, 32 percent of working Americans who quit their jobs started a new venture.

The situation is in flux. This history is still being written. For some, the Great Resignation is a leap of faith toward something better (or the hope of it). For others, it’s a flight from an untenable situation.

Either way, the question has been called. How will we respond? How will we navigate our way through this time of upheaval and possibility?

 

A Great Re-Evaluation

In the end, it may be more than a Great Resignation. It’s also a Great Re-Evaluation for many of us.

Of course, such a re-evaluation doesn’t have to lead to quitting your job. It can mean bringing more of you to your current work (and family, friendships, and community engagements)—something we should have been doing all along.

It seems that reverting to old habits and patterns would be a cop-out at a time so rife with change and possibility. What kind of life and work do we want to create? And what’s stopping us from doing so?

 

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, the great resignation, the great re-evaluation

Breaking the “Trance of Unworthiness”

Many of us are walking around in a “trance of unworthiness.” It’s a gnawing feeling that we’re deeply flawed. It tells us we’re not worthy of love, happiness, success, or approval. And it follows us around like a shadow.

When I first encountered this provocative term from psychologist and author Tara Brach, it felt like a revelation to me, because I’ve seen it in so many of my colleagues, clients, and students—and because I’ve felt it at times too. Brach describes it as “fear or shame—a feeling of being flawed, unacceptable, not enough. Who I am is not okay.”

“Who I am is not okay.”

Brach tells the story of a dying mother sharing a searing secret with her daughter:

“You know, all my life I thought something was wrong with me. What a waste.” -a dying mother, told to her daughter (from Radical Acceptance)

 

The Sources of Low Self-Worth

Feelings of low self-worth (unworthiness) are surprisingly common—and quite destructive. Where do they come from?

According to the research, the sources of low self-worth include the following:

  • Disapproving or overly critical parents or other authority figures (like teachers or coaches), often accompanied by intense pressure for achievement
  • Uninvolved, distant, or preoccupied parents or other caregivers
  • Frequent comparisons to siblings during childhood, leading to feelings of inferiority
  • Excessive praise by parents for performance or abilities (vs. effort and process)
  • Too much unhealthy conflict in the home (note: many children absorb those negative emotions and attribute the conflicts to their own faults or failures)
  • Childhood experiences with taunting, bullying, or ostracism
  • Overprotective parents, leaving children unprepared for challenges
  • School setbacks or failures, leading children to feel flawed or stupid
  • Societal expectations and pressures, including unrealistic portrayals of life and beauty from social media
  • Trauma and abuse

“Why do we hold on so tightly to our belief in our own deficiency? Why are we so loyal to our suffering, so addicted to our self-judgment?” -Tara Brach

Clearly, there are many triggers of the trance. Next, we need to know the consequences of the trance of unworthiness. How does it affect our lives, and what can we do about it?

 

The Consequences of Low Self-Worth

The effects of low self-worth can range from mild to devastating, potentially including:

  • Unhappiness
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional distress
  • Lowered resilience in the face of adversity
  • Substance abuse
  • Separation from others—a lack of deep connection with people you care about
  • Lower salaries, in part due to a lower inclination to negotiate for better compensation
  • Stifling your potential for growth
  • Preventing you from pursuing new opportunities, including lower rates of entrepreneurship
  • Suicide

 

The Signs of the Unworthiness Trance

How can we know if we’re susceptible to the trance of unworthiness? Here are some common signs:

  • Recurring feeling that something’s wrong with you, including what Brach calls “the habit of feeling insufficient”
  • Overly active inner critic and negative self talk
  • Perfectionism
  • Numbing behaviors, including addictions (to food, work, alcohol, drugs, etc.)
  • Perpetual busyness, constant multitasking, and frenzied action
  • Preoccupation with achievement, obsession with success, or status addiction
  • Avoidance of vulnerability and self-disclosure
  • Chronic sense of “shame” (“the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging,” as defined by Brene Brown)
  • A “divided life” (“a life in which our words and actions conceal or even contradict truths we hold dear inwardly,” as described by author and educator Parker Palmer from the Center for Courage and Renewal)
  • Restless and perpetual pursuit of self-improvement, fueled by angst of feeling not good enough
  • Badgering yourself for mistakes you’ve made
  • Excessive fault-finding in others, to distract from your own pain or flaws
  • Excessive sensitivity to criticism, even when it’s constructive
  • Difficulty accepting positive feedback
  • Playing it safe to avoid risk or failure
  • Reluctance to ask for what you want or need, and to accept help
  • People-pleasing
  • Self-hatred

When we’re under this trance, we walk around wondering the following:

What’s wrong with me?

This leads to a related concept: “impostor syndrome.”

 

Impostor Syndrome

 

In 1978, researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes identified a phenomenon called “impostor syndrome” (also called “perceived fraudulence”). It “involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite one’s education, experience, and accomplishments.”

Impostor syndrome is a belief that you’re undeserving of your achievements or the esteem you may have. You feel like a fraud who’s about to be revealed. You feel like a phony—and that you don’t belong where you are.

Impostor syndrome is common. Researchers estimate that about 70 percent of adults may experience it at least once during their lives, and they note that it’s more common among women—and specifically women of color—but also relevant to men.

According to Dr. Valerie Young, a researcher who studies impostor syndrome, there are five types of impostors:

  1. The perfectionist: feeling a need to be (or appear) perfect
  2. The natural genius: feeling embarrassed if something doesn’t come easily to you, arising from a belief that competent people can handle anything easily
  3. The rugged individualist or soloist: feeling that you should be able to handle everything on your own and that, if you can’t, it’s a sign of a deep flaw
  4. The expert: feeling like a failure when you don’t know the answer or how to do something
  5. The superhero: feeling that you need to be able to succeed across all domains in your life and work

These feelings are clearly self-defeating. We need to get better at crafting mental narratives that are positive and productive, as opposed to the negative and destructive scripts that have hijacked our brains. Enter the work of Shirzad Chamine on what he calls positive intelligence.”

 

“Positive Intelligence”

 

Chamine notes how we’re sabotaging ourselves with our thoughts.

“Most people today live in relatively constant distress and anxiety. This is related to a low-grade but perpetual fight-or-flight response… in reaction to the challenges of life, both personal and professional.” -Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

Chamine identified nine “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that limit our ability to function effectively. The “master saboteur,” as he calls it, is the “Judge”: finding fault with self, others, or circumstances. The Judge sabotages us all, he says.

Other relevant saboteurs include the “Pleaser” (flattering, rescuing, or pleasing others to gain acceptance) and the “Hyper-achiever” (depending on achievement for self-acceptance).

 

What To Do About It

Given how common and destructive these phenomena (including the trance of unworthiness, impostor syndrome, and our mental saboteurs) are, what can we do to flip the script and fill our heads with more forgiving and productive narratives?

Much, it turns out. Here are nine techniques for changing our mental narrative:

  1. The “audacity of authenticity” (described by Brown as “letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are” and “cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable”).
  2. Avoiding the comparison trap, our destructive tendency to compare ourselves to others and judge our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics
  3. Radical acceptance” (described by Brach as “clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion”). Brach notes that it’s “the gateway to healing wounds and spiritual transformation. When we can meet our experience with Radical Acceptance, we discover the wholeness, wisdom, and love that are our deepest nature.”
  4. Viewing imperfections as gifts, because they connect us more deeply, as Brene Brown notes. People don’t feel deep connections with robots and superheroes. Rather, they form bonds with people when they discover shared humanity and risk vulnerability together.
  5. Challenging our self-doubts and examining the sources of our feelings of unworthiness, recognizing that they’re common and often induced by childhood or other life experiences. We’re not alone in having such thoughts but we must learn to interrogate them.
  6. Forgiving ourselves and healing our wounds. (“We have to face the pain we have been running from. In fact, we need to learn to rest in it and let its searing power transform us.” -Charlotte Joko Beck)
  7. Cultivating contentment, gratitude, and joy. Having a gratitude practice can increase our sense of wellbeing. We can savor what we have, enjoy the little things in life (which often turn out to be the big things, as the saying goes), and find pockets of joy both in the everyday and not just the sublime.
  8. Meditation and mindfulness, including the practice of observing and labeling negative self-judgments when they arise—and then letting them go.
  9. Giving ourselves grace, acknowledging that nobody’s perfect and that the point of life is not to try to appear perfect or successful to others. Sometimes it’s good enough to know that we’re still here and willing to try another day.

The trance of unworthiness is insidious. Its presence in our lives can go unnoticed for years, or even decades, because it operates subconsciously. Its negative effects, while gradual, can accumulate mightily over time, compounding into a mental black hole. It’s time to break the trance.

 

Reflection Questions

  • To what extent have you and your loved ones fallen into the trance of unworthiness?
  • What do you think are the root causes?
  • Which of the techniques above will you try (or have you tried)?
  • Are you doing enough to stop self-sabotaging and start a more productive mental script?

 

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 Postscript: Quotations

  • “Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” -Louise L. Hay
  • “Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-brake on.” -Maxwell Maltz
  • “Most bad behavior comes from insecurity.” -Debra Winger
  • “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.” -Parker Palmer
  • “Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” -Lucille Ball
  • “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” -William Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure”
  • “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” -Suzy Kassem
  • “You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” -Amy Bloom
  • “The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” -Mark Twain
  • “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” -Carl Jung
  • “All you need is already within you, only you must approach your self with reverence and love. Self-condemnation and self-distrust are grievous errors.” -Nisargadatta Maharaj
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” -Madeleine L’Engle
  • “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

 

Recommended Books and Videos

 

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, fear, self-doubt, vulnerability, shame, negative self-talk, inner critic, trance of unworthiness, impostor syndrome, positive intelligence, radical acceptance, wholeheartedness, Tara Brach, Brene Brown, Shirzad Chamine

Getting Good at Overcoming Fear

Fear. A terrible feeling. Something to avoid.

Right?

Not so fast.

Fear can actually be turned into a powerful asset and opportunity, if understood and addressed properly.

First, what is it? Fear is a feeling of distress or dread caused by a sense of impending danger or pain. It’s a powerful, primitive emotion. A warning that we need to pay attention.

We need fear to survive, and it has served us well through the ages. But it can also be one of the biggest obstacles in our lives.

We can go through our whole lives trying to avoid the things we’re afraid of, dramatically altering our experience of life.

In that sense, fear is like a force field keeping us in our comfort zone.

How strong is its hold over us?

What lies beyond our fears?

How do we find out?

 

What Are We Afraid Of?

First, let’s understand what we’re afraid of.

Of course, some people have a phobia (an extreme or irrational fear or aversion of something), such as fear of the dark, heights, flying, spiders, and snakes.

But here, we’re focused on the everyday fears in our lives, work, and social settings that hold us back. It turns out, we have many such fears, including a fear of:

  • abandonment or loneliness
  • change
  • commitment
  • conflict
  • losing control
  • death
  • embarrassment (including fear of looking bad, and of public speaking)
  • failing
  • getting hurt
  • inadequacy, or being judged as not being good enough, or being blamed
  • missing out (FOMO)
  • making mistakes
  • pain
  • regret
  • rejection
  • losing status
  • trusting others (and being taken advantage of)
  • uncertainty and unknowns

Entrepreneur and author Ruth Soukup notes that our fears often come not only with negative traits but also positive ones. For example, if we’re afraid of making mistakes, it can lead to procrastination and perfectionism but also high-quality work that’s well organized and error-free. If we fear being judged, it can lead to people-pleasing and failing to set boundaries but also to being a team player who’s thoughtful and fun to be around.

The story is complex. Fear has a ghastly reputation, but it turns out that it isn’t all bad. Far from it. To accept that key insight, first we need to understand what it is, how it works, and why it exists.

 

Fear Is a Physiological Phenomenon

Fear isn’t something only for cowards. It’s part of being human. Fear is universal. We all experience it.

Fear is hardwired into our neurobiology, starting in the part of our brain called the amygdala. The feeling of fear is a state of high arousal designed to protect us from harm. It’s a survival response that has evolved over the ages.

When we’re afraid, we become hyper-alert. Our nervous system sets a cascading fear response into motion: our breathing accelerates, and our heart rate and blood pressure rise. Also, our body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline—sometimes in a flood. Our pupils dilate. Blood flows into our limbs so that we can respond aggressively to a threat by fighting or fleeing.

With all these physical and chemical reactions, we experience impairment of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that handles reasoning, judgment, sensation, perception, memory, creative association, and voluntary physical movement. As a result, we don’t think as clearly, and it’s harder to make good decisions. We become preoccupied with the threat.

If left unchecked, fear can become debilitating. It can prevent us from functioning at our best—or even at all.

 

Reframing Fear

Clearly, it’s important for us to learn how to manage fear to avoid situations where it debilitates us. This leads us to two key insights:

1. Fear is often a paper tiger. The fear of what may happen is often worse than the reality of what actually happens, or what may. It’s a bit like a movie playing in our head—coming from a man in the projection room at the back of a theater.

A fierce tiger appears on our mental screen. The animal seems powerful, with menacing fangs and a terrible roar. Our skin crawls. The hair on our arms stands up. But the tiger, in most cases, is only a scared cat with its own fears.

We experience a raging physiological thunderstorm of fear as if it’s the truth and based in reality. In fact, it’s only an anticipatory reaction to a perceived threat designed to get us ready for combat or avoidance. In the swirl of the storm, we have a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and what’s only possible. Fear is the step in between.

Often the alarm system is overly vigilant and too quick to escalate the alert levels. It gets carried away. We become accustomed to fleeing at the first alert. The synapses in our brain lay an escape path of backward movement: Retreat. Withdrawal. Over time, this becomes habitual and unconscious. We just do it. We avoid. Or we run. So we never move forward in the areas holding us back.

2. Fear signals an opportunity for breakthroughs when we’re able to see it clearly. It’s a protective layer serving as a boundary between stasis and transcendence. Most people approach the layer and then turn and run.

But learning how to sit with it is the master maneuver. We must learn to recognize that the tiger is a paper one. Because then we can go forward instead of turning back. And that’s where the good stuff is: the challenge, the learning, the development.

 

How to Manage Our Fears

So how to do this? How to proceed anyway despite this onslaught of biochemical alerts? Here are 12 steps to help you get good at overcoming fear:

  1. Spend time with your fears. Study them. Write about them. Get comfortable with them.
  2. Get gradual exposures to your fears. (That’s what Navy SEALs and NASA astronauts do.)
  3. Prepare for high-pressure events that tend to trigger your fear alert system. By doing so, you will lower the chance of running into problems and feeling out of control. Practice and role-play in challenging situations. Place yourself in settings that challenge you and see how you can survive, learn, and grow. It helps to have a growth mindset.
  4. Visualize success. Paint a mental picture of overcoming obstacles and achieving your objectives.
  5. Gather information to reduce the fear of the unknown. Fear often shrinks or disappears in the face of facts and scrutiny.
  6. Name the fear and analyze it rationally, including whether there’s a deeper fear behind the immediate fear. (For example, a fear of making a mistake in a presentation can be amplified by an underlying fear of being rejected by the group, or not being valued by others.) Understand it. Embrace it. Use it as fuel for determined action.
  7. Recall that the fear is usually much worse than the things we’re actually afraid of. Get in the habit of comparing actual outcomes to the worst-case scenarios your amygdala is freaking out about. Note that your amygdala only comprises about 0.3% of your brain’s volume. Don’t let the 0.3% wag the 99.7%.
  8. Try not to panic. The goal is not to be fearless, as that’s virtually impossible biologically, but rather to learn how to manage your fear and still function effectively. Deep breathing can help calm your mind and body.
  9. Have a deeper why—a purpose worth wrestling your fear for. (For example, you may face a great challenge at work with a project or initiative that will test your self-worth and resilience but you wisely attach it to your role as a provider in your family and how you can be a role model for your children.)
  10. Gain perspective and look at the fear in the larger context. (For example, although it may hurt your pride and sense of social standing if you fail on a project, you know that you’ve built up a lot of credibility over the years through your competence and diligence—and that there will likely be many more opportunities to try again in the future.)
  11. Face the fear and move through it (not away from it). Give yourself experience with confronting and overcoming your fears. This will help build your fear resilience muscles. You’ll start to become a brave person—through your decisions, habits, intellect, and force of will.
  12. Ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone. We all need help sometimes! (By the way, showing vulnerability by asking for help builds connection.)

In the end, recall that fear is part of being human. It has served us well over the ages, but it also holds us back. If we can learn to “punch fear in the face,” as Jon Acuff put it, we can do so much more of what’s important in life. Be bolder. And get good at overcoming your fears. Your future self will thank you for it.

Reflection Questions

  • Which fears are holding you back?
  • How long have they kept you fenced in?
  • What opportunities lie on the other side of those fears?
  • What will you do about it?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, fear, courage, self-doubt, vulnerability

Burnout and the Great Resignation

Burnout has been a big problem for millions of people for a long time now. And it’s getting worse. Burnout is also affecting more young people.

And the pandemic, with all the extra stressors and pressures it’s brought to so many, is aggravating the burnout problem. These are major ingredients of the “great resignation.”

What is burnout? According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

When we’re burned out, we feel run-down and exhausted or empty. It’s related to overwork (when we work beyond our capacity) and workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we struggle to switch it off.

 

The Covid Context

The pandemic has added fuel to this fire. Here’s some recent data:

  • 52% of survey respondents reported experiencing burnout in 2021, up from 43% in Indeed’s pre-Covid survey, and 67% say burnout has worsened during the pandemic.
  • According to a 2021 Deloitte survey, 77% of respondents say that’ve experienced burnout at their current job, with more than half noting more than one occurrence.
  • 91% say the quality of their work has been negatively impacted by having an unmanageable amount of stress or frustration.
  • 83% say job burnout can negatively affect their personal relationships.
  • Nearly 70% of professionals feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout.

On a related note, the average share of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder, has increased dramatically, from 11% in January-June 2019 (before the pandemic) to 41% in January 2021 (during the pandemic), according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

 

Effects of Burnout

We know that job burnout can have major negative effects on our health and lives, including:

  • Excessive stress
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Weakened immune system

(Source: Mayo Clinic.)

 

Symptoms of Burnout

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are many symptoms of job burnout, including:

  • Becoming critical or cynical at work
  • Feeling low motivation to go to work and start working
  • Becoming impatient or irritable with others
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Feeling disillusioned about the work
  • Lacking satisfaction from achievements
  • Using food, alcohol, or other substances to self-medicate or tamp down feelings
  • Experiencing health issues, including poor sleep, headaches, stomach problems, and more

 

Causes of Burnout

According to researchers, there are many causes of job burnout, including:

  • A sense of a lack of control, including an inability to influence relevant decisions
  • Unclear or unrealistic job expectations, including job scope creep
  • Dysfunctional work dynamics, such as micromanagers or office bullies
  • Lack of social support, including isolation at work or home
  • Work demands that impede on important family or social commitments outside of work
  • Lack of communication, feedback, and support at work
  • Frequent time pressures, raising stress levels
  • Limited upward mobility
  • The removal of boundaries between work and home

Note that burnout doesn’t come automatically from long hours. Whether it sets in can depend on many factors, including context, personality, mindset, and worker actions.

 

The Great Resignation

So where does all this leave us, amidst a pandemic with a burnout epidemic? According to a Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 workers around the world, 41% of workers were considering quitting or changing professions this year. In the U.S., more than four million people quit their jobs in April 2021, the biggest increase on record according to the Department of Labor.

Nearly half of millennials have left a job due to burnout, compared to 42% for all respondents, according to Deloitte.

The reasons for leaving a job are often multifaceted. Common reasons include not only burnout but also:

  • Substandard pay
  • Lack of meaning at work
  • Work that doesn’t fit with, or even violates, our values
  • Lack of dignity or respect at work
  • Feeling like a cog in a large machine
  • Lack of human connection
  • Lack of good management and proper recognition
  • Poor working conditions

Writ large, the pandemic has caused a shift in priorities in life for many, given reminders about the importance of health and relationships. In some cases, it’s provided motivation to pursue a dream job or more meaningful work. Or it’s stoked resentment about being treated poorly or not getting adequate support during the pandemic. The “great resignation” is a tectonic shift that should wake us all up to the need to think and act anew when it comes to the way we work.

 

What to Do About It

We’re all responsible for our own condition—including the need to act when a situation is bad or toxic. Though the context is tough for many of us, there’s still much we can do not only to reduce or eliminate burnout but also to improve our working and living conditions:

  • Boundaries. Set boundaries and get better at saying “no.” If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.
  • Breaks. Take regular breaks (e.g., Pomodoro technique) to improve your physical and emotional state, gaining a fresh perspective in the process.
  • Exercise. Move your body more to build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in your body that affect your mood, and it helps you sleep well.
  • Gratitude. Be grateful for what you have. That can have powerful effects on your quality of life, including improved wellbeing, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health.
  • Healthy Support Systems. Take time and care to develop relationships based on trust, diversity, reciprocity, commitment, openness, and vulnerability. Build healthy support systems that act like roots that ground us in life. (Source: LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives)
  • Hobbies. Find something you enjoy (e.g., gardening, hiking, photography) and build it into your daily or weekly routine.
  • Job Crafting. Craft your work intentionally. Take actions to shape or redesign what you do at work, especially changing your mindset toward your work to make it more satisfying and meaningful, but also changing tasks and relationships when possible.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health, as well as performance.
  • Nature. Fresh air and sunlight are essential. Given all our screen time, we need to be sure we’re getting outside enough with walks, hikes, runs, bikes, or trips to the park.
  • Nutrition. Our bodies need good fuel if they are to remain resilient and energized.
  • Reframing. Reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (for learning and growth).
  • Sanctuary. Find places or practices of peace (e.g., nature, prayer), allowing you to get beyond your ego and connect with something larger than yourself.
  • Savoring. Fully feel and enjoy positive experiences, magnifying and extending them in the process.
  • Self-Reflection. Engage in self-reflection and seek to identify the root causes of your burnout. Look especially for what may drive a sense of resentment (such as work causing too much missed family time during the precious formative years of children).
  • Sleep. Sleep turns out to be one of the most essential practices for physical and mental health. Poor sleep has tremendous deleterious effects on a wide range of factors: addictive behaviors, anxiety, appetite, attention, concentration, creativity, decision-making, depression, ethical behavior, impulsiveness, irritability, memory, motivation, relationships. Don’t forget about naps.
  • Writing / Journaling.Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. (The same can be true for talking through feelings with others.)
  • Yoga. Yoga can increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, center thoughts, and relax and calm the mind.

In summary, lead yourself and intentionally craft your life and work, taking full responsibility for your life and refusing to adopt a victim mindset.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you at risk of burning out?
  • What are the root causes?
  • What will you do about it?
  • Which of the above practices work best for you?

 

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Postscript: Quotations about Burnout and Renewal

  • “The truth is that stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances.” -Andrew Bernstein
  • Burnout is “civilization’s disease…. It is not only an individual disorder that affects some who are ill-suited to the system, or too committed, or who don’t know how to put limits to their professional lives. It is also a disorder that, like a mirror, reflects some excessive values of our society.” -Pascal Cabot, Belgian philosopher
  • “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” -Bill Clinton
  • “In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” -John W. Gardner
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Creating the culture of burnout is opposite to creating a culture of sustainable creativity.” -Arianna Huffington
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
  • “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “Burnout sets in when two conditions prevail: Certainties start to characterize the workday, and demands of the job make workers lose a sense of control.” -Ellen Langer
  • “A rested Andrew can do more in four hours than a tired Andrew can do in eight. It’s not only diminishing returns; [not being rested] is like a scorpion’s tail—it can undo things. That’s true of everyone’s productivity and particularly in an intellectual role like that of a CEO. A lot of boards don’t get that. People need to be fresh.” -Andrew Mackenzie, CEO, BHP
  • “Burnout is about resentment. [Preventing it is] about knowing yourself well enough to know what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful.” -Marissa Mayer, tech executive
  • “Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral, causing our brains to slow down and compromising our emotional intelligence.” -Annie McKee
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” -Parker Palmer
  • “No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.” -Tony Schwartz
  • “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” -Henry David Thoreau

 

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches,  and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives  (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, burnout, job burnout, renewal, stress, resilience, wellbeing, happiness, fulfillment, work design, job crafting, great resignation

Beware the Disease of More

More isn’t always better.

Let that sink in.

More ≠ better.

Yet our brains fool us into thinking that it is. It’s an unconscious assumption, deep in our brains, that’s nearly impossible to shake.

It’s the idea that if we get more of the things we think we want, we’ll be happier.

But it’s a lie.

More what? More of pretty much everything: Money. Status. Skills. Achievements. Victories. Conquests. Beauty. Followers. Honors. Devices. Shoes. Goals. Projects. More whatever. You name it.

We’re seduced by the possibility of the next thing. Seduced by the chase.

Here’s the thing: We accumulate them as we go, and then what?

We want more.

It’s like a black hole pulling ever-more things into its vortex. The ambition is never-ending. It can’t be sated—at least not the way we’re trying to sate it.

Yes, we get a temporary hit when we get something we want. The dopamine rush is real. But it’s fleeting. It’s never enough.

 

What’s Really Happening?

What’s going on here? How is it possible to want something, get it, and then not be happy?

One key driver is “hedonic adaptation”: we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred.

What causes hedonic adaptation? According to researchers, it’s driven by a couple of things:

  • Social comparison (if our neighbors get a nicer car, we feel inferior and feel a pang of envy and desire)
  • Rising aspirations (if we get a big house, it’s not long before we want a bigger house)*

These dynamics lead to a “hedonic treadmill” in which, like a hamster, we run faster and faster to acquire more things but get nowhere in terms of increasing our happiness. It’s an absurd situation when viewed from a distance.

Wait, there’s more. What often happens is a clever redirect: our desire for more is a distraction, a way of avoiding emotional emptiness or relational distance or pain. Why sit and feel bad about these core foundations of true happiness when we can busy ourselves with yet another chase?

Also, we tend to focus on what’s missing, instead of appreciating what we have. Our evolutionary biology has caused us to focus much more on the negative than the positive. It’s called “negativity bias.”

Our consumer culture, which is excessively material and comparative, also drives our itch for more. It’s about acquiring and consuming things. It may generate corporate and advertising profits, but it doesn’t fill us up.

In this potent environment, we’re inundated with countless messages from others (e.g., family, friends, influencers, social media, ads) about what will make us happy.

The hard truth: there’s a big difference between what we think will make us happy and what actually makes us happy.

We tend to believe that we must pursue and find happiness, as if it’s “out there.” The logic is that happiness lies in changing our circumstances: “I’ll be happy when…” (…when I’m successful, when I get that promotion, etc.).

 

The Problem

The problem with this way of thinking and living is that it doesn’t work.

Getting more doesn’t fix the underlying problems. The pursuit of more, more, more—while it keeps us occupied and driven, like a rat sniffing cheese—will leave us less happy and fulfilled.

It can make us transactional, mercenary, and cynical. Our hearts harden. We feel accumulation anxiety, and we fill our days with need and busyness instead of love and grace.

“No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.”Tony Schwartz, from The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working 

That’s not to say that our pursuit of more is always bad. Sometimes we do need more. Sometimes getting more is good for us. Far too many people on this planet and in this country live in poverty, or with economic uncertainty. They live in food deserts, or actual deserts. They lack access to clean water or basic health care, or stable employment or income-generating opportunities. Or they face violence or repression. In the face of such hardships, more security is a godsend.

The problem comes when people are financially secure and comfortable, but caught in a hollow cycle of need, greed, and speed.

 

Related Traps

This “disease of more” doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It operates alongside a number of related traps, including:

  • Climbing mode: focusing so much on climbing the ladder of success, and on achievement and advancement, that we never take time for discovering who we are and what brings us joy and fulfillment
  • Ego: being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves
  • Emptiness: feeling empty about what we’re doing
  • Outer-driven: being driven by the expectations of others
  • Prestige: hunger for status, prestige, or approval
  • The comparison game: constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics
  • False metrics of success: measuring success in cold and calculating ways, such as income, net worth, position, or number of followers

 

Determinants of Happiness

Happiness is a slippery fish. It’s hard to pin down, but researchers believe there are a few major determinants of happiness.

First, we have a genetic set point of happiness. Researchers estimate that it comprises about 50% of our overall happiness.

Second, they estimate that about 40% of our happiness comes from intentional activity and our mindset.

Finally, they estimate that only about 10% of our happiness comes from our circumstances.

“Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.”Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness researcher, author, and professor

 

What to Do

The mental tricks are deceptive, and the cultural conditioning powerful. What to do about it?

Here are several recommended practices based on research and experience:

First, stop the madness. Resolve to abandon the futile and endless pursuit of more, more, more. We can want happiness (who doesn’t?), but our obsessive chasing of it can backfire because it can lead to an epic ego trip—a narcissistic pursuit that leaves us wanting. Instead, connect with and contribute to others. Get over yourself.

Second, change the default viewpoint from comparison to contribution. Stop falling into the comparison trap and start asking how you can add value to those around you or to causes you care about.

Third, clarify your purpose and values—and live by them as best you can. Not perfectly, as that lies beyond our reach, but in a disciplined pursuit. This will help ensure that you don’t get waylaid, reaching the top of an ambition ladder only to find that it leaves you hollow or has taken you nowhere good, or at too great a cost (and quickly scouting for a new ladder).

Fourth, use your sword and shield. Once you know your purpose and values, use your metaphoric sword (your courage and will) to fight for them. And use your shield to defend against the bombardment of other people’s priorities and societal notions of success that don’t resonate with you besides the tingling of your “lizard brain.”

Fifth, live by your own lights and develop genuine self-worth, separate from your title, role, and possessions. Are you at risk of falling apart if you lose your current role?

Sixth, start simplifying your life by sloughing off the extraneous things that take up time, money, or space (e.g., clothes you never wear, the trinkets in your closet or garage that go untouched for years). Flip the equation from “more is better” to “less is more,” because less is light and free. “Less” has margin. “Less” frees you up to focus on what matters. See the “minimalism and “essentialism movements for great insights about how this works and how to start.

Finally, bring back a sense of gratitude for all you have, instead of resenting all the things you don’t have, or all you want or need. Having a gratitude practice can be powerful and effective in increasing our sense of wellbeing.

Note: You can’t do any of this without the presence of mind to lead yourself—to craft your life and work intentionally.

“Accomplishment. Money. Fame. Respect. Piles and piles of them will never make a person feel content.

If you believe there is ever some point where you will feel like you’ve ‘made it,’ when you’ll finally be good, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. Or worse, a sort of Sisyphean torture where just as that feeling appears to be within reach, the goal is moved just a little bit farther up the mountain and out of reach.

You will never feel okay by way of external accomplishments. Enough comes from the inside. It comes from stepping off the train. From seeing what you already have, what you’ve always had.

If a person can do that, they are richer than any billionaire, more powerful than any sovereign.”Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key

 

Reflection Questions

  • Do you have the “disease of more” in some parts of your life? How so?
  • Which of the above practices resonate with you?
  • What will you do, starting now?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

* On the flipside, sometimes there are benefits of hedonic adaptation, such as when our circumstances change for the worse, since we can also adapt to a new baseline after illness or tragedy.

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, disease of more, hedonic adaptation, hedonic treadmill, happiness, fulfillment

Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?

two hands in golden handcuffs

Stuck in a job you don’t like? Enduring it? Too often, we do it for the money, the security, or the prestige, but not for its intrinsic value. We stick it out, trapped by golden handcuffs.

Golden handcuffs are financial incentives designed to keep workers at an organization. We may long to leave a job and set out on a new adventure, but the thought of giving up the salary, bonus, or other perks makes us stay.

It helps to view it from our own perspective. Sometimes the golden handcuffs are self-imposed. They can come in the form of lifestyle choices (regarding possessions and consumption) that inhibit us from doing what we want with our life. We become financially tethered to a job that’s not a good fit.

There’s nothing wrong with money, or making a lot of it, or enjoying the fruits of our hard work. The problem comes when we’re chained to a job we don’t like and sacrifice our quality of life for huge swaths of time. When we’re stuck with a manager we don’t respect or can’t stand. Or at an organization with a poor culture, or toxic employees. When we’re stressed or burned out but feel trapped.

We may feel stuck due to our fear of the unknown. Or we fear a loss of status, or the judgment of others if we make a change.

What’s Really Going On

These decisions have many factors. We have expenses. There are things we want to do in life, and they cost money. We have bills to pay. We have a family to feed, or trips we’ve been dreaming of, or kids’ college and retirement to save for. Fair enough.

But we rationalize. We accept other people’s definition of success and live on their terms instead of our own. We make big decisions based on the assumption that success is the point of life—or that status will give us what we want.

In many cases, the problem is compounded by overconsumption and “lifestyle creep”: when our expenses or spending go up as our discretionary income increases.

Too many of us are living paycheck to paycheck (54% of U.S. consumers, according to recent data). According to a 2021 CNBC report, the average American has $90,460 in debt. People want that bigger house, that nicer car, that better neighborhood. They struggle to keep up with mortgage payments, car loans, credit card debt, student loans, and more.

Related Traps

There are many reasons we may be stuck in golden handcuffs. Our life and work choices are complex. Related traps include:

  • Climbing mode: focusing so much on climbing the ladder of success, and on achievement and advancement, that we never take time for discovering who we are, what we love, and what we long to do in the world
  • Conform: conforming to societal conventions or conventional paths instead of blazing our own path in life
  • Ego: being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves
  • Emptiness: feeling empty about what we’re doing
  • Outer-driven: being driven by the expectations of others
  • Prestige: hunger for status, prestige, or approval
  • Hedonic treadmill”: the tendency to remain at a set level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of goals
  • The Comparison Game: constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics
  • False Metrics of Success: measuring success in cold and calculating ways, such as income, net worth, position, power, or number of followers

What to Do about It

OK, we know that golden handcuffs can be a big problem. What to do about it?

First, reduce spending and start saving to free up some margin in your life. https://greggvanourek.com/do-you-have-margin/

“Do not save what is left after spending; instead spend what is left after saving.”Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

Second, build up not only your emergency fund but also your cash runway for when you want or need to make a work change. When Seth Goldman was a young professional working in finance, he was “living lean” and driving an old car and foregoing the amenities that his friends were spending a lot of money on. By doing so, he was able to give himself a much longer runway when he decided to take the entrepreneurial leap and start his company, Honest Tea.

Third, invest in yourself—in your knowledge and skills, and in your network. Such an investment pays the biggest dividends over time.

Fourth, go out and do some “life design interviews”: find people you admire who do work that interests you and ask them about their career path and life trajectory, including what they do and how they got there.

Fifth, spend time with new people in the fields you’re interested in exploring—learning new things and adopting new mindsets. Sometimes the people in our current situation are the ones holding us back.

Sixth, recognize that the career design and change process is usually messy and iterative, not a quick and clear process. Get curious and active. Embrace the transition process with all its possibilities and mysteries—including the possibility of recrafting your current work to be a better fit and a source of meaning and fulfillment as well as income.

Seventh, play it smart—with a healthy balance between wisdom and urgency. Don’t jump off a financial cliff. Invest thought and time in a smart process. At the same time, don’t wait too long. (The more common mistake is waiting too long—or never making a change—not moving too quickly.)

Finally, once you’ve decided your new direction, be bold and take massive action. Be flexible with approach, since reality rarely lines up with our plans, but show faith in your convictions.

Work comprises a huge part of your life. Why not craft it according to your values and aspirations?

Reflection Questions

  • Are you trapped by golden handcuffs?
  • If so, how long have you been in this trap?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self-leadership, success, golden handcuffs, career, career design.

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Postscript: Inspirations for Escaping the Golden Handcuffs

  • “It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” -Mark Albion
  • “Work can provide the opportunity for spiritual and personal, as well as financial, growth. If it doesn’t, we are wasting far too much of our lives on it.” -James A. Autry
  • “So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” -Jim Carrey
  • “I don’t have a problem with what you do, that’s your choice. What I have a problem with is you lying to yourself about why you’re doing the things you’re doing. You have a choice.” -Jerry Colonna
  • “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “Every worker needs to escape the wrong job.” -Peter Drucker
  • “Money sometimes costs too much.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “In our time, we workers are being called to reexamine our work: how we do it; whom it is helping or hurting; what it is we do; and what we might be doing if we were to let go of our present work and follow a deeper call.” -Matthew Fox
  • “For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if you just improve the socio-economic status of people, everything will be OK, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” -Victor Frankl
  • “And then there is the most dangerous risk of all—the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” -Randy Komisar

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives  (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.

Are You Trapped by Success?

success trap--man on a hamster wheel

Are you trapped by success? It’s an odd question. How can success be a trap? Is that even possible?

Turns out it can be a big trap. Below are 15 quick ways.

1. Addicted to Success

In a culture that worships success, we can become obsessed by it. It can consume most of our waking hours, and most of our waking thoughts. It can become a compulsive drive. We can build our lives around the pursuit of success. But what is success, actually? Have we taken the time to define what it means for us, in our current chapter of life, based on our own values?

2. Success Can Lead to Overwork

The pursuit of success can become all-consuming. It can cause us to be busy all the time, with a perpetual deficit of downtime. We never feel fully rested and renewed. We start losing our perspective and our resilience. We get run down and, ironically, start to lose our motivation and productivity.

3. The More We Aim for It, The More Elusive It Becomes

Some things in life aren’t exactly logical and linear. It’s not a matter of inputs in leading to inputs out. Some things don’t respond to sheer willpower or muscle. Some things in life are more nuanced.

We can’t force a baby kitten to feel comfortable with us. We can’t force someone to love us, no matter how hard we try. In fact, it may push them away. If we go bounding into the woods seeking wild game, they may never appear unless we sit quietly for a while and let them come to us in their own time. We can’t force happiness, at least the real kind. There’s a difference between a real smile that comes when we see an old friend after a long time apart and a forced smile that everyone can tell is fake.

Success will likely elude us if we’re too focused on it. Rather, it’s something that ensues when we get our life in order, when we’re clear about who we are and act accordingly—letting go of the trappings of false influences. Of course, success usually requires focus and hard work. But it’s best when we get lost in our work because we love the process itself and how it makes us feel while we’re doing it, not because we’re set on some arbitrarily created result with factors well beyond our control.

4. Locked into the Wrong Thing

What if the one thing that we excelled at isn’t right for us? What if we’re destined for something more, or something different? When did we make that decision about our career path, and on what basis and with what practical experience about what it actually entailed? Too often, it’s when we’re too young to make sound decisions, and we panic and play the short game or become overwhelmed by all the options.

5. Stuck in One Phase of Life

Perhaps we’re changing, with new interests emerging, but how could we possibly abandon the things that took us to the top? So we stick it out. We don’t grow and evolve into new challenges and opportunities better suited to our current circumstances. We flounder.

6. Never Feeling Successful Enough

There’s this illusion that once we become successful, then we’ll feel happy. But it’s often not the case. There are many “successful” people who are unsatisfied or even miserable. Many reach one goal, enjoy it for a while (literally a few days), only to then start focusing on the next goal, and the next one, ad infinitum. The happiness never arrives, because there are always new goals out there and higher levels of success, achievement, recognition, or wealth. Researchers call this the “hedonic treadmill”: the tendency to remain at a stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of goals. We rapidly adapt to the new circumstances and simply increase our aspirations. We get tripped up by social comparison among a new class of people, perpetually raising the expectations.

7. Resistance to Being Imperfect

Success comes with lots of perks, from wealth and power to comfort and prestige. But it can also make us feel like we need to be perfect. Otherwise, how can we be worthy of success? We fear making mistakes or being wrong in front of others, lest they start to question our worthiness. So we harbor a secret terror of being discovered as a fraud or of letting our imperfect humanity come through. We wear a mask of projected perfection and total confidence, secretly hoping that people can’t see through it. It’s exhausting. Nobody’s perfect. We can’t always be on, and right, and put-together. In this charade, we miss out on what Brene Brown calls “the gifts of imperfection,” including authenticity, self-compassion, connection, intimacy, and more.

8. The Burden of Success

Yes, success has its privileges. But it can also feel like we’re walking around with a hundred pounds of bricks on our backs. We carry the pressures, the expectations, the demands, the effort, the work. Life can start to feel like a burden we must bear.

9. The Illusion of Circumstances

As we chase success, it can feed into a trick our minds play on us, the illusion that the quality of our circumstances determines the quality of our lives. It’s such a pervasive belief that we can go through our whole lives without ever pausing to question it. The logic goes like this: When we’re successful and things are going well, we feel good and we’re happy. When we’re unsuccessful or in pain, uncomfortable, or facing a challenge (ourselves, or for our loved ones), we feel bad and unhappy.

The truth is that we can feel good even when our circumstances are bad. We can return to our values and sense of purpose. We can revisit our personal history and what makes us who we are. We can remain grateful for all that we have and have had. We can stand still in awe of the gifts of life even when things are tough. We can be unflappable in the storms that are a natural part of life. We don’t have to let our thoughts spiral down with our circumstances.

10. The Myth that Success Is the Point of Life

The belief that success is the point of life is another mental trick that we can go through life without questioning. The point is to climb the ladder of success, right? To win the game, right? To be the best, or to achieve success, right? Not so fast.

Aren’t there more important things than achieving success and winning? What about love and our precious relationships? What about contributing to something greater than ourselves, to our family, our community, our world, or a worthy cause? What about character and integrity? What about our faith, or spiritual practice, or connection with something deeper and more significant than points on a scoreboard or zeros in our bank account? Yes, we can do great things on a quest for success, but is that really the point of it all?

11. Success Can Take Us Away from Ourselves

As we get caught up in the image, in the prestige, in the chase, we can drift away from our core, from who we really are and what we value. We can get so caught up in the chase that we compromise our integrity on the way to the top. We can get so driven that we lose sight of the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and our soul. We can become success robots, following social programming instead of pursuing our calling.

12. Success Can Take Us Away from Others

As we drift away from ourselves, we can also drift away from others. From our spouse or partner, because we’re so busy and have such important things we need to do. From our own children in their precious formative years or their struggling adult years, because we’re so caught up in our own stuff. From our extended family, from the friends we cherish, from our neighbors and community. We’re busy like bees, so we let our relationships suffer or die.

13. The Comparison Game

When we’re in chasing-success mode, it becomes a numbers game: How do we stack up against others in terms of salary, promotions, title, awards, fame? We start judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics, falling into what Father Robert Spitzer called the “comparative ethic,” instead of the “contributive ethic.”

14. The False Metrics of Success

When we take a mercenary view of success, we start measuring it in cold and calculating ways: cash, net worth, position, power, number of followers or direct reports. These may send our ego to the moon, but do they keep us warm at night and light us up? Will they hold up and stand the test of time as we look back on our lives?

15. Narrow Views of Success

Somewhere along the way we can start to view success in overly narrow terms, thinking about it in terms of professional, financial, and relative social terms—wealth, prestige, celebrity. The problem with this thinking is that, as Clayton Christensen has noted, it causes us to over-invest in our career while under-investing in our health, family, friends, community, spirituality (or mindfulness), and fun.

Reflection Questions

  • Are you trapped by success—or caught up too much in the chase?
  • Which of the traps above resonated most with you?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?

Topics: life design, personal growth, personal development, self leadership, success.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains and speaks on life design and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives  (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great”). Sign up for his monthly newsletter or check out his TEDx talk.