What Are Your Leadership Derailers?

Here’s the thing: we all want to be better leaders.

But too often we focus on what to do as leaders while neglecting what not to do.

That’s where leadership derailers come in—the things that take us off track and inhibit our leadership effectiveness. If we want to be good leaders, we must be aware of our derailers and begin working on them.

“Most books about leadership tell us what a person ought to do to become effective and powerful. Few tell us what to avoid. But the latter may be even more valuable because many people on the road to success are tripped up by their mistakes and weaknesses.”David Gergen, political commentator and senior advisor to four U.S. presidents, from his book, Eyewitness to Power

10 Common Leadership Derailers

Here are ten common derailers, based on my research and work with leaders from many different industries, sectors, countries, and stages of career development:

  1. Avoidance: avoiding difficult tasks, situations, or conflicts.
  2. Burnout: becoming run-down and feeling exhausted, often due to lack of self-care.
  3. Bottleneck: feeling you must make all decisions or taking on too much work yourself, causing delays.
  4. Delegation: not entrusting tasks to others sufficiently, leading to reduced motivation.
  5. Feedback: not providing feedback well or often enough, or not soliciting it enough or receiving it well.
  6. Insecurity: lacking confidence about leading or feeling unqualified to lead; being unassertive.
  7. Perfectionism: setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or others; needing things to be flawless.
  8. Procrastination: putting things off until later or the last minute.
  9. Short Game: failing to invest in the future and deciding important things without considering the long term.
  10. Workaholism: being addicted to work and struggling to switch it off or stop thinking about it.

While these are common derailers, there are many more. In fact, I’ve identified more than sixty derailers that inhibit leadership effectiveness.

What are your top leadership derailers? And what will you do about them?

See our new Leadership Derailers Assessment to find out—and then get to work on improving your leadership.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

Reflection Questions

  • What do you struggle with as a leader?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?
  • Who will you ask for help?

This always works best when colleagues openly discuss it together. We all have derailers. We all have work to do. So get real. And get busy with the important work of intentional leadership development. Reach out if you think I may be able to help.

Gregg

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Postscript: Inspirations on Leadership Derailers

  • “Instead of learning from other people’s success, learn from their mistakes. Most of the people who fail share common reasons, whereas success can be attributed to various different kinds of reasons.” –Jack Ma, Chinese entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek helps people with leadership and personal development. He’s a TEDx speaker and co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Awe in Our Lives

When’s the last time you experienced awe?

It’s one of the most powerful emotions we can experience. A marker for life at its grandest.

Awe is what we feel when we encounter something so vast or incomprehensible that it defies our current frame of reference. It’s a feeling of reverential respect, often mixed with fear, wonder, veneration, or even dread.

Awe can be inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls it “the emotion of self-transcendence.”

Awe gives us an experience of vastness, and of novelty and mystery. And it leaves an alluring and hauntingly beautiful lasting impression.

 

My Own Awe Experiences

When I think about my own experiences of awe, I’m humbled. They don’t come often, but they can make me shudder. I think about:

  • being there with my wife when our daughters were born and feeling time stand still
  • feeling a powerful, warm sense of love and connectedness during a candlelight vigil when our family members entered the room
  • swimming among bioluminescent plankton in a magical bay in Puerto Rico
  • staring out at the grandeur and near timelessness of the Grand Canyon
  • gazing at the stars
  • seeing multiple thunderstorms in the distance while driving across the Kansas plains with my wife
  • walking between volcanoes and glaciers in Iceland and basking in natural geothermal pools amidst the ancient rolling hills
  • looking up at the gargantuan redwoods in California
  • staring out at the ocean horizon and at the view from a Colorado mountaintop
  • witnessing the playful convergence of music, story, and thrilling acrobatic feats of a Cirque de Soleil show
  • being part of a committed team and accomplishing something together that we barely thought possible
  • reading an incredible masterwork that draws me in and feels like it speaks to me directly
  • marveling at the creative talent and power of a “Hamilton” show
  • looking at our daughters when they’re in their element and reflecting on how much they’ve grown and changed
  • contemplating the vastness of the universe and wondering how it can all possibly be

Awe may be rare, but there are ample opportunities for it if we’re open to it and paying attention.

It turns out that awe isn’t just an amazing feeling. It’s also good for us in a surprising number of ways.

 

The Benefits of Awe, The Power of Awe

Experiencing awe, as powerful as it is in and of itself, comes with a surprising number of benefits, including these ten:

  1. Making us feel truly alive, with wonder and gratitude
  2. Inspiring us to want to achieve or be part of something great
  3. Elevating our mood and increasing our happiness and wellbeing
  4. Putting things in perspective, especially when we get caught up in our own little dramas or ego, and boosting our humility
  5. Elevating us from mundane matters and dampening our materialism, essentially reordering our priorities
  6. Reducing our sense of time starvation, giving us a sense that time is plentiful and making us less impatient
  7. Connecting us more with others—and with humanity—and reminding us that we’re part of a greater whole
  8. Increasing our urge to be generous and to cooperate with and help others
  9. Helping us recognize the role that outside forces play in our lives (e.g., the influence of others, or luck)
  10. Potentially improving our health, including stronger immunity and lower levels of inflammation

So what can we do to invite more awe experiences into our frenetic and overly full lives? Or do we have to wait until lightning strikes?

 

Awe-Inspiring Activities

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley developed this helpful list of awe-inspiring activities:

  1. Write about a personal experience of awe (the “awe narrative” practice)
  2. Take an “awe walk” (ideally in a new place, a natural setting that’s peaceful and quiet, or a place with a view)
  3. Watch an awe-inducing video
  4. Read an awe-inspiring story

(Tip: check out Jason Silva’s excellent Shots of Awe” series on YouTube, perhaps starting with his Awe” video.)

There’s much darkness in the world today. And we live in a culture of overwork, consumption, cynicism, and burnout. It can be a black hole that pulls awe into its vortex and smashes it into oblivion, if we let it.

It may be tempting to give in to these cold and dark forces and just go with the flow, chasing material success, comfort, pleasure, and prestige while letting awe slip away.

But how will that hold up when we look back on our lives? What will be the things we truly cherish? Powerful and profound, our experiences of awe may be some of the most precious and sacred we’re given.

“I felt deep within me that the highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness, or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic, and more despairing: Sacred Awe!” -Nikos Kazantzakis, in Zorba the Greek

 

Reflection Questions on the Power of Awe

  • When’s the last time you experienced a sense of awe?
  • Is your life overly full and heavy right now, or are you open to small daily experiences of wonder?
  • Do you savor these experiences, and feel grateful for them?
  • What will you do to being more awe opportunities into your life?

 

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Postscript: Quotations on the Power of Awe

  • “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” -Albert Einstein
  • “There is one means of procuring solitude which to me, and I apprehend all men, is effectual, and that is to go to a window and look at the stars. If they do not startle you and call you off from vulgar matters, I know not what will.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” -Aristotle
  • “We fit the universe through our brains and it comes out in the form of nothing less than poetry. We have a responsibility to awe.” -Jason Silva
  • “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living….” -Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder
  • “To be inspired is the ultimate antidote to existential despair.” -Jason Silva
  • “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
  • “The most beautiful experience in the world is the experience of the mysterious.” -Albert Einstein
  • “Awe is the best drug in the world.” -Jason Silva

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Taking Full Responsibility for Your Life

Responsibility.

It’s a word we hear a lot. We take on more responsibilities as we go through life. Responsibility for the rent. Car payments. Mortgage. Deadlines. Getting the job done. These things can be daunting.

But there’s another aspect of responsibility that cuts the other way, that empowers us: taking responsibility for our lives.

And not just responsibility. Full responsibility.

 

What Does It Mean to Take Full Responsibility for Our Lives?

What does this mean? Carry out the logic and it leads to a sweeping conclusion:

Taking full responsibility for our lives means taking full responsibility for everything in our lives.

Carry out the logic still further and it leads to a stunning insight, one that’s capable of transforming our lives:

Taking full responsibility for our lives means taking full responsibility for everything in our lives, regardless of what has happened or why.

That means taking full responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, words, actions, circumstances, and impacts. It means taking full responsibility for our health, relationships, education, career, finances, choices, behaviors, and free time.

Our ability to accept responsibility for things depends on our sense of agency: our perceived ability to influence events and direct them toward the achievement of our goals.

 

Locus of Control

That brings us to what psychologists call “locus of control”: the extent to which we feel that we have control over the events of our lives. Are we the captains of our fate, steering the ship toward our horizon of choice, or are we drifters on a raft, being carrier by the current and winds randomly out to sea?

Drive and direction matrix from the book, LIFE Entrepreneurs, by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek

 

Researchers distinguish between an internal locus of control (when we believe that control over what happens resides within us) and an external locus of control (when we attribute success to luck, fate, or other outside influences). Note that locus of control occurs on a continuum; it’s not a one-or-the-other situation.

According to researchers, people with an internal locus of control tend to:

  • be healthier
  • report being happier
  • exhibit more independence
  • achieve greater success in the workplace

So far, we’ve seen that it means to take full responsibility for our lives. It sounds simple enough. But it’s quite difficult to do it consistently—and it’s exceedingly rare.

 

How to Know If You’re Not Taking Full Responsibility?

Most people bounce back and forth between taking responsibility for their lives and shirking that responsibility. How to know if we’re not taking responsibility?

When we’re avoiding responsibility, we’re tending toward the following:

  • blaming others
  • complaining about things
  • feeling hopeless
  • experiencing “learned helplessness” (when we stop trying to change things because we’ve become conditioned to believe that a bad situation is inescapable)
  • feeling powerless
  • drifting through life without traction on our deeper aims
  • settling for a less than ideal situation

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Incredible Benefits of Taking Full Responsibility

Taking full responsibility for all aspects of our lives, regardless of what has happened or why, is one of the most important things we can do to improve the quality of our lives, relationships, and work outcomes. It comes with many benefits. Taking full responsibility can:

  • boost our confidence
  • provide us with a more resilient sense of calm which isn’t dependent on others
  • increase our decisiveness
  • improve our health
  • reduce our stress levels
  • lead to taking more action in life
  • help us achieve our goals
  • free us up to see the good in people and situations
  • help summon our courage
  • lead to better relationships
  • help us improve our follow-through
  • invoke our power to choose
  • dramatically improve our leadership
  • help us craft our life intentionally

 

What We Must Give Up When We Take Full Responsibility

Clearly, the benefits are extensive. But they come at a price. Taking full responsibility means giving up on several bad habits and guilty pleasures. For example:

It means giving up on complaining.

“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.” -Maya Angelou

It means giving up on making excuses.

“He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” -Benjamin Franklin

It means giving up on blaming others.

“An important decision I made was to resist playing the Blame Game. The day I realized that I am in charge of how I will approach problems in my life, that things will turn out better or worse because of me and nobody else, that was the day I knew I would be a happier and healthier person. And that was the day I knew I could truly build a life that matters.” -Steve Goodier

It means giving up on being a victim.

“Abandon the idea that you will forever be the victim of the things that have happened to you. Choose to be a victor.” -Seth Adam Smith

What to do instead? Instead of complaining, making excuses, blaming, or playing the victim, change your mindset toward one of agency and accountability. Instead of deflecting toward others (or toward bad luck), turn your gaze within and ask:

What is my role in this?

How have I contributed to this?

What will I do about it now?

Get curious about what happened and why, and what you might do differently in the future to make it better or avoid the same mistake.

 

What Taking Full Responsibility Doesn’t Mean

Taking full responsibility means holding ourselves totally accountable, but it doesn’t mean being a “Lone Ranger,” disconnected from others.

Even as we take full responsibility for our life, we can—and should—reach out to others for help. We can ask for their input, or for them to help hold us accountable.

For most people, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness. We’re wise to take full responsibility for our relationships too, instead of expecting others to know what we want or waiting for others to change.

Being accountable doesn’t mean being alone. It means being the captain of our lives, being a “life entrepreneur.”

And it ultimately means changing the trajectory of our lives toward more fulfillment and better outcomes.

“The luckiest people are those who learn early… that it’s essential to take charge of your own life. That doesn’t mean you don’t accept help, friendship, love, and leadership—if it’s good leadership—from others. But it does mean recognizing that ultimately you’re the one who’s responsible for you.” -John W. Gardner

 

Reflection Questions on Taking Responsibility for Your Life

  1. In what areas are you:
    • complaining?
    • making excuses?
    • blaming others?
    • being a victim?
  1. What will you do, starting today, to take back the initiative and take full responsibility for the situation?
  2. Are you taking full responsibility for everything in your life, regardless of what has happened or why?

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Postscript: Quotations on Taking Responsibility for Your Life

  • “Self-leadership means taking responsibility for our own lives.” -Andrew Bryant & Ana Kazan, from Self Leadership
  • “Character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” -Joan Didion
  • “The degree to which you accept responsibility for everything in your life is precisely the degree of personal power you have to change or create anything in your life.” -Hal Elrod
  • “Personal responsibility is the foundational key that opens the door to freedom…. the moment you choose to accept personal responsibility for all your inner experiences independent of what appears to have caused them, the escape hatch automatically swings open, providing you with the opportunity for passing into the land of freedom. You become authentically empowered, and you discover there really is a calm at the center for the fiercest hurricane where you can reside. In fact, eventually you realize that you are that calm.” -H. Ronald Hulnick and Mary R. Hulnick, from Loyalty to Your Soul
  • “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anyone else expects of you. Never excuse yourself.” -Henry Ward Beecher
  • “Don’t believe the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” -Robert J. Burdette, 1883
  • “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” -John Burroughs
  • “Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • “Never tell your problems to anyone… 20 percent don’t care and the other 80 percent are glad you have them.” -Lou Holtz
  • “Don’t complain; just work harder.” -Randy Pausch
  • “See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” -Eckhart Tolle, from The Power of Now
  • “I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does—even if it means getting fired. If anyone was to be blamed and fired for what happened, let it be me.” -Jocko Willink, from Extreme Ownership
  • “You are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself, and you’re responsible for the energy that you bring to others.”  -Oprah Winfrey

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented

One of the greatest assets we can build in our lives is an action orientation. No great things are possible without action. Are you action-oriented?

Dreams and visions are good, but worthless without action. Plans may impress, but they lose all value if not acted upon. Opportunities fade if we don’t seize them soon enough.

If we want a good life with good work, we must get good at taking action—and putting ourselves in a position to be able to do so. Too often, we hesitate. We wait to long before acting, as we try to line things up perfectly. A costly mistake.

“Action is the foundational key to all success.” -Pablo Picasso

 

The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented

There are many benefits of being action-oriented, and their effects accumulate and compound over time. Here are 14 of the top benefits:

1. Being action-oriented builds our confidence.

When we’re out in the world making things happen, we naturally begin to trust ourselves more. We develop self-assurance, which becomes increasingly valuable for future scenarios.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” -Dale Carnegie

2. It helps develop our courage.

The process of taking action and dealing with the consequences shows us that we can overcome fear and survive challenges, often becoming stronger in the process. Courage is one of the most important qualities we can develop, because most great things in life are impossible without it.

“Often the difference between a successful man and a failure is not one’s better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on his ideas, to take a calculated risk—and to act.” -Maxwell Maltz, surgeon and author

3. Being action-oriented helps us avoid the cost of regret for not trying.

Most people have regrets. Some of the most common ones are about the things we wished we had tried: the new ventures we dreamed of starting, the new relationships we wished we pursued, the places we longed to visit.

“The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German mystic

4. It comes with a learning premium.

We develop knowledge and insights from trying things and seeing how they go. Learning is one of the best investments we can make. It pays rich dividends.

5. Being action-oriented changes our self-identity.

Suddenly, we think of ourselves as doers. As people with power, potential, and agency. We become the kind of people who act when others are watching or waiting.

6. We learn about ourselves when we take action.

It reveals our character and our tendencies. Our doubts and fears. It gives us a glimpse of our resourcefulness and persistence—and the things we need to work on to get better.

“Self-knowledge is best learned, not by contemplation, but by action. Strive to do your duty and you will soon discover of what stuff you are made.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German poet, scientist, and statesman

7. Being action-oriented expands our sense of possibility.

Entrepreneur Steve Jobs spoke about this in an interview—about how everything changed for him when he learned to stop accepting life as it is and start poking and pushing it instead (and, in his case, start building things). When he realized that things around him were made by people who weren’t smarter than he was, he felt excited about improving his life and putting a “dent in the universe.”

8. Being action-oriented builds momentum.

Things start to click, almost moving of their own accord once we’ve done the heaviest lift of beginning. Things pick up speed and start bouncing around. The game is afoot.

“The path to success is to take massive, determined action.” -Tony Robbins, author

9. It positions us as a doer and leader—and people respond to that.

The best leaders and entrepreneurs are doers, with a strong bias toward action. People respect us for trying, for starting, for daring. They respect us for getting things done—and for being the kind of person to jump into the fray. It inspires them to start doing so as well.

“The world has the habit of making room for the man whose actions show that he knows where he is going.” -Napolean Hill, author

10. Being action-oriented yields better results over time and increases our probability of success.

We get better results in part because we get more attempts. (There’s simple math at work here.) Also, we learn what works and what doesn’t, and we develop experience, confidence, and resilience.

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey player

11. Being action-oriented invites serendipity.

When we take action, we start making unintended or unexpected but fortunate discoveries.

When we’re taking purposeful action and following our bliss, as Joseph Campbell advises, we start meeting people who can help us, and doors open for us, almost like magic.

12. It’s more fun to be in the game than on the sidelines.

Do we want to watch others play, or be the ones in the maelstrom facing challenges and having a chance to prevail?

13. Being action-oriented gives us more chances at breakthroughs.

Windows of opportunity are only open for so long. Without taking action consistently, even when we don’t feel fully ready, we’re prone to missing big chances, including opportunities for breakthroughs.

14. Since there’s no such thing as a perfect time or “the right time,” we might as well get started.

What’s the point in waiting? Where does that get us? How many times will we sit and watch opportunities pass us by?

“Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” -Napolean Hill

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What It Takes to Be Action-Oriented

Clearly, there are many powerful benefits to being action-oriented. It changes our trajectory and prospects.

But it’s not easy. It requires at least five big things from us:

1. Being action-oriented requires motivation.

We must summon our drive to achieve, and our desire for a better future. We must get off the couch and get to work.

2. It requires courage.

It requires a willingness to act in spite of our fears. A willingness to go for it, despite the risks.

3. Being action-oriented requires a willingness to pounce when opportunities arise.

We must be willing to strike, even when the picture isn’t fully clear. This requires tapping into our warrior spirit.

“All of us, whether or not we are warriors, have a cubic centimeter of chance that pops out in front of our eyes from time to time. The difference between an average man and a warrior is that the warrior is aware of this, and one of his tasks is to be alert, deliberately waiting, so that when his cubic centimeter pops out he has the necessary speed, the prowess, to pick it up.” -Carlos Castaneda in Journey to Ixtlan

4. It helps to have a growth mindset.

A growth mindset is a belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed. By contrast, if we have a fixed mindset, we’ll be preoccupied with the prospect of looking bad or being wrong, without realizing that it doesn’t matter as much as we may think because we can always learn and develop.

5. It helps to be clear about what we want and where we’re heading.

Action is must better when it’s pulled from a powerful vision of success, a motivating dream of a desired future, as opposed to being pushed from a troubled situation we seek to flee.

 

Warrior and Sage

Of course, being action-oriented isn’t the only thing we need to succeed. We need discernment and insight. Experience and wisdom.

We’re better off when we iterate between action and reflection, when we flex between being warrior and sage. We’re better off when we take action, then learn and adjust. But too often, people get stuck in thought and doubt when what they really should be doing is getting started.

 

Reflection Questions

 

What are you waiting for?

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Postscript: Quotations on Being Action-Oriented

  • “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the people doing it.” -Chinese proverb
  • “Successful people start before they’re ready.” -James Clear, author
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague
  • “I think the number one advice I can give is: you just have to start it. Just get your feet in the water and do it. I learned a lot from just trying it out.” -Yoshikazu Tanaka, Japanese entrepreneur
  • “I said to myself, You know what? This is the wrong time to do it, but there is never a perfect time. We have the right idea, and I’ve got to try.” -Seth Goldman, social entrepreneur, when thinking about launching Honest Tea

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Is Happiness So Elusive?

(This article is part of a series on happiness. See the end of the article for more articles in the series.)

We want to be happy. To live well. And enjoy life.

We have our moments, and if we’re fortunate some long stretches of happiness.

But it’s harder than it sounds. There are struggles. Highs and lows. And not just because of the swirling vortex of challenges around us, from the pandemic to a depressing news cycle, with endless waves of shocks and worries.

No, it’s not just that. (As if that weren’t enough.) In our day-to-day experience and its accompanying thought streams, there are many other factors that get in the way.

Here are eight of the most important factors making happiness elusive.

 

1. The Ups and Downs of Positive Emotions

We’re not wired to be happy all the time. Life has its ups and downs.

Positive emotions are an important component of happiness. They include pleasant feelings or situational responses such as interest, serenity, amusement, hope, pride, love, joy, and awe. But we have negative emotions too: concern, disappoint, frustration, regret, anxiety, and more.

Nat Rutherford from the University of London notes that “Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won, but instead it’s a practice which we hone, imperfectly, in circumstances only partly of our making…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.”

As we can learn from the research of Sonja Lyubomirsky, the key is to give ourselves many experiences of contentment, wellbeing, and joy. And if we work at living well and honoring our nature, we’ll also naturally develop a sense that our life is good and meaningful—a sense of life satisfaction.

 

2. Hedonic Adaptation

Researchers point to “hedonic adaptation,” in which we become accustomed to changes in our circumstances. Then we settle into that new baseline as if nothing had happened. Our positive feelings diminish and settle back into neutral.

This leads to a “hedonic treadmill” in which, like a hamster, we run faster and faster but get nowhere in terms of happiness. We end up right where we started.

Why? Part of the problem is our rising aspirations. We may want a bigger house, for example, and then a much bigger house with a nicer view.

Another issue is social comparison. If our new friends have upgraded their smartphone (or car, or vacation destination), we see our own things in a diminished light.

 

3. Our Mistaken Beliefs about What Brings Happiness

As noted in my article on “The Most Common Myths about Happiness,” we have many mistaken beliefs about what will bring us happiness, and these get us into trouble. Our theories of happiness are often wrong.

My top ten list of the most common myths:

  1. Myth: We must pursue happiness.
  2. Myth: Happiness comes from changing our circumstances.
  3. Myth: When we’re successful, we’ll be happy.
  4. Myth: Having certain things will make us happy.
  5. Myth: Money will bring us happiness.
  6. Myth: Happiness is a destination.
  7. Myth: We always revert to our “happiness set point.”
  8. Myth: We can’t be happy when we’re experiencing negative events.
  9. Myth: Happiness is a solo endeavor.
  10. Myth: Happiness declines with age.

There’s nuance when it comes to happiness. These simplistic notions fail to deliver the happiness.

With a flawed road map, we end up far from our intended destination. And lost. Better instead to be aware of the many research-based happiness practices.

 

4. Negativity Bias

Researchers have discovered that negative things like troublesome thoughts, sour feelings, or unpleasant social interactions often have a greater effect on our mental state than positive things (or neutral ones). This “negativity bias” darkens the skies of our lived experience.

What’s more, negative feelings narrow our thoughts—and thus the range of actions we’re likely to take.

“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.”Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

 

5. Fear

As noted in my article, “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear,” fear is universal. We all feel it. It’s hardwired into our neurobiology.

Fear comes with an array of chemical reactions in our body, including a flood of stress hormones and impairment of our cerebral cortex. When feeling fear, we’re far from a mental state conducive to positive emotions and happiness.

In today’s world, sophisticated operators (from demagogues to technology platforms) have figured out how to hijack our attention. They’ve monetized and weaponized fear. They constantly broadcast alerts or promote shrewd narratives designed to elicit our fear response by threatening our identity or tribe. The result is a far cry from happiness.

 

6. Putting Stock in the Wrong Things

Much of the modern world is pushing the message that the accumulation, consumption, and display of material things will make us happy. We conflate wealth with success. And we assume that money and success will bring us happiness.

Wrong. The research says otherwise. (See “The Surprising Relationship between Success and Happiness” and “The Most Important Contributor to Happiness.”)

Happiness will continue to elude us if we insist on putting stock in the wrong things.

 

7. The Problem with Pursuing Happiness

It’s baked into our cultural programming that we must pursue happiness. As logical as it sounds, it turns out to be counterproductive.

Some things become more elusive the more we pursue them. It turns out that some things play hard to get.

As the old saying goes, happiness is like a butterfly. If we pursue it, it remains beyond our grasp. But it may alight upon us if we sit quietly and forget out it.

The reality is that happiness is more likely to arrive when we focus on other things, such as purpose, deep connection with others, serving others, and contributing to something larger than ourselves—and something we value.

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way.” -John Stuart Mill, English philosopher

 

8. The Expectations Trap

Scholars warn about the “expectations trap”: when there’s a gap between our current life satisfaction and our expected life satisfaction, It causes us to feel disappointment or view our overall life satisfaction unfavorably, even though our life conditions may be positive. The problem is that we can set our standards too high, such that they’re unrealistic and destined to disappoint.

According to clinical psychologist Jennifer Barbera, we may set ourselves up for failure when we focus on the pursuit of happiness. Since feelings of happiness are likely to wax and wane, as she says, we’re headed for trouble when the highs fade. We’ve fallen into the expectations trap.

“But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”Yuval Noah Harari, author and historian

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What to Do about It

As we’ve seen above, happiness can be elusive. For many reasons.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless. In fact, researchers have identified a number of happiness-inducing activities (summarized in the article, “What Leads to Happiness”). Here are some of the main ones:

  1. Regular exercise and physical activity
  2. Acts of kindness, caring, service, and generosity
  3. Purpose and meaning
  4. Relationships with others
  5. Goals and aspirations
  6. Authentic expression of self
  7. Anticipation
  8. Gratitude
  9. Experiences
  10. Learning and developing
  11. Meditation and mindfulness
  12. “Person-activity fit”
  13. Seeing the positive and reframing the negative
  14. Journaling
  15. Resilience
  16. Savoring
  17. Self-care
  18. Strengths (knowing and doing the things that we’re good at)
  19. Intentional and effective use of time
  20. Variety

It turns out that there’s no magic recipe for happiness. We’re all different, with varying values, personalities, and contexts.

What if we need a tailored recipe for our own unique tastes, drawing on common ingredients but in different proportions?

Why not get busy crafting our life and work so that we lead a good life as we define it? And capture in the process some of that elusive happiness and joy.

“Many of us persist in searching for ‘the one’ true secret path to happiness (or to career success or to spiritual fulfillment and so on), like the one diet that will work when all others have failed. In truth, there is no one magic strategy that will help every person become happier…. If there’s any ‘secret’ to becoming happier, the secret is in establishing which happiness strategies suit you best.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness
Sonja Lyubomirsky

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Surprising Relationship between Success and Happiness

Many people believe in the logic:

When I’m successful, I’ll be happy.

Sounds reasonable. After all, professional success will bring a sense of accomplishment and status. Nice. It tends to come with higher income and more wealth. So it’s likely to make us happy.

The logic is sound. But wrong. Not only wrong, but backwards.

According to an extensive review by researchers over many years, it works the other way around:

When I’m happy, I’m more likely to be successful.

Researchers Lisa Walsh, Julia Boehm, and Sonja Lyubomirsky did a massive investigation of the potential relationship between career success and happiness, published in a 2005 paper. In a follow-up 2018 paper, they revisited the research with updated evidence from different kinds of studies around the world, including cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental studies.

 

The Benefits of Happiness

From this extensive research, they found that happier people have a wide array of benefits and advantages, including:

  • More investment and involvement in their work
  • More job satisfaction
  • More social support from their supervisors and colleagues
  • Greater optimism, creativity, originality, confidence, flexibility, and curiosity
  • More ambitious goal-setting
  • Increased perseverance at challenging tasks
  • Higher performance and productivity in an array of work settings
  • Greater sales
  • Better work evaluations from their supervisors
  • Higher incomes
  • Less burnout, absenteeism, and job turnover

It’s an astonishing array of benefits. Here are some of the main conclusions from their research:

“First, the cross-sectional literature supports a correlational link between happiness and various success-related outcomes. Happiness is positively associated with job autonomy, job satisfaction, job performance, prosocial behavior, social support, popularity, and income….
Second… The longitudinal research suggests that people who are happy at an initial time point are more likely to find employment, be satisfied with their jobs, acquire higher status, perform well, be productive, receive social support, be evaluated positively, engage in fewer withdrawal behaviors, and obtain higher income at a subsequent time point….
Finally… The experimental research demonstrates that when people are randomly
assigned to experience positive emotions, they negotiate more collaboratively, set higher goals for themselves, persist at difficult tasks longer, evaluate themselves and others more favorably, help others more, and demonstrate greater creativity and curiosity than people assigned to experience neutral or negative emotions.” -Lisa Walsh, Julia Boehm, and Sonja Lyubomirsky in their 2018 paper

 

The Happiness Advantage

Author Shawn Achor has famously called this the “happiness advantage.” He writes:

“When we are happy—when our mindset and mood are positive—we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful.” -Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

It gets even better. Many researchers have noted that there’s an “upward spiral” at work here. There are different factors providing positive reinforcement to other factors:

 “several pieces of evidence… suggest the presence of upward spirals—that is, where positive emotions trigger an adaptive outcome related to career success, which in turn triggers more positive emotions and further success.” -Lisa Walsh, Julia Boehm, and Sonja Lyubomirsky in their 2018 paper

Since we’re talking about complex phenomena like people, their emotions, and their performance in social settings, there are nuances. A 1999 study noted that there’s likely a “bidirectional relationship” between happiness and job performance, with happiness helping to drive high performance, and high performance likely to boost happiness. It may be more complicated than that. There may be what Lyubomirsky and her colleagues call a “chain of reciprocal relationships.” Sets of variables affect other factors over time iteratively.

 

Biology at Work

That this makes sense from a biological perspective. For example, Achor notes that “positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative.”

When we feel positive emotions, we’re flooded with the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. These activate and stimulate the learning centers in our brain, helping us think more quickly and creatively, organize new information, and improve our analytical and problem-solving skills. Essentially, we prime our brains to become more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas. Other people see this, and we can work more effectively with them.

These findings are powerful, with profound implications for how we should live and work—and how we should think about approaching them. We can begin by engaging in happiness-promoting activities backed by research.

But let’s not take this logic too far. This isn’t about simplistic positive thinking. Having a positive outlook is a related factor but not central to the drivers here. Just because happiness promotes career success doesn’t imply that it’s the only factor in success. Surely, there are many. And it doesn’t imply that unhappy people can’t be successful.

It doesn’t mean that organizations should hire only outwardly happy people. Or that they should mandate happiness activities for all workers. This can turn Orwellian quickly.

The researchers cited above note that there’s an area where the benefits of happiness and positive emotions appear mixed: when workers attempt to perform complex mental tasks. Some research has found that positive emotions can inhibit local reasoning and scramble attempts to distinguish between strong arguments and weak ones.

And there may be an advantage to negative emotions in some settings and on some tasks, such as ones that require careful execution of steps when decision-making is structured. Sometimes the critical lens of skepticism and doubt is wildly valuable.

 

Focusing Too Much on Success

We can also look at this from another angle: there are risks that come with the pursuit of success.

As I noted in my article, “Are You Trapped by Success?”, there are many potential traps associated with chasing success, including:

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Conclusion

Many of us invest a great deal of our identity and self-worth in our work. Including a sense of whether we feel successful. Including whether we believe we’re perceived as successful in the eyes of others and relative to our peers. Relative to the expectations we have for ourselves—and the expectations of family and friends.

We seek happiness, and we believe that becoming successful will make us happy.

So we must unlearn this. We must rewind and rewrite the script, recognizing that we’ve had it backwards all this time. Recognizing that it hasn’t been serving us.

Now that we know that when we’re happy, we’re more likely to be successful, we can get back to the basics of living a good life, knowing and trusting that good things are likely to flow from that naturally.

If we live well, happiness and success are likely to follow.

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

Postscript: Quotations on Happiness and Success

  • “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.” -Albert Schweitzer
  • “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C.S. Lewis

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Most Common Myths about Happiness

Happiness is a universal aspiration. We all want happiness, including a sense of wellbeing and overall life satisfaction.

Here’s the problem: we’re bad at knowing what will actually bring us happiness.

There are many happiness myths that get in the way. Here are 14 of the most common happiness myths—and their corresponding realities.

 

Myth: Happiness is the goal of life—the be-all and end-all of human existence.

Many of us view happiness as the point of life.

Understandable. But flawed. Having happiness as our goal in life is destined to disappoint.

A better goal, I believe, is to live a good life, by becoming a good person. Leading a life of purpose, connection, and service. A life in which we learn, grow, and develop. Days of appreciation, joy, and savoring. A life of caring and action in the world to make things better, with others.

“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

 

Myth: We must pursue happiness. (And find it.)

The “pursuit of happiness” is pervasive. It’s even written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and it underlies much of our thinking about how to live.

Many of us are relentless pursuers of happiness. But pursuing it turns out to be counterproductive. Pursuing it won’t bring us the happiness we seek. And it’s not really something we find.

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way.” -John Stuart Mill

Social psychologist Iris Mauss has shown that the more we strive for happiness, the more likely we are to feel disappointed, in part because we’ve set standards that are too high.

Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky prefers the phrases “creation of happiness” and “construction of happiness” to “pursuit of happiness.” She notes that we can create our own happiness.

Writer Chris Guillebeau flips the script from the “pursuit of happiness” to what he calls the “happiness of pursuit.” He says that the path to happiness involves pursuing a “quest,” a significant long-term goal or higher purpose.

 

Myth: Happiness comes from changing our circumstances.

The logic goes like this: “When I get X, then I’ll be happy.” When I get a…

new job

promotion

raise

new boss, house, spouse, or partner

more money

better body

fame

Here’s the problem: Happiness doesn’t come from external events or circumstances, at least in ways that endure. It’s an inside job.

“Happiness is not out there for us to find. The reason that it’s not out there is that it’s inside us…. Happiness, more than anything, is a state of mind, a way of perceiving and approaching ourselves and the world….” -Sonja Lyubomirsky, researcher and professor

Why don’t we derive enduring happiness from positive circumstances? A big reason is a well-documented phenomenon called “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.

“If you cannot be happy right now, in the present, no matter what your circumstances, then you will never be happy ‘one day.’” -Dannie De Novo, author

 

Myth: When I’m successful, I’ll be happy. (Corollary: Our happiness depends on what others think of us.)

The logic sounds reasonable: success leads to happiness. This belief is common, especially among high-performers and ambitious professionals whose identity is tied to their work and success.

But surprisingly, it works the other way around, according to the research: When we’re happy, we’re more likely to have success.

“When we are happy—when our mindset and mood are positive—we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful. Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it.” -Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

 

Myth: You either have happiness or you don’t.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it gives away our agency.

Researchers have found that there are many contributors to happiness, including our genes, our circumstances, and our activities and practices.

Since some of these are out of our control, the key is to create our own happiness, as noted above, by engaging in happiness-promoting activities and in leading a good, full, and meaningful life.

“If you do the work, research shows you can become happier.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky, researcher and professor

 

Myth: Having things will make us happy. (Corollary: Happiness comes from things outside of us.)

Does having things fill us up? Is accumulation and display of things likely to give us a sense of deep satisfaction and fulfillment that endures?

These are myths fabricated by certain types of advertisers looking to cash in on our vanity and insecurity.

“Society teaches us that having more will make you happy, and that having more is the measure of success. Having more increases your level of stress because of the amount of energy it takes to maintain things. A lot of times when people get more things, the more they are unhappy.” -Dee Doanes, author and small business owner

The reality is that connecting with people—with deep, lasting relationships and a sense of belonging—is a much more powerful contributor to happiness and life satisfaction.

“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. And that is true at any age.”Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Caring for others can help us be happier and healthier, if we also engage in self-care and don’t overcommit, burn out, or care so much that we lose ourselves in the process.

Helping others is a source of deep and lasting happiness, well beyond collecting or accumulating things. According to Professor Stephen G. Post at Stony Brook University, “When people help others through formal volunteering or generous actions, about half report feeling a ‘helper’s high,’ and 13% even experience alleviation of aches and pains.”

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” -Albert Schweitzer

Together, these connections and contributions give us a sense of meaning and deep satisfaction.

 

Myth: Money will bring us happiness.

Many people live today as if the point of life was the accumulation of money. Wealth is conflated with success, making life a game in which the aim is to maximize wealth. Then we’ve won.

Not so fast.

A study of 12,000 first-year students at elite universities looked at their attitudes when they were eighteen years old and then measured their life satisfaction at age 37. The findings: those with materialistic aspirations at 18, with making money as their primary goal, were less satisfied with their lives two decades later.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with money. It’s a powerful tool. A means to larger ends. But money alone doesn’t lead to the happiness promised land. Not by a longshot.

“Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C.S. Lewis

 

Myth: Happiness is a destination.

The idea here is that happiness is a place we’ll arrive at. A magical land where we can bask in rays of joy. If only we could all book tickets to that magical land….

Alas.

There’s no such place. Happiness is more of a mindset and way of life, with daily intentional activities, than a destination we arrive at.

“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it under his feet.” -James Oppenheim, poet and novelist

 

Myth: Happiness is pleasure.

Let’s be clear. Pleasure is great. We should savor it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a pleasant life and pleasurable experiences. But that alone won’t suffice.

In his book, Authentic Happiness, prominent psychologist Martin Seligman taught us that a full life includes not only the pleasant life but also a good life and a meaningful life.

“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

 

Myth: Happiness is mostly about how we feel.

When we think of happiness, we’re transported to the emotional realm. We think of pleasant feelings, and perhaps nostalgia-soaked memories of good times. Professor Barbara Fredrickson identified the ten most common positive emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.

But it turns out that much of happiness, especially enduring happiness, comes from who and how we are, not just how we happen to be feeling.

Many ancient Greek philosophers wrote extensively about eudaimonia.” It’s commonly translated as “happiness,” but what they meant by it goes well beyond what we think of as happiness today. They meant happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self. It includes fulfillment of our nature.

Eudaimonia is about actions and habits, whereas the way we think about happiness today is about feelings and mental states. From this vantage point, a good life is something we should work toward every day, through our mindsets, actions, and relationships.

 

Myth: We always revert to our “happiness set point.”

There’s a common belief that we can’t do much about our happiness, so why try? “Happiness set-point theory” is the notion that our happiness level is determined primarily by our genes. The idea is that our happiness remains relatively constant throughout our lives, and we inevitably return to a fairly stable “happiness set point,” regardless of our circumstances. (This relates to “hedonic adaptation,” in which we rapidly accustom ourselves to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline.)

Researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade developed the “sustainable happiness model,” which posits that we have more agency over our happiness levels than happiness set-point theory seems to suggest.

“…just because your happiness set point cannot be changed doesn’t mean that your happiness level cannot be changed….. Our genes do not determine our life experience and our behavior…. There’s a great deal of room to improve our happiness by the things we do, our intentional activities.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness

 

Myth: We can’t be happy when we’re facing negative events.

Some view happiness as a pleasant state free from pain or negative circumstances. Sounds reasonable. But a closer look reveals that happiness can sometimes depend on negative events—or the absence of positive ones.

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

The truth is that difficulty, struggle, and loss are sometimes necessary on our path toward a life of greater fulfillment and worth.

 In The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about the “adversity hypothesis”: the idea that people need adversity and setbacks to develop and rise to their potential.

Adversity can strengthen relationships and lead to feelings of love, connection, and gratitude for help provided. It can also cause us to revisit our priorities.

In the end, happiness isn’t about having positive experiences and circumstances and avoiding negative ones. Why cede our happiness to outside circumstances, many of which are out of our control?

“The most unhelpful myth out there is that the normal state for most humans is to be happy all the time. Those who are able to accept their pain as a part of life are much better equipped to handle it and move through it.” -Karly Hoffman King, mental health counselor

 

Myth: Happiness is a solo endeavor.

Sometimes the way we think about happiness is insular. Narcissistic even. Sometimes happiness is all about me, and how I feel, and how things are going for me.

Me, me, me.

But that misses the mark. For most people, the most important contributor to enduring happiness is the quality of our relationships, according to the research.

We can feel love or compassion when we connect with others. And we can derive a sense of meaning and belonging. We can give and receive support when we’re connected to others.

According to a 2020 Charles Schwab survey , Americans reported that relationships are the most important factor for their overall happiness. All told, 39% of respondents ranked relationships as the top driver of overall happiness, compared with 27% reporting health, 17% money, 14% lifestyle, and 3% career.

 

Myth: Happiness declines with age. (The best years of our life are over.)

There’s a pernicious but common belief out there that with age comes decline and misery. We slow down. Or lose our faculties. We become unhappy or even bitter.

Sometimes true, sure enough, but mostly a profound misconception about adult development that underestimates the tremendous growth and generativity that can accompany aging.

“aging is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.” -David Bowie, legendary singer and songwriter

But biases against aging persist. According to a 2020 global report based on a survey of 83,034 people in 57 countries, “At least one in every two people included in this study had moderate or high ageist attitudes.”

The reality is that older people are generally happier and more satisfied with their lives.

Journalist Jonathan Rauch writes about the “happiness curve,” which shows that for most people happiness follows a U-shaped trajectory, starting high but dropping from youthful sentiment and optimism about life into a long, low slump in midlife, and then rising again in our fifties and continuing mostly on an upward slope from there.

In his book, The Happiness Curve, Rauch writes about the “paradox of aging,” including the following:

  • “Stress declines after about age fifty…
  • Emotional regulation improves…
  • Older people feel less regret…
  • Older people are not depression-prone.”

Rauch also notes that aging tends to come with wisdom and tools for dealing with disappointment, anxiety, and depression based on lived experience.

It seems that part of this phenomenon may be that our values change as we age. In her book, A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity, Stanford Professor Laura Carstensen writes that old age “has its share of hardships and disappointments. It’s just that by the time people get there, they’re more attuned to the sweetness of life than to its bitterness.”

“Most people think that the older you get, the less happy you are. But the truth is, the older we get, the happier we are…. Women discuss how they will take more risks and get out there more. Men discuss how they calm down a little and are less stressed.” -Diane Lang, author and counselor

Rauch characterizes aging as “crossing toward wisdom,” including less ego-centric thinking and more orientation toward others.

Clearly, there are many myths about happiness. It’s long past time to debunk these myths and their accompanying mindsets and behaviors so we can lead our lives intentionally toward happiness, meaning, and fulfillment.

 

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Recommended Books on Happiness

 

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More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

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
  • “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.” -Dale Carnegie
  • “Happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom.” -Benjamin Franklin
  • “The word ‘happiness’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” -Carl Gustav Jung
  • “There are times when you are going to do well, and times when you’re going to fail. But neither the doing well, nor the failure is the measure of success. The measure of success is what you think about what you’ve done. Let me put that another way: The way to be happy is to like yourself and the way to like yourself is to do only things that make you proud.” -Marc Lewis, professor of clinical psychology
  • “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” -Albert Schweitzer
  • “Happiness does not depend on outward things but on the way we see them.” -Leo Tolstoy
  • “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

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

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. What’s the biggest contributor to 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. They nurture and enjoy 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. That further increases 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. These studies track 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 studies included evaluations 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 lifestyle, 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?

What’s the biggest contributor to happiness for you?

 

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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
  • “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, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

What Leads to Happiness?

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: What Leads to 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. 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.

 

Sustainable Happiness Model

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).

 

Revisiting the Data

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?

 

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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)?

 

What Leads to Happiness? 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. They nurture and enjoy 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.
  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, as opposed to harping on our weaknesses. And we work with others who have different strengths.
  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. What leads to happiness for you?

 

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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, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

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.”

 

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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 in 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. How about a life in which we learn, grow, and develop integrity, wisdom, and resilience?

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

What does a good life mean for you?

 

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

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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).

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. 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“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!