The Controllable Causes of Happiness
THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTORS to focus on for becoming happier, then, are the voluntary factors (V in the formula). These factors include your daily behaviors and your state of mind, or consciousness. They are the most important factors because they are the most immediately changeable and have the greatest impact on happiness. They are also important because they hold the key to changing, in a positive way, the C in your happiness equation - your life circumstances.
Happiness is an incredibly personal and case-specific venture. The truth is that your happiness is determined more by your state of mind than by the external circumstances of your life. A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances but, rather, a person with a certain set of attitudes. The happiness of your life depends on the quality of the thoughts in your head, not the quantity of dollars in your pocket, the number of children you have at home, or the diplomas you have in your office. If you are not happy, you have to change your attitude.
Since the beginning of time, people have been trying to change the world so that they can be happy. This has never worked. It's backward. It's like seeing a blurry spot on a photograph and trying to remove it by rubbing the photograph instead of cleaning the smudge on the camera lens. It is just as futile to think we can change people or the world as it is to rub a photograph to "erase" a flaw caused by something on the lens. When you realize that the problem is on the camera lens, you can clear the lens itself. You work with thoughts or causes, not outcomes or effects. You don't change behavior, only the consciousness that creates it.
Most of us have an intuitive sense, at least, that happiness is an inside job - that it comes more from attitudes than from external circumstances. And yet, we still focus all our energy on the pursuit of success and expect that to make us happy. Why do we do this? If what we are doing isn't making us happy, why do we continue doing it anyway?
Well, there are two reasons why we do this. First, trying to buy happiness with success is initially more seductive.
Success is more tangible, more visible. And the media glamorize it. Truth be told, success is easier to advertise and sell than happiness.
Here's a good example of what I mean. Recently, I've been shopping a happiness-flavored television show. It's a good one. I met with the head of a major network, a network known for its softly educational but entertaining bent. After I pitched the idea, the head of programming turned to me and said, "Wow. Now that's a phenomenal show! The only problem is that it's hard to show happiness on a television screen. It doesn't translate well. How can we show that somebody is feeling better, feeling happier, without showing cars, clothes, partying, and sex?"
The second reason people try to buy happiness with success is that they actually mistake success for happiness. They think success and happiness are the same thing, or at least should be the same thing. But happiness is more than success. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that too single-minded a pursuit of success gets in the way of your happiness. Pursuing success for its own sake is like trying to synthesize happiness. It's more expensive than growing it naturally and it's worse for you, too.
The Pursuit of Unhappiness
The pursuit of success is actually a thinly veiled pursuit of unhappiness. If you believe that your happiness depends on being successful, then it follows that unhappiness can be cured by being more successful. So, the unhappier you are about your current situation, the more resolutely you pursue success. And to try to prove to yourself that this strategy is working, you also seek pleasure, which - for short periods of time, at least - feels like happiness. But because happiness equals pleasure and meaning, your unhappiness only grows. And the more your unhappiness grows, the more you chase the false goals of success and pleasure. In that chase, as you prioritize success and pleasure above all else, you plant and nurture the same seeds of discontent that had you chasing success and pleasure in the first place. And this discontent incites a more aggressive pursuit of success and pleasure in the hope that it will bring happiness. The unhappiness that results from this pursuit will spur on even more valiant attempts at achieving success and satisfying desire and so on and so on. Life may bring rewards but less and less lasting peace or satisfaction.
Does it now make sense why, despite things being so objectively good for many of us, we don't seem to be feeling much better for it? We've created a giant vicious circle: Discontent drives the rat race and hedonism; and the rat race and hedonism create more discontent. The unhappier you are about your situation, the more you try to improve it by stepping up the pace in the rat race. And the more you fail to achieve happiness this way, the unhappier you are about your situation.
For most people, giving up on success is a hard pill to swallow. The pursuit of success seems so promising. Success is seriously seductive. Pleasure is oh so sexy. Nature has de-signed us to feel this way. Evolutionarily speaking, success, status, and pleasure mattered more to our ancestors than happiness because a pursuit of success and status meant survival for our ancestors and their children and their children's children. Happiness took a backseat to survival. Now, with many of us living above the most primitive levels of subsistence and with new tools, resources, and support at our fingertips, unhappiness for extended periods of time isn't as easily justified; we can't blame unhappiness on the rain, so to speak. In other words, we can't blame our unhappiness on an inability to meet our basic physical needs like clothing, shelter, and food. Neither can we blame it on a lack of available expertise, guidance, technology, or other resources. All kinds of help from all kinds of sources are at our disposal.
The Unhappiness Treadmill
Two concepts help explain why successful life outcomes do not and cannot make you lastingly happier. I call them the revolving door of desire and the unhappiness treadmill. Once you understand these two concepts, you'll be able to see them in action in your own life and then work to remove yourself from their gravitational pull.
The pursuit of success doesn't make you lastingly happy because even when you get what you want, what you wanted gets old once you've gotten it. Then, in order to get the same high, you need more and more of it. There's a reason I'm comparing success and its trappings to drugs - they really do work the same way. Once you have a certain materialistic experience, you need to keep on having more of it if you want to sustain your happiness.
Things that were once new and sparkly lose that fresh, new-car scent and slowly fade, but most of us forget or un-derestimate this effect. You can't bottle the experience of owning something new, and you can't stop time no matter how hard you try. What used to make you happy no longer does. We expect things to make us happier for longer periods of time than they actually do or can. To get the same effect from the same thing, increasingly higher doses are required. This is the unhappiness treadmill.
The Revolving Door of Desire
The second reason why successful life outcomes don't make you lastingly happy is that what you want always changes. Happiness based on success is a moving target. What most of us don't realize is that we will always have unfulfilled or unsatisfied desires. Desire can never be satisfied once and for all. For every desire satisfied, another is created. One satisfied desire becomes the basis for the next, which, when satisfied, will become the platform for yet another. This issue is endemic to life itself. There is no escaping it. I call this phenomenon the revolving door of desire.
You live your entire life in a gap, a gap between what you want or who you have become and where you are. One of the keys to happiness, then, is to learn to appreciate the nature of desire and put it in its place. You have to learn to accept the fact that you will always be incomplete, that you will always have unfulfilled and unsatisfied desires until the day you are dead - and that this is actually a good thing. You must realize that happiness does not rest on your ability to satisfy every desire, to fulfill every longing once and for all. You can't permanently stop the revolving door of desire, so you might as well enjoy the ride.
A client of mine - let's call him Jared - called for some coaching because he quit a six-figure job to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity in fashion with his brother. The funny thing (to me) is that he loved the job he quit. And he hated fashion. But he wanted a Ferrari and a boat and he thought he would never be able to afford either one of those things while working in investment banking, so he quit. "Rob," he told me, "I hate this fashion thing and I'm not making any money at it. I don't understand why I'm never able to be completely satisfied forever with any one thing. I don't understand what would possess me to quit a great job making great money in this economy to pursue such a terrible opportunity doing something I hate just so I can buy stuff I don't need! Why is the grass always greener?"
On average, Americans over the course of their lives move more than six times, change jobs more than ten times, and marry more than once, which suggests that most of us aren't very good at nailing down this desire thing once and for all.
Inside-Out Happiness Is Authentic Happiness
As I reflect back on my decision to make happiness my top priority, and on the actions that I took as a result, I can now see that one thing made all the difference: I stopped letting other people tell me what I wanted. I stopped letting society define my ambitions. I stopped letting family and friends dictate my desires. I will tell you the same: stop letting other people tell you what you want. Become independent of the opinions of others. Stop your endless search for approval and acceptance from others. If you don't, the only happiness you'll ever find is synthetic happiness.
Real happiness comes from spending your life in your own way. If you walk in another's shoes or take another's path, you don't leave any footprints of your own. This doesn't mean you have to be different from everyone else, and it doesn't mean that others can't offer you wisdom. It simply means learning to tell the difference between what comes from within and what is imposed on you from the outside. Happiness, you see, is nothing if it's not about being more and more of who you really are.
How much of what you think you want is what you really want and how much of it is something society, friends, family members, or colleagues say you should want? How much of it is intrinsically rewarding and how much of it is only extrinsically rewarding? How much of what you do daily is only for the benefit of show? Which things are socially conditioned? Sometimes our dreams and desires come more from our culture than from our unique, individual souls. When this is true they can be the source of much unhappiness and turmoil.
For instance, do you really want to own a home instead of renting an apartment? Do you really want to own your car instead of leasing one, get married instead of staying single (or being in an unwed but committed relationship), or work a corporate job instead of being an entrepreneur? What do you, dear reader, really want and what does society say you should want? Can you tell the difference between your wants or desires and other people's (or society's) wants or desires? Begin to tease out what society says you should want from what you really want. In fact, I'd go so far as to recommend that, above all else, you get clear on what you want by taking everybody else out of the picture. Step out of the illusion. When you really get this one day, you'll just decide to get up and get out of the movie. You'll step back into your authenticity.
You can do this by asking the infinitely regressive "why?" question: Why do you want what you want? Keep asking this question until you've peeled back all the layers of that desire and you've gotten to the core, the essence, of what you really want.
Why do you want to own that home? Is it for the tax break? Do you want to impress other people with its size? Or does having a home you can call your own reflect your core values? Why do you want to get married and have children? Is it because you love your partner unequivocally and unconditionally and know that having children is your meaning and purpose in life? Or is it because you feel in-complete, unsuccessful, or like a failure relative to your friends who are married and have children? Are there ways to meet these same needs or desires in more productive and efficient ways?
Question some of the assumptions that you're living and working under. Question your motives. Get to the root of them. Identify and execute against your own goals. Claim and live your own life. You're not here on this planet or in this world to live somebody else's life.
This may or may not mean giving up the rat race and the pleasure chase. Either way, however, it will mean learning to exchange synthetic happiness - the temporary high that comes from success and pleasure - for authentic happiness, the more lasting sense of satisfaction that comes from a life full of pleasure and meaning. It will mean learning to stop trying to synthesize happiness from material ingredients.
As you reflect back on your life, look forward to the future state of your own affairs, and plan for happiness, I would strongly encourage you to ask yourself four incredible questions:
Consider the words of Charles Kingsley: "We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about."
What are you uniquely enthusiastic about?
2009, Robert Mack, All Rights Reserved
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