For humans worldwide, happiness is the most important thing in the universe. Each in our own way, from the heroin addict to the social entrepreneur, we're all striving for it. A fundamental part of self-improvement is refining our idea of happiness. What does it means to be happy? And how can we actually achieve it?
When we come across a new idea of happiness and apply it in our lives it can be a big, positive revolution. Throughout the last twelve months I've had a seismic change in my own approach to happiness. It has not only made me live my life in a different way, but also inspire me to research the science of happiness and how we can best apply it in our lives. It has opened my eyes to the complexity of happiness. Today I want to share my own "happiness shift". As well as one of the key insights I discovered during my research that can help to improve our lives, enterprises and societies.
The source of my own changed idea of happiness was six months spent backpacking in South America. I went travelling because I wanted to have as many different experiences as possible. I wanted to see new places, new faces and have lots of stories to tell. My idea of happiness at the time rested on personal experience. And not any experience, I wanted them all!
But during the trip my perspective changed. This way of life, eye opening and perspective shifting as it can be in the short term, shouldn't be the basis for a life. I realised it was lacking meaning or purpose. After a while endless experience indulgence gets boring. The photos and stories still wow the outside world but you begin to ask yourself why am I actually doing this? What does this actually achieve to make me or the world any better? I now think that having some form of purpose in life is one of the most important things. Even if that means a life of working hard every day to have your voice heard or make the smallest difference. Now, about that science...
Daniel Kahneman is a behavioural psychologist and author of the best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He argues that there is a difference between being happy "in" your life and being happy "with" it. He tells a story of two selves. There is the experiencing self. Which feels pain, stress and pleasure in the moment. It's an answer to the question "am I happy right now?". If right now you're having sex or eating a delicious meal then most likely the answer will be yes. Then there is the memory self, which judges itself on who you are as a whole. What have you done in your life and who you are? All the memory self cares about is the story. Did your start-up succeed or fail? It's the goal getter.
So what makes each self happy? To please your memory self, what you need is to have goals and meet them. Kahneman states that: "Having goals that you can meet is essential to life satisfaction. Setting goals that you're not going to meet sets you up for failure." As the memory self takes a holistic view of who you are and what you've achieved. When it asks the question: "What have I done with my life?", if you can't come up with an answer you'll likely be unhappy. But not every goal is equal.
The brain’s goal setting systems use dopamine to make us pursue things. But the things our brain wants us to pursue often don’t fit in well with what we think is important in life. Researcher Kelly McGonigal argues that: "We need to separate the real rewards (that give our life meaning) from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted."
Vital for the experiencing self, on the other hand, are strong relationships of love and connection. "Emotional Happiness is primarily social." argues Kahneman. "The very best thing that can happen to people is to spend time with people they like." This research grabbed headlines with the finding that, above $60,000 per year, more money doesn't mean more happiness.
Humans adapt super quickly to the things money can buy. The first few days of having a mansion are great but after a few weeks it becomes just normal life. But, good relationships, aren’t something that we easily adapt to, so they can sustain and enhance our happiness throughout our lives.
So what does this research tell us about how we should design our lives for happiness? One key idea is that no one thing is going to make us happy. If you think you can be happy by being only a goal setting machine then you’re in for a shock. But likewise, if you spend your time only in the realm of experience, then after a while you’ll feel dissatisfied.
Goals that aren’t connected with our values, or the pursuit of experiences that we will soon adapt to, won’t be successful. This division of happiness selves is also important for trying to build great culture in our organisations. At the individual level you can’t have a great culture with only a goal oriented vision. Or, on the experience side, by having free beers on tap 24/7 or company socials every night. You need both. While I still think the pursuit of purpose should be dominant, having experiences that nourish and shift our perspectives can only aid us in this quest.