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New Years Edition: How We Chase Happiness & Why We Fail

New Years Edition: How We Chase Happiness & Why We Fail

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As is customary during this time of year, goals and resolutions will be set for the new year. We want to lose weight. We want to make more money. We want a relationship. etc.

When we zoom down on the reasons that drive our goals, it generally boils down to a single motivation: we want to be happier people. For example, zooming down on our goals might look something like this:

Why do I want to lose weight? -> Look better in clothes -> More self-esteem -> Happiness.
Why do I want to start a business? -> More money -> Buy a house -> Happiness.
Why do I want to be in a relationship? -> Companionship -> Emotional support -> Happiness

That’s it. Happiness. The main driver of human goal setting. But this thinking begs the question: if being happy is our ultimate, long term motivation – then why are we so terrible at it?

Maybe it is the idea itself. Men do not usually sit around a bar talking about how they just want to be happy. Chasing happiness is not as sexy of a concept as say, getting a promotion or buying your first apartment. You can’t show off happiness like a new Ferrari or a new diamond ring (but do we ever infer happiness on people who have those things).

But the overwhelming reason is that we pursue what we think will make us happy. And more often than not, that path to happiness turns out to be an illusion. We enjoy an initial spike in happiness, only to quickly relapse to our baseline levels.

The Happiness Hypothesis: Our Goals = Long Term Happiness?

I’ve discovered that I have a poor ability to predict what will make me happy. People are generally terrible predictors of what makes them happy. So out of necessity, I’ve devised somewhat of a tool to test the “happiness hypothesis” (humour me, it is crude, unscientific, but it does the trick).

i) First, define your pursuit X. ie. Becoming rich, buying exotic vehicles with European lineages, becoming famous, getting married… whatever long term aspirations that you have.

ii) Ask the “WHY” questions. Why am I doing X? What am I really hoping to get out of X? It is an uncomfortable question to answer, mostly because it reveals our egos we hold secretly, our insecurities, and fears that led us to having these aspirations in the first place. Write all of this down.

I think what you’ll find that most of our goals rooted in the belief that the outcome would add to our perceived self-worth and happiness.

iii) Does achieving X really bring about happiness? Do what we aspire to be equate happier, more fulfilled lives? A simple exercise is to observe somebody who has “done it”. A mentor. Somebody you hold in high regard for their success. When possible, consult their experiences directly.

Where are they in life? Are they really happier people because of it? What would they have done differently if they were to do it all over again? Learn to read between the lines.

iv) Cut or Keep? You now know whether happiness is part of the equation. Sometimes, you’ll find the opposite is true – indeed, some of our most grandiose aspirations might bring us nothing but misery in the long run. Make a decision to eliminate these, no matter how hard it is. Give a shit about where you channel your time towards.

The decision, of course, ultimately rests with you. But if it is making you miserable now and you know that light at the end of the tunnel is not what its cracked up to be (an oncoming train?), then why are you doing it?

Stuck? Most of us are. Here are some ideas that might help:

The following is borrowed from the terrific book Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, an extremely successful online shoes retailer and distributor. After his takeover as CEO, Hsieh built Zappos based on a culture of “delivering happiness”, both to Zappo’s customers, its employees and himself. Zappos is also ranked as Fortune’s top 25 companies to work for and has annual revenues of more than $1 billion. So Hsieh knows a thing or two about making people happy and productive.

He defines the three types of happiness:

i) Pleasure. Sugar high type happiness aka the “rock star lifestyle” stimuli. The shortest, most unsustainable type of happiness.

ii) Passion. Professional athletes often referred to this as being “in the zone”. The second longest lasting type of happiness.

iii) Purpose. Being part of something bigger that has higher meaning. The longest lasting type of happiness.

Since “Purpose” is the longest lasting type of happiness, it makes sense that we should take care of that first. But what is Purpose? Steve Pavlina offers one very good definition:

Purpose is the larger, meaningful context of what you want to achieve in life.

I try to align my goals to enable me to live life the best way I know how: being impactful to those around me, staying curious of the world, and never stop confronting my fears.  Having this purpose as my “umbrella” life philosophy provides me with a road map when I get sidetracked or get down in a rut.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the other two types of happiness immensely and have no plans of easing off either of them. However, if most of my goals are rooted in my deeper purpose, I am much less likely to encounter the “sugar-crashes” of chasing one empty goal after another.

The trick, I believe, is discovering purpose first, and all the pieces of happiness will fall into place.

How to Discover Your Life Purpose in 20 Minutes – A great piece on discovering purpose by Steve Pavlina.

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose – An inside look and personal account from the venture capitalist turned CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, on how he created a culture of delivering more than just shoes. Great business read.

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