Writing on happiness seems hubris in the face of COVID, 2020 generally, and the possible existence of spiteful Greek gods, but even in the face of setbacks people often ask me why I’m happy, so a post on how that came to be seems topical in these times of needed resilience. It wasn’t always this way.
One of my life goals isn’t “to be happy”. You could argue I have an unstated meta-goal for me not be unhappy, but I’ve always thought being uncomfortable, frustrated, feeling stupid, unappreciated, or upset at times is unavoidable if you want an interesting life. Which is one of my goals. More on those later.
I do actively spend time reflecting on elements of structural unhappiness in my life, recognize them, and take steps to move away or eliminate them, but feel that’s not the same thing. I’ve ditched horrible jobs, toxic acquaintances, and bad situations when it’s clear, despite trying to fix them, that they’re unsalvageable.
But that distinction makes a big difference. From my perspective, happiness is a condition of other goals in life progressing, attained, savoured, and continual new challenges and opportunities, rather than a pursuable goal in itself. Happiness is a feedback loop. It tells you that what you’re doing is working for the mental model you have for yourself and your life.
But happiness is a nuanced thing. It has layers. Academics break it down into 3 categories:
- Life satisfaction
(Some people here argue over categorizing between hedonic and eudaimonic happiness, but I feel these 3 categories are more understandable and actionable than pleasure vs purpose.)
My belief is moving your focus deeper down this stack is what actually leads to feelings of more sustained and longer-lasting happiness in your life. So, take a little time now to think about what you actively do to maintain each category. One of the easiest diagnoses I make when people ask for life advice on this front is about focusing further down the stack.
The first thing modern research shows us is that most things people think will make them happy, do not. If you’ve never seriously looked at happiness as a topic, I’d recommend Yale’s (free!) Coursera lectures on The Science of Well Being as an easy and enjoyable starting point. I’ve recommended it to few troubled friends and they’ve all claimed it helped. Take notes. Do the exercises. It’s a good investment of your time and you’ll get a lot more out of it that than another season of X on Netflix. As an example, something I found that helped me from it, was writing down in my journal every day 3 things I’m grateful for or savoured that day. It put a lot in perspective when you’ve had a suboptimal day.
Let’s take a look at hedonic happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction.
Hedonic happiness is what most people confuse happiness with when they talk about it. The identifiable feeling that you are happy or pleased with something at that moment in time – you are actively enjoying something or experiencing joy or pleasure – or the counterpoint, that you never feel unhappy, ever.
Hedonic happiness tends to be fleeting. Most research points to something called hedonic adaptation, that the happiness that people have in a certain thing or situation fades over time to a certain person-defined set point and that without constantly seeking out new stimuli that make you happy, you will feel “less” happy and enjoy life less. This is where the term “hedonic treadmill” comes in if you’ve ever heard it, where people are constantly juicing themselves to get ahead through some short term happiness hit, only to eventually have their happiness decline over time and return to a unhappy" steady state.
The side-effect is entire industries built on convincing you that consumer purchases or big ticket items will make your life better. A thousand advertisers are trying to convince you happiness is yours if you “just buy X." Research shows, however, that these sort of short-term happiness hits wear off quickly and satisfaction decreases. People compensate by buying newer things, add-ons, or incremental improvements on their items or more of the same, but it’s like a drug hit. You need it more and more frequently, and its harder to keep the same level of high in hedonic happiness.
No doubt if you’re reading the blog, you’re probably not as consumeristic as your peers. Suffice it to say, research makes it an almost iron law that “things” do not make us happier in the long run.
Money can’t buy you happiness if you’re investing it in things generally, but you can make your money count towards happiness when you are purchasing if you want to have your pocketbook pull its weight.
- Buying experiences will make you happier than objects. Shared experiences are even better.
- Buying things for other people, rather than yourself, conveys greater, more lasting, happiness.
- If you are going to buy something, buy quality and long term (think craftsmanship).
Emotional Well Being
Well being is a broader concept. This is the environment and conditions of your life which provide satisfaction and stability from physical, mental, social, financial, and aspirational perspectives.
Again, this does not mean scott-free from difficulties or stress. But in broader terms, you can think of this as the things which support your being able to be happy. Many are shockingly simple: Sleep, exercise, financial independence, a great group of connected friends, psychological safety and respect, and meaningful uses for your time and skills in productive uses you feel you’re progressing in.
The breadth of well-being as a safety net also self-reinforces your well-being. The more areas you score well in amongst these areas, these areas of your life absorb shocks in any one area and add resiliency to your response to negative events. The loss of a job due to COVID can be alright if your financial independence is ok or you have as good social network that can help support you and help you find a new role, or even friends that have your back and tell you it was a crap job anyway (to be honest, it was holding you back from your goals anyway).
So, again, having strong emotional well-being does not mean your life is free from difficulties or stress. Most likely the opposite. Struggle and problems are an integral part of life and well-being and to rip off the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Life is pain. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something."
I actually believe your emotional well-being depends on challenge, struggle, and (healthy) stress to some degree. Lack leads to boredom and listlessness. Worthwhile things in life are won through hurdling at least some negative experience to get to it. Adversity and a failure and both useful and necessary. Setbacks are inevitable.
But thinking about and taking stock of these buckets in your life and actively maintaining them is perhaps something key to your longer term health and happiness. It will certainly add to your resilience over the longer term and better quality of life. There as this great saying I heard a while back that whether you’re successful or not is whether you have different, more interesting problems than you had last year.
Partly, I feel this is also about resilience, a person’s ability to take negative events and create better outcomes or responses to them, but it’s also about making sure you’re taking care of yourself. Lack of resilience leads to poor wellbeing outcomes. But also, this is about actively trying to maintain these aspects of your life and incrementally improving them over time.
What can you practically do to increase your emotional well-being? Focus on this list for powerups:
- Sleep. Quantity and quality.
- An active social network and relationships.
- Spend less money than you make (ideally, live on 80% max and 20% savings/investments)
- Don’t be working all the time
- Be open to luck
None of these are hard habits to develop (for example, increasing my sleep to 7 hours min per night had unambiguous and dramatic improvements in quality of life for myself.). Some are simply mental tweaks to the way you’re living now or developing a healthier mental habit (for example, for an amazing intro to number 7, being more open to luck, please watch Darren Brown’s The Secret of Luck). But I can virtually guarantee the longer term benefits of improving any pair of these will pay dividends. Manage them as you would a portfolio of investments that you check regularly, course correct on, nurture, and grow.
The big one. Those things that allow you to feel good about your life, even when events may be in the dumper or bleak. A fundamental resilience that allows you, even when you have major setbacks, to realize these are temporary but that you will eventually end up being successful, because, well, you already are… or are on the way.
For me, and to commiserate with people who may be reading this and not feeling happy with their lives at the moment, I have to admit to having been deeply unsatisfied in my twenties despite traditional outward signs of success: a house, a nice car, presentable girlfriend, and a good job. I was anxious all the time and had a deeper anxiousness, largely because I felt I was not living up to my potential. Sure, I was often frustrated about things at work, but the bigger problem was I had no real guidance (or even models, really) for success or how I wanted to live my life.
For example: I wanted to travel. I was deeply in debt from my university education loans (despite scholarships) and a mortgage on my house. I had a great job in an interesting and emerging area, but felt the work and customers were frivolous and meaningless and didn’t believe we were providing value that had any purpose (hey, it was the dot com boom). I was in a relationship with a nice person, but knew it would never support me becoming the person I wanted to be. I worked too much. I was in the gym for anger and frustration and insecurity, not health (though in great shape).
It took my first big trip abroad to make me really reflect on these things and realize I needed a bit of a change. So, I started coming up with a framework (and bucket list actually) on what I wanted my life to look like. At first, it was simply based on a conversation I had with a friend when I got back. An idea that happiness was actually a simple matter of having other things in alignment, and really based on 3 pillars:
Sounds too simple, right? My friend and I debated this for an entire week. She felt health needed to be in there, and security (which is interesting considering the life choices she ended up making), but I argued that research showed that even people with long term illnesses tend to happiness the same way healthier people do. Same thing with security. There was no real security, just the perception of it. So, I kind of stuck to my guns after figuring these out on my Andean mountaintop. What do the 3 pillars mean though?
Meaning is about purpose. That you need to be doing something with your time you feel (not necessarily society) is valuable and has purpose in order to ultimately feel happy about your life.
Belonging is a sense that you must feel like you have an environment or a tribe or a patch of space or home that fundamentally supports you and welcomes you in some way that you are an integral part of and can savour and appreciate.
Someone can be anyone. I’d argue few people (except sociopaths) find happiness from living solely for themselves. You need someone else: a partner, a friend, a child, a relative… that fundamentally you can live as part of society with. Isolationism never has been a practical policy.
These were the roots of what I believed constituted the good life, but I realized I needed to break those down to a more actionable list of goals.
So, I came up with this idea of Big Rock goals that I wanted to design my life around.Effectively a set of goals and principles to architect my life around. More guiding principles really, but they’ve acted as guideposts for how I try to make decisions about my life, and help me define what a successful life is from my perspective.
So, ask yourself the question: What goals do I want to design my life around?
I’ve heard of a whole bunch of hacks to help you think about this, from what you want people to be saying about you at your funeral, or even what qualities you want to think should govern your life such as loyalty, integrity, honesty, etc and understand how those form underlying goals for yourself. Whatever they are they and whatever you think they may be, they are deeply personal. And, for most people, much more hidden from themselves than they realize, so it may take some time for you to tease them out from what your apparent and current goals are, compared to well… what you feel society or other people may want you to achieve. Do some drafts, think about it a bit over a couple of weeks, rather than sitting down and banging this out. Truth of the matter is, few people actually know what they want out of life and this is something that changes along with you and your aspirations (or even as you figure out what you don’t like.).
For me, my personal list, ended up carving out to:
What goals do I want to design my life around?
A life well lived and interesting.
Travel heaps, learn loads, have interesting adventures, and do stuff that matters. Explore the fullness of human possibility.
Have lasting, meaningful relationships.
Partner, friends, loves, peers, mentors, allies, and even my enemies.
Make a difference, take a stand, build something; to society, to humanity, to tomorrow.
To do stuff that matters. To make a difference. To transform something that sucks. To create that which transforms. To build that which counts. To experience what is true.
To belong. A small base and refuge. A home.
Effective, human-sized, economical, beautiful, sustainable, green, easy to shut up for extended travel. Full of laughter, music, fun, and people I care about. Someplace I feel I belong.
Be a Mensch.
Help those who can’t possibly help me, build something of value, and plant trees whose shade I cannot possibly sit under.
As guiding principles, they may sound aspirational, possibly even a bit hokey and new age. But it took me a long time to get to these and they’ve stood the test of time versus other goals I thought I wanted (many of which were more milestones, achievements or bucket list than outright life goals.). In actual practice, they’ve been great at helping me make hard life decisions since I crafted them (I’d even say there is a 6th one about, having two options, choosing the more fun and and never done of two options, but that’s more a practice than a goal.).
For me, I’ve found that my feeling around life satisfaction seem to be related to how well I am doing towards these guiding goals (possibly buoyed by how many times a year I can to snowboard a mountain or chase fishies underwater around tropical reefs). And it’s important to focus on the outcomes of the goals rather than how you may have perceived them possibly playing out. For example, number 4 ended up for a long time for me, ended up being a lot more about the company I was running as Managing Director for a few years than my actual house for the longest time. Be open to the fact that the means to some of your goals may not necessarily be how you envisioned them, even as you’re moving towards them or have even achieved them without realizing it.
Whatever the case, I thought sharing my list might be useful for others from the thought process I used to develop it from the 3 pillars. Whatever your list is, it’ll take time. I honestly suggest thinking about this by getting away from social connections and the pressures and influences that make your life currently what and where it is. Social obligations and connections have a way of having you define yourself in terms of their expectations and role they have seen or proscribed for you. And those become self-reinforcing. Getting away removes that pressure.
A Few Things You Can Do
So, I’d argue those are the fundamental elements of happiness: hedonic, well-being, and life satisfaction.
But what can you do if you’re currently feeling unhappy and unfulfilled?
I think there is a fundamental realization that needs to be made my some people that quite often you need to buy happiness by getting over some unhappiness. Often hard work and frustration are the path to longer lasting and greater happiness. Being happy all the time is not a goal, it’s Brave New World.
But, let’s say we’ve looked at that and you’ve got some deep fundamental issues in your life that need changing.
First, try to figure out why you feel that way. Make sure your expectations are somewhat in line with reality and that you are actually grateful and savour the things you do have in your life.
Second, once you’ve figured that our, try to move away from things that you cannot fix or salvage that make you unhappy. Even taking steps to fix things will make you feel better since at least you’re doing something about fixing them. Focus on your well-being and the things that will more strongly reinforce that … Be wary of time thieves also. Things that suck away attention and time you could be spending on other things.
Third, figure out what will make you happy. I am often surprised at the number of people who simply are too heavily influenced by social media, television, family or social pressures, or unrealistic expectations. I recommend the Yale course again on the Science on Happiness and a good read in this perspective which avoids too much stoic BS is Mark Manson’s The Gentle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.
Fourth, start tracking. Develop a journaling and/or logging habit, Take a look at least once a year on what you want to accomplish with your days and then look at how you did against those things. Try to develop good habits and systems for helping you get to those goals. Forgive yourself for things that may knock you off course temporarily despite your best efforts (eg. my travel plans for this year were annihilated completely by COVID.). Dust yourself off again and push the reset button.
Fifth, try to work on some underlying goals for your life. Make it a work in progress about how to make decisions around life choices, rather than a bucket list (which may be useful, but having had one, I am not so sure it made me happy even if it made me look impressive on paper.).
And that’s about it. I hope at least something you’ve read here helps you. I’d love to hear about your thoughts on this post on twitter @awws. I hesitated a long time before posting up my 5 goals as I felt they were too personal (and worried how people, even those close to me, might react when they realized I’m less acquisitive than they might have thought, or less interested in an educational pedigree than might be apparent from my actions, or don’t have a particular goal in common with them. People do judge.).
Good luck. Be happy.