Chasing Happiness

“In essence, our lives are about defining, bracketing and chasing… Happiness.”

(From my keynote at the 2012 Choices Conference in Grand Rapids.)  As I write this I’m freshly returned from a trip to Asia. 48 hours ago, I was standing on a street corner in the center of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Here you’ll find an example of nearly every nuance in the broad spectrum of humanity. Men and women in $1,200 suits share the same sidewalk with burquas and Nike t-shirts. Every form of commerce is in play here from oil executives and government ministers to prostitutes and peddlers of Rolex knock offs. The obese and the underfed, the well educated and the uneducated, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Confucians and I suppose more than a few atheists, all breathing the same air, existing elbow to elbow.

What, I wondered, do all of these people share in common? When you peel away the Maslow pyramid and get to the essence of these millions of concurrent lives, what is the common question that is in the back of everyone’s mind?

So I decided to find out.

I was in Malaysia’s capital city for a meeting of our International alumni. We had attendees from a dozen countries, a variety of religious beliefs and a broad strata of employment. If ever there was a diverse laboratory for my experiment, this was it.

The question I like to ask Americans is this: If you won the lotto and all your financial needs were taken care of, how would you spend your days?

What would you do if you were working for love and not for money?

It’s a question very few of us ever really take the time to ponder, especially if we add this wrinkle:

What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail? If you could take a magic pill that would make you wildly successful at anything you attempted, what great adventure would you undertake.

These are life’s most fundamental questions:

Why are we here? And what are we going to do about it?

And what of my international friends? How did they answer the “why are we here” question?

“I want to learn as much as I can about the things that interest me.”
“I want to maximize pleasure and minimize discomfort.”
“I want to alleviate suffering.”
“I want to squeeze the most out of every second, sliding into heaven totally exhausted with a martini in one hand and my iPhone in the other.”
“I want to leave the world a little bit better than I found it.”

“If you do these things,” I asked, “what’s the end result.”

To a person, they answered…

“I want to be happy.”

So, in essence, our lives are about defining, bracketing and chasing… Happiness.

Happiness, as defined by the ultimate information authority in the universe (Wikipedia), “ a mental state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.”

We humans have tried to define happiness psychologically, spiritually, philosophically, even biologically. And at the end of the day, no matter what your experience or education, happiness is a thing of our own making.

Researcher Dan Gilbert believes that there are two kinds of happiness:

The happiness we feel when we get what we want and
The happiness we create when we don’t get what we want.

How many of you have won the lotto? How many of you have ever come in first place in a race? How many of you have ever been in love? At the moment each of these things happened to you, what did you feel? My guess is that there were some significant electronic impulses firing among the synapses in your brain that made you feel pretty good.

But what did you feel like three months later? Gilbert’s research seems to indicate that moments of pure pleasure don’t last. The lottery winner and the accident victim may find themselves in an identical state of mind within weeks of their watershed moments.

So how do we do more than just exist with a brain that comes to us with these limitations? In fact, we can use them to our advantage.

We live in a world where the law of cause and effect rules. Our every day behaviors build the habits that define a lifestyle that determines the extent of joy or pain we experience in the course of a lifetime.

It’s not the big events that define us. It’s the little ones.

Our existence is an un-ending series of small decisions. And these decisions are influenced by the one true factor that impacts happiness: Our attitude.

We all know examples of both ends of the attitude spectrum. At one extreme is the unhappy person who sees a cloud behind every silver lining. At the other is that annoying individual who never sees a cloud. The world is always perfect and there are no such things as problems.

Reality is somewhere in the middle. One of my all time heroes is Admiral Jim Stockdale. He was the highest ranking prisoner of war during the vietnam era and endured 8 years of imprisonment and torture at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. My mentor, Jim Collins, interviewed Admiral Stockdale for his best seller “Good to Great” about the attitude that determined whether you lived or died in prison.

When asked who didn’t make it back alive, Stockdale said,

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

It turns out that the survivors lived what has come to be known as “The Stockdale Paradox“.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale said. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

This is a very important point so I’ll add another Stockdale insight to help drive it home.

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Life is a series of story problems. We’re start each day with a game plan and life is fired at us point blank, adding twists and turns that can deviate us from our goals. The key to getting to where we want to be is to accept the uncomfortable dimensions of your current reality. To paraphrase Stockdale,

“Sometimes life sucks. Deal with it.”

But never lose faith that you will prevail.

So what then, is happiness? In the final analysis: Happiness is a choice.

It is a decision we make about how we will approach our daily ups and downs. It’s having the courage to fully process both the pleasure and pain, so we can learn from each and grow.

Pleasure is only a bad thing when we get addicted to it. And pain only becomes suffering when we try to numb it and don’t allow ourselves to fully feel it.

So with all of this in mind. How do we figure out why we’re here and move in the direction of our destiny? Here’s a tool that might be able to help.

Try this exercise. Put a sheet of paper in front of you with three lines on it. On line number one, write out, in one sentence how you would describe your profession to some one else.

When I did this exercise with a couple of my health care friends a couple of weeks ago, they wrote the following.

“As a Nurse, I provide moral support and physical care to people during some of their most challenging life moments.”

“As a Laboratory Technician, I work behind the scenes to seek out the early warning signs that can save a life.”

“My career provides the financial resources so that I can focus on my true passion: helping the homeless build self esteem and self reliance.”

When you’ve finished number one. Let’s go one to line number two. Give yourself more space here because I want you to try to articulate the times in your life when you were the most happy.

Where were you? What were you doing? What was it about the situation that made you happy?

Now, number 3, the most important question. Based on what you’ve written in the first two sections, write down, in a sentence, what would your profession be if you were living your passion? What would you do if you were working for love and not for money?

It may be hard to answer all three of these questions honestly right now, so give yourself some time to really think about it. But do think about it. Only about 5% of the population ever considers issues like these. Perhaps that’s why so few of us are truly happy.

Once you’ve zeroed in on your passion. Give yourself some tasks to move in that direction. Google encourages their employees to spend 20% of their work day on their own projects. The company pays for this time because some of the most profitable, game-changing ideas develop during that 20%.

If you’re like me, your days are probably already pretty full with the work you’re currently doing to preserve your current career, your mind, your body and your spirit. So I suggest what I call “The 10% Rule”. If you’re not where you want to be in your pursuit of happiness, invest 10% of every day inching in that direction.

If we assume that we spend 8 hours a night sleeping, that leaves 16 hours a day for everything else. The 10% Rule means you would spend about 1 hour and 40 minutes a day chasing happiness. Over the course of a year that’s 608 hours in a 365 day year or 76 eight hour work-days.

Imagine what you could accomplish if you focused on a single project for two and a half months?

Now here’s the final exercise. Once you’ve articulated where you are, where you want to go and the steps you’ll take to get there. I want you to write yourself a letter from the future.

My motivational mentor, Earl Nightingale used to say that, “we become what we think about.” Denis Waitley’s research into the workings of our mind tells us that our subconscious can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is vividly and repeatedly imagined. “Your imagination,” he says, “is your preview of life’s coming attractions.”

So I want you to paint a picture of your future state and start imagining yourself there. Write yourself a letter from that place and describe what it’s like in vivid detail. What is your job description? Where do you live? What kind of car are you driving? What does a typical day look like? Describe it from the perspective of your intellect but be sure to include a lot of emotion, too.

Objectives are our road map but subjectives are our motivation.

Describe the furniture, the gym where you work out, the people you interact with every day. Paint your picture in full color, in IMax with 5.1 dolby stereo surround sound. The move vivid you can make it, the better your subconscious will be able to process it.

And once you’ve articulated all of this, watch the magic happen. Your body will manifest what the mind envisions. This is why we feel physical stress when we worry about something that hasn’t happened. So make sure you’re programming your subconscious robot with the right code.

We are, in a sense, just like a computer in this respect. Plug in good code and you’ll get good output. Plug in bad code and you’ll get bad output.

So there you have it. We were put on this earth to chase happiness. To define what it means in our own minds and to do whatever it takes to manifest it, no matter how good our bad our current circumstance may be.

  • What’s your passion? What would you do if you could work for love and not for money?
  • If you’re not where you want to be right now, spend at least 10% of every day moving in the direction of your dreams.
  • Articulate your dreams in clear, simple sentences; statements that everyone, including your subconscious mind can easily understand.
  • And paint a vivid picture of where you expect to be 2, 5 and ten years from right now and create some simple, measurable action steps to start you on your way.

And one final point. Happiness is not a destination. Talk to some of the most successful individuals and teams and they will tell you that it wasn’t the achievement that brought the joy.

It was what happened on the way there.

Download an audio version of this message.

Chasing Happiness – A Life Purpose Worksheet.