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How to Reverse Our Flawed Formula for Happiness

by Carlo Alcos Feb 9, 2012
“If happiness is on the other side of success, your brain never gets there.”

BACK WHEN I WAS WORKING in the corporate world fixing computer problems, my team’s and my “success” was measured with statistics. The number of tickets taken, the number resolved, the amount of calls picked up, time spent on the phone. Those kinds of numbers. I was consistently a top performer and took pride watching those numbers climb each month, until one. I’d broken a record; I’d fixed more PC problems than anyone else in recorded history that month.

You know what the first words out of my manager’s mouth were? “Let’s see if you can break it next month!” That was the moment I stopped trying so hard. It was when I truly learned that our idea of success, in the way that it’s taught in our society, can never be reached. And if one were to associate happiness with success, then that means happiness can never be achieved.

If happiness is on the other side of success, your brain never gets there. What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society.

Shawn Achor gives a witty, entertaining, and intelligent 12-minute talk about the concept of positive psychology and how it ties into the work we do in our lives. In traveling to 45 countries and working with schools and companies, he picked up on a trend, a common formula that was being taught to students and workers, and one that is ingrained in how we parent, manage, and motivate ourselves:

If I work harder I will be more successful, and if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier.

The main problem with this, he notes (and what I concluded from my own work example above), is that “every time your brain has a success you change the goalposts for what success looks like.” This is prevalent in how we do our work, and it’s prevalent in our personal lives and consumerist lifestyles. There always seems to be this sense that on the other side of something (a new thing, a completed task, someone treating you a certain way) is where happiness lies. “If only I had this, I’d be happy.” “Once I reach this goal, I’ll be happy.” “As soon as she tells me she loves me, I’ll be happy.”

From your experiences in life, when you’ve thought like this, has it ever been true? I’m guilty of this train of thought, and it always seems like I’m waiting for something. Can I bring happiness to the present, instead of striving for it over the horizon? Shawn thinks so. According to him, the fields of neuroscience and positive psychology are discovering that our brains actually work in reverse to the notion that success bring happiness. It’s being proven that happiness is what drives success, not the other way around.

That’s all fine and dandy, but how does one go about bringing happiness to the present if we’re so trained to seek it in the future? By re-training our brains. Shawn’s specific suggestions to go about doing this are the following:

  • Three gratitudes – Make note of three new things that you are grateful for every day.
  • Journaling – Recall a positive experience that occurred over the last 24 hours; this practice allows your brain to re-live it.
  • Exercise – It teaches your brain that your behaviour matters.
  • Meditation – Sitting still trains the brain to get over our “cultural ADHD,” and helps bring focus.
  • Random acts of kindness – Email one person in your social support network, praising them.

Willing to give it a shot?

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