How to Pursue the Pursuit of Happiness

So, you want to be happy? Who doesn’t?  You’re probably thinking of reading some of those self-help books on the topic.  But chances are you are going to end up frustrated because the search for happiness is usually presented in the wrong way. You’ll end up looking for the wrong thing.

The problem comes partly from our language and the way we speak about happiness, as if it is a thing that can be obtained or achieved.  “Happiness,” so our culture teaches us, is a state of being.  It is a strong emotional state,  something akin to “joy” or “exaltation.”  It should be grabbed and held onto.

But deep inside you know that goal isn’t really feasible – we can’t feel extended periods of joy any more than we can stay in any extreme emotional state for very long.  And “achieving” happiness isn’t the same as crossing a finish line or finally buying that “just for me” sports car.

Instead, we should recognize that pursuing happiness is really about the types of activities we add to our lives.  We should be striving for the kind of life that keeps us enthusiastic and excited to take on each day, despite some of the inevitable bad moments and accidents.

So, what can we do to have more of that kind of happiness in our lives?  The answer: shift our emphasis from the word “happy” to the word “pursuit.”  Concentrate on the activities we add to our life.  If we add more moments where we are fully engaged in satisfying and rewarding activities, that work for us on an inner, self-referential level, we will be well on our way to having a happy life.

And what types of activities might do this? Which activities help us feel fully engaged in meaningful, rewarding ways?  Fortunately, modern day psychology does have some suggestions.

Develop the Habit of Self-Improvement Projects
A lot of good feelings about you and who you are becoming can come from taking on a short-term self-improvement project.  Watching our self make small gains and finally achieving a personal goal can be rewarding specifically on an inner, private level.

There are certainly many things to consider when choosing a self-improvement goal and developing the daily or weekly measurements that might provide those moments of small success.  But just engaging in a self-improvement project can be psychologically rewarding.  Particularly if the objective is not something we are doing for external feedback and rewards.  Importantly, progress on a self-improvement goal will help us feel good about ourselves for an extended period of days, if not all of them.

Examples might include a modest weight loss or fitness goal, gradually reading that book you’ve always wanted to read, or starting and finishing a series of classes in a new craft or hobby.  Self-improvement ideas abound, but keeping the goals manageable, medium in size, and easily measurable are important factors to consider.

Exercise Your Strengths
A different but similar sense of accomplishment and pride can come from doing things that others find hard.  This doesn’t mean focusing on earning a prize or defeating an opponent.  Instead, it can refer to simply experiencing a certain kind of joy when you exercise your unique talents and strengths.  We are all good at some things. Perhaps some of these things have funneled us in to our current job.  But independent of any external rewards, such as pay or promotions, there is a certain internal reward from engaging in what we do well.

Purposefully adding activities to our lives that allow us to activate our strengths is a great way to pursue happiness.  Outside of our controlled work environment we might discover we can volunteer our bookkeeping talent at our local church or coach a youth soccer program and experience the joys of teaching.  We can landscape a community park or use our voice to read for the blind.   Doing what we do well is always intrinsically rewarding, and doing so in the service of others is a potential ‘double whammy’ in the pursuit of happiness.

Go for the “Flow”
A third kind of activity we can add to our lives is one designed to get us into “flow.”  Several years back psychologists starting studying that wonderful place our mind goes to when we are fully engaged in a task; that loss of time and worries when our minds are “locked in” by the activity.  We usually know we were “in the zone” only after we come out of it.  “Flow” can happen at work obviously, but what about purposefully adding it to our lives as a “pursuit of happiness” activity?

To get to flow most easily the mind should be fully engaged in the task.  This happens in everyday life when we are activating our curiosity or encouraging our creativity.  Allowing ourselves to be creative or curious may feel like a luxury in today’s busy, fast-paced world, but paradoxically finding exactly that kind of time will be far more “productive” toward achieving a life of happiness and contentment than completing yet another thing on our to-do list.  Simply ask yourself this:  don’t you know someone who regularly engages in creative or curiosity-fulfilling activities and seems to have a particularly interesting and happy life?

Join in a Community of Volunteers
Finally, perhaps the easiest activity we can add to our lives is volunteering in a relaxed and social atmosphere with others.  It is true many service clubs have experienced a severe decline in enrollments over the past decade or two.  This may be due to how easy it is with today’s technology to spend time alone, entertaining ourselves or working nonstop.  But the lives of our grandparents were filled with socializing, bonding and enjoying each others’ company. It was a regular occurrence and part of the pursuit of a life well spent.  Every one of us knows how fun it is to chat with friends.  Why not make some new ones  and help out your community at the same time?

The pursuit of happiness should be more about the pursuit, the activities that we choose to engage in and how they make us feel in the long term, than about a fleeting emotional state.  Developing small but regular self-improvement projects, exercising our strengths, trying to get in to “flow” and volunteering with others are just some suggestions.   After all, a life well spent is a happy life.

Life Framing 101: Take Control Over Your Life Story

Have you reflected recently on your life story?  Its ups and downs. How it plays out day by day with you as the main character. Sometimes a drama or tragedy. Other days a comedy.  Have you marveled at how it just keeps going on, and though you know you don’t directly control every little thing in it, somehow you have a nagging feeling perhaps you could be doing this story a bit better?  There must be a way, you think, to steer or direct this film so the poor little old heroine gets more of what she wants and less of what she doesn’t want.

But how?  How do people really take charge over their life story and direct it in a way that keeps them on the right path?  Clearly some people do this. They seem more content, more happy. They handle things better than most and they have loving, kind people in their lives.  What’s their secret?

Perhaps it’s that they actually understand that their life is a story, and they take charge of it the same way any professional story teller or film maker might approach the task of crafting an excellent story. This approach could be called “Life Framing,” framing your life as a story, one that you are in charge of, and one that could be done well if you focus on doing the things that must happen in order to have a well-directed, excellent story.

For example, in professional film-making the three most important jobs are the script writer, the director and the lead actress or actor.  Each has the most direct decision-making authority over the story but in different ways and at different times. You need to do each of these three roles well in order to practice Life Framing and take charge of your life story.

The Script Writer

The script writer is the over-arching master of the story. It is their ideas that will be brought to life. If she decides the main actress will marry her life-long crush in scene 12, then a wedding happens. It’s in the script.  If the two characters eventually move to a small town off the coast of Lake Erie and remodel a bed and breakfast, then get out the paint brush.  It’s in the script.

All major decisions in a professional story are made by the script writer because the story must stay on track. It has to follow a certain trajectory, a particular path, or it won’t end where the script writer has decided it will end.  It’s the script writer’s job to have a vision of where the story is heading at each major plot turn, but it is also her responsibility.

So one might ask, “How are you doing at script writing your life?”  Have you sat quietly, thought through where you want to end up and who you want in your life and plotted out how to make that happen?  Are you staying on the path, “staying true to the script” as they say in film making, or are you being pulled “off script” by people, events or accidents?  If we don’t have a vision of how we want this story to go, how can we ever direct it in that direction?  Script writing your life is your responsibility.

The Director

The director of a film is the problem solver. Their job is to make the script a reality. They must work with team mates, follow through on logistics and solve problems of all types  but at all times, stay true to the script!  Yes, even if they are a big name director, they still do not get to rewrite the script. The story is still a comedy or love story or whatever was originally decided, and they do not get to change the direction of the story just because a problem pops up or an actor gets sick.  The director is a very busy person with immense responsibilities, but they still answer to the script writer.

Have you gone off script recently?  Has the need to solve a problem or respond to something unexpected caused you to veer off course? Can you still remember what your vision is, of what you want your story to look like in the future?  Maybe you spend a lot of your time in director-mode and much too little time reflecting and creating your life as the script writer.

The Lead Actor/Actress

There are times in your life when you must execute; you must step up and play the part you have written for yourself.  Some of these times you know what to do, but you get scared or can’t find the words.  You’re worried about your “performance” (how others will think of you) or you take the easy way out and convince yourself it is okay to re-write the script and not necessarily stay on the story’s path.

If we look at professional film making we might learn that good acting means, first, having the courage to play the part as written.  If our life story says the main character would always put ethics before money, then we have to follow through on that choice.  If a professional actress momentarily forgets her lines, it’s okay for her to ad lib as long as she stays true to the script – as long as her words and actions do not deviate from what needs to be accomplished in that scene.

Can you say that about your performance?  Are you acting in a way congruent with the life story you want to have?  Importantly, are you the person you want the lead character to be? Or have you become someone you wouldn’t want as the lead in your story?  Critically, at the most stressful or tempting moments – are you staying true to the script?

Separating the Roles

What is most important to learn from professional story telling is that never are these roles played by the same person at the same time.  The script writer, the director and the lead actor/actress have different responsibilities; different skill sets and their talents are required at different points in the story telling process. Not surprisingly, the script writer is active very early on and is only “called on set” when a major event has occurred and the script needs to be partially re-written to get it back on track.  Notably, the script writer typically works alone, perhaps in a quiet place, and reflects about the major points of the story. How should this story unfold from here on out, over the course of years? For you, the lesson is you should never try to re-write the script while you are in problem solving mode or while you are executing/acting as the main character in a busy scene.  Leave script writing for the quieter calmer moments. That’s what all professional story tellers do.

Similarly, there are many moments in each day when you are problem solving.  You need to accomplish this task, plan a menu or fix the car.  But does your problem solving reflect the major parts of the life story plot?   If you’ve decided that certain people will be important in your life, are you planning those activities accordingly? Have you created scenes where that message will come through loud and clear? Have you managed your finances so the characters can do the important things in the plot instead of being sidetracked by unimportant things?  Have you made your health a priority so, in the long-term, other people’s stories aren’t all about taking care of you?  Life framing is about perspective. Where do you want your story to go and are you problem solving in that direction?

Most importantly, when you are executing, do you have the courage to perform as the script writer wants?  Do you have the confidence to ad lib because you know the script inside and out? Are you treating the other characters as you should because you know what you want in the long term? Staying true to the script in the heat of the moment is perhaps the hardest thing each of us has to do.  But if you’ve decided the significant features of the main character in your life story – she is kind, forgiving, quick to laugh and an eager friend to those who are close to her – wouldn’t it be easier to stay true to the script?

Life framing is a change in perspective that allows each of us to examine our life in a broader “frame” and to stay true to the things we actually hold most dear. What kind of character or person are we? How do we want this story to play out in the long run? And who do we really want us as the principle, supporting actors in our life story?  Importantly, Life Framing tells us that there is a time and place for acting, problem solving and writing our script.  Each of these must be done well, though never at the same time. And, ultimately, the goal must be to stay true to the script.

What Leadership is NOT

What Leadership Is NOT!

3 Leadership Myths to Avoid
By Erick Lauber, Ph.D.

Bradley was failing, and failing badly.

Not only did the members of his team avoid him in the lunchroom and never stop by to say “good morning,” they had begun taping a target to his back every day and everyone had signed up for archery lessons.  Bradley’s leadership style just wasn’t working.

Unfortunately, Bradley’s core problem was that he suffered from several leadership myths he’d picked up from pop culture.  Like many of us, he didn’t have any formal training in leadership so his beliefs came mostly from watching movies.  Leadership to Bradley was square-jawed men taking on insurmountable odds, rallying the troops with award-winning speeches, and humbly waiting for passionate kisses from pretty co-stars.  Bradley thought he was prepared to be a great leader because though he didn’t have a square jaw and no one had tried to kiss him in years, he had been practicing his motivational speeches in the mirror.  He had worked up his volume to “passing car with the bass too loud” level, and he could spew out all of the latest leadership buzzwords without spitting too much.  But somehow it just wasn’t working.

What Bradley didn’t realize was that his ailments were completely fixable. They are pretty common today. Perhaps you’ve seen these leadership myths in your workplace:

1. The Myth of Omnipotence 

This shouldn’t be confused with the “myth of ominipresence” (the power to be everywhere) or the “myth of omniplexes” (the power to watch all of the movies in a theater on only one ticket).  The myth of omnipotence is thinking you can tell anyone on the team to do practically anything and they’re going to just hop to it, with a grin and a nod and a comment that means “You got it, boss. I’d walk through fire for you.”

It might happen in the movies but we know in reality a brand new leader doesn’t automatically get enthusiastic cooperation. He or she more often gets quiet acceptance, or perhaps begrudging compliance.  Building cooperation and energetic participation requires time and careful nurturing in the real world. You might have to listen to a co-worker tell that unfunny story about their nephew’s brief stint with the Ice Capades.  You might have to not get your way a few times in order to “collaborate” with your team. Real humans don’t give blind obedience because of someone’s position in an organizational chart. And leaders can’t alienate people, even if they do suspect some of them might be possessed by aliens.

2. The Myth of Omniscience

This is the belief that being the leader means knowing everything about everything.  It comes in two varieties.  In some environments, it makes the brand new leader micromanage and attempt to oversee the smallest detail.  In others, it makes the leader think they have to know the answer to every question.  Why else would they be the leader?

Bradley had these two issues. He started looking over everyone’s shoulder.  Bradley also never failed to give an answer even when he was clueless.  His staff noticed. They even started reading questions from the back of a quantum physics text book just to mess with him.

3. The Myth of Omni-adrenaline 

This is probably the most damaging myth in today’s complex, skill-driven team environments. It is the belief that excellent execution from a team demands adrenaline surges, rousing speeches and lots of shouting. Every movie has such inspirational moments and Bradley tried to create them every day. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to work on his team.

Bradley’s attempts at motivating were actually hurting his team’s performance, not helping.  Shouting and adrenaline surges are only useful for invoking over-learned, mindless performance in the face of fear and actual physiological arousal. Military units and sports teams are perfect for this type of leadership.  They also provide clear winners and losers and are wonderful backdrops for the kind of dramatic storytelling Hollywood thrives on. Would you want to see a movie about complex, skill-driven teams toiling day after day to solve logistics issues, problems with customer service, or trying to get the copier man to arrive on time?

But adrenaline surges also narrow cognition and thinking. Today’s American work environment demands creative problem solving, flexible decision making and complex reasoning.  When was the last time you had to jump on a grenade or charge into an enemy bayonet line?  A leader suffering from “omni-adrenaline” in the modern workplace looks clueless and simple-minded. “Why is he shouting? I’m trying to concentrate over here!”

Americans and movie watchers worldwide are taught myths about leadership every day.  The myths of omnipotence, omniscience and omni-adrenaline are just a few of the leadership stereotypes that can be fixed with training or mentorship.  Fortunately, these “inoculations” are available in all kinds of dosage sizes.  Everyone can get access to leadership training in today’s technology-connected world. And why not? Wouldn’t you want to create a more productive, cooperative workplace by dispelling the myths of leadership you suffer from?