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.

High School Leadership Workshop transcript (8)

This is part of the transcript from a high school leadership workshop Dr. Lauber conducted in Indiana, PA in 2011.

There are such things as individual differences in the world.  As much as we like to study brains and minds, they’re not all the same, and they all interpret even the exact same stimuli differently.  They come up with different conclusions, different interpretations.

I remember the day my wife and I were sitting on the beach; my daughter Emily is making a sand castle, and my son Casey is pushing this dump truck around, and you know what’s going to happen next.  At some point, he runs the dump truck in to the sand castle because they’re about the same age, and that’s just inevitable.

And I remember my wife’s interpretation, “How could our son possibly do that?  What kind of evil kid is this?  He is going to grow up to be a mass murderer.  This is terrible.”  And my interpretation was, “That was inevitable.  I have seen boys build sand castles just so they can run over them with their dump truck.  It’s just the way it is.”

So the differences is between them, but more importantly, in that situation, there was another difference – between me and my wife and how we interpreted the exact same stimuli, the exact same situation, watching it happen in front of us.  She had a different interpretation of what it meant and what to do about it.

You’re going to come across these kind of situations in your life.  Differences between people can be significant and have impacts on your relationships with them.  Some differences aren’t quite important as others.  I like to do a little task with audiences because I have taught television production and I ask “What are your favorite television shows?”  So what’s your favorite television show?

SportsCenter on ESPN?  What’s your favorite television show?  You’re not sure?  Let’s have some volunteers.  Who over here wants to tell me what their favorite television show is?  Come on, it’s not that hard.

You like House?  Who else likes something else?  Yeah?  What?

Burn Notice?  Yes, you?

Reno 911, the comedy.  Anybody over here, what’s your favorite television show?

Law & Order, we’ve got some serious drama going on. Good deal.  Anybody else over here, favorite television show?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’ve always had fun watching that show.  She kicks butt, doesn’t she?

Anybody over here?

The Secret Life of the American Teenager, we watch that in our house because we have teenagers.  I think it’s a great show.  How about over here, favorite TV show, anyone?

Doctor Who, the British one, yeah, that’s a good – well, there’s an old, old, old version, and then there’s the new version.  Yes?

NCIS, I haven’t heard that one yet.

Hey, folks, that’s a huge diversity of TV shows that you all like in a crowd that the TV industry considers to be identical.  The TV industry thinks you are all the same demographic – little, tight narrow age range in the room right now – little tight geography as far as they are concerned.  They think you’re all identical and yet, I can walk around this room – and I can do this in any place – and find a huge diversity of shows that you all like.

Now let me share a little story with you.  I’m so old that when we watched television as a kid, we didn’t even have cable.  I know that sounds like a horror movie basically.  We didn’t have any cable, and HBO hadn’t been invented yet, let alone satellite.  Guess how many channels we had – three; ABC, CBS and NBC.  That’s all we had.

We had the test pattern on UHF.  Us old guys – we can go reminisce about that test pattern later.  That’s all we had.  Now let me tell you a little consequence of this that had dawned on me much later in life as I taught TV and communications.

When I went to college at Northwestern University in Chicago – I’m from a small farm town in Ohio – when I arrived at college and started having conversations over lunch and dinner and stuff, it turned out that nearly everybody had seen the same TV shows that I had.  Whole countrywide had seen the same TV shows.  We all chatted about Happy Days; we’d all seen Laverne & Shirley; we’d all seen the Wide World of Sports on ABC.

We had the exact same content to talk about.  And when we made jokes and references at the dinner table, we all got them because they were all jokes about Happy Days and shows that we’d all seen.

In fact – this is a funny story – I was watching – my favorite show in college for a time was Baa Baa Black Sheep, probably only the really old guys – Baa Baa Black Sheep was about a Korean fighter unit – Air Force fighter unit in Korea that would go up and have these fighter jet planes.  Robert Conrad was in it.

And all of us in my fraternity right after dinner would all go sit in the living room; we’d all watch Baa Baa Black Sheep together.  It was a huge fraternity event.  One day, they cancelled it.  It ruined our lives.  They cancelled the show.  We had nothing to do.  We didn’t know what to do with ourselves because we didn’t like the show they put on.  It could have been like Blossom or something, Facts of Life.

So I just started to go to the library and started studying.  So, “All right, might as well go to the library.”  A couple of buddies joined me.  You know what – our grades went up.  I have to write a thank you note some day to the network for cancelling Baa Baa Black Sheep.  I may never have survived Northwestern academically.  We all did better.

But the consequence of this today is that with the fractionation of the media, with all the little niche markets and all those channels… people are not having as many shared common experiences.  And when they meet new people, they don’t have much common ground as they used to have in the old day when everybody watched Walter Cronkite for the news.

They have a huge diversity of information, and it’s harder to communicate with people who don’t share as much background with you as maybe your sister, brother, or your neighbor.  When you go off to college, it’s a more complicated task for you now than it was when I went to college.

Even though Northwestern was very cosmopolitan – everyone from all 50 states – we had all that shared knowledge from TV, from music, back whenever LPs – remember those things.  But you guys, you have a bigger task.  You have a bigger task and a challenge ahead of you to have conversations with people who are more diverse.

So one of my messages today for you at your age is to think about the tolerance and diversity that you are going to have to exhibit in the near future.