What makes us truly happy? One of life's most important questions, no?
A group of researchers at Mayo Clinic think they may have the answer: train the mind to focus on positive experiences vs. negative ones.
The rationale is simple: we are conditioned by evolution to focus on — and thus avoid — the negatives in our lives vs. celebrating the positives.
Although few of us will have the opportunity to partake in their 10 week, four-step program — it made me reflect on how I’ve been challenged over the years to crack that code for myself. It wasn’t easy.
And I meet so many good people who are trying to be happier.
I don't know what will work for them, but I do know what worked for me.
The Early Career Years
When I got out of school, for me it was all about proving yourself: getting a good job, a good salary, having cool friends, driving a cool car, the latest toys, etc.
It seemed to me that everyone had a head start on this life thing, and I was the one playing catch-up.
When I eventually got what I thought I wanted, I wasn’t really happy. Life hadn't changed much.
I told myself I was doing well, therefore I should be happy — but it wasn’t the truth.
Something was clearly missing.
Getting Married And Having Young Kids
I believe I am genetically wired to be in a stable, long-term relationship. Not everyone is, but I am. After I met and married my wife — and we started having kids — I was certainly much happier than before.
If I think about it, I now had things in my life that mattered to me more than my own personal needs: my wife, my kids, my community, etc. Now less important: job, status, etc.
But it wasn’t long before I fell into a very typical trap: hey, if I get a better job and make more money, I can provide better for my wife and kids. And that should make me happy.
I should have known better.
As I found out, burning the candle at both ends made me miserable. The harder I worked, the more miserable I became. I was becoming a stranger to my family, and when I was with them I wasn’t a happy puppy. Worse, I become increasingly irritable and frustrated at work. I was killing myself — where was the promised land?
I eventually realized the problem was me — and my unrealistic expectations.
The Kids Get Older
At some point, you wake up on a Saturday morning, and realize that your kids have plans that don’t require you to be directly involved: their new job, meeting with friends, a school activity, hanging out online, etc.
As a result, you get the incredibly precious gift of free time. You can pick up a hobby, watch endless sports on TV, or basically anything you like. What would make me happier?
For me, it was getting back into music.
I was a decent keyboard player through college, but all of that went on the shelf for about 20 years, due to career and kids. So I sat down at the piano, and started playing.
When I felt I was good enough, I sought out a local garage band with similar folks. From there, better bands and better gigs as I improved. I have to say, I am quite pleased with how proficient I have become as a result. It makes me happy.
Everyone’s brain is wired differently, but mine lights up like a pinball machine when I’m deeply engrossed in music. I enter a very happy world for a brief moment.
Two important things resulted from this investment in time.
First, I now had a very satisfying activity and identity that had nothing to do with my job or my industry. I had a personal life outside of work and family.
Playing in a band is an essentially cooperative act (or should be). When you play with other musicians, all they care about is how good you are at what you do. Not much else matters much: what car you drive, what kind of house you live in, etc. You’re expected to bring game — that’s about it.
Second, I started to meet an extended circle of truly happy people who had taken a very different path than I had chosen: truck drivers, carpenters, insurance salesmen, etc. They were very satisfied with who they were and how their life was working.
I was very intrigued, and more than a little jealous.
What I learned from them is that these people had achieved an almost Zen-like balance between work, family and life. They weren’t measuring themselves against others, they were measuring themselves against themselves.
If it made them happy, they did it. It didn't matter to them what other people thought.
This shouldn’t have been a major revelation to me, but it was. I realized that I was subconsciously comparing myself to others in multiple dimensions, and it was making me miserable.
I was doing it to myself. So I decided to fix that.
Without the benefit of a Mayo Clinic ten week, four-step program, I eventually taught myself to focus on the positives in my life, and encouraged the people around me to focus on the positives in their lives. What other people were doing might be working for them, here's what's working for me.
I became infinitely happier as a result. Almost annoyingly so. The more I did it, the better I got at it.
The Kids Move Out
For many of us, that day comes when the kids go off to college or whatever is next for them. All of the sudden, it’s me, my wife of thirty years — and our four dogs.
My priorities change as a result. I still want to work — and work hard — but it has to be very satisfying on multiple levels — no stressful, grinding gig for me, please. Life is now too short.
My current VMware role fits my desires to a tee: great product, great company, great people, etc.
I also want more time to invest in my life outside of work: meet new people, and do new things. Retirement (or more likely semi-retirement) is somewhere on the horizon — how do we go about setting up our lives for the next thing?
I very much want to do something to give back — yes financially, but more importantly to invest more time in helping people that might be going through a rough patch. I haven’t figured out exactly what I want to do, but I’m researching it.
And, when I have the time, I think that’s going to make me even happier.
What I’ve Learned Along The Way
1. Learn to measure yourself against yourself, not others.
2. Respect the tripod: work, family and personal life — all three pillars should be strong.
3. Give back any way you can, any time you can.
4. Reprogram yourself to focus on the positives, and not obsess on the negatives.
5. Celebrate the progress you’ve made. Maybe we can never live in a state of pure joy, but we can get better each and every day.
And, you know you’re winning when you can honestly say, “yes, I’m happy”.
Like this post? Why not subscribe?