According to academics having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently make a person a happy one.
But a recent research into happiness has lead to a revealing aspect of happiness. It says that being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happier. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life and that translate obviously into unhappiness.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?
If you take the need for mastery—the need for competence—there are two broad approaches that one can take to becoming very good at something. One approach is to engage in what people call social comparisons. That is, wanting to be the best at doing something.
There are many problems with that, but one big problem with that is that it’s very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension? It gets very difficult to judge, because these yardsticks become increasingly ambiguous as a field becomes narrower or more technical.
So what happens in general is that people tend to gravitate toward less ambiguous yardsticks. People judge the best professors by the number of awards they get, or the salary that they get, or the kind of school that they are in, which might on the face of it seem like it’s a good yardstick for judging how good somebody is, but at the same time it’s not really relevant to the particular field.
And those yardsticks are ones that we adapt to really quickly. So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you’re going to get used to it and you’re going to want another big bump. And you’ll want to keep getting those in order to sustain your happiness levels. In most people you can see that that’s not a very sustainable source of happiness.
So what is recommended by Raj Raghunathan is an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.
If you were to go back to the three things that people need—mastery, belonging, and autonomy—I’d add a fourth, after basic necessities have been met. It’s the attitude or the worldview that you bring to life. And that worldview can be characterized, just for simplicity, in one of two fashions: One extreme is a kind of scarcity-minded approach, that my win is going to come at somebody else’s loss, which makes you engage in social comparisons. And the other view is what I would call a more abundance-oriented approach, that there’s room for everybody to grow.
Most of us are the products of people who survived in what was for a very, very long time, in our evolution as a species, a scarcity-oriented universe. Food was scarce, resources were scarce, fertile land was scarce, and so on. So we do have a very hard-wired tendency to be scarcity-oriented. But in today’s times as intelligent beings we need to recognize that some of the vestiges of our evolutionary tendencies might be holding us back.
On the one hand, we are hard-wired to focus more on negative things. But at the same time, we are also all hard-wired to be seeking a sense of happiness and the desire to flourish, and to be the best we can be. Ultimately, what we need in order to be happy is at some level pretty simple. It requires doing something that you find meaningful, that you can kind of get lost in on a daily basis.
When you observe children, they are very good at this. They don’t get distracted by all those extrinsic yardsticks. They go for things that really bring them a lot of enjoyment.
We carry lots of baggage from how businesses used to operate. Simon Sinek, in one of his books, makes the argument that businesses and the rules by which businesses operate are structured along the lines of how the military used to operate—very hierarchical and scarcity-oriented. But he talks about how, actually, if you look a little bit deeper into the best leaders in the military, they tend not to be that way. So there’s been a mistaken adoption of a certain set of ideas based on how things used to operate in the past, but in fact, what’s now emerging as a much more successful approach to doing business and to being successful is having a more abundance-oriented approach.
In the big picture, the business world’s messages are a little jumbled. In business schools there’s a huge push towards corporate social responsibility and finding a passion, but at the same time, if you look at the kinds of people who get invited to come give keynote addresses, or what it is that we focus on to improve our Businessweek rankings, it’s things that are extrinsic. We invite people who made a million bucks, and we look at incoming MBA students and their outgoing salaries.
There are expectations that if you achieve some given thing, you’re going to be happy. But it turns out that’s not true. And a large part of that is due to adaptation, but a large part of it also is that you see this mountain in front of you and you want to climb over it. And when you do, it turns out there are more mountains to climb.
The reason why it’s important to not tie happiness to outcomes is that outcomes by themselves don’t really have an unambiguously positive or negative effect on your happiness. Yes, there are some outcomes—you get a terminal disease, or your child dies—that are pretty extreme, but let’s leave those out. But if you think about it, the breakup that you had with your childhood girlfriend, or you broke an arm and were in a hospital bed for two months, when they occurred, you might have felt, “Oh my goodness, this is the end of the world! I’m never going to recover from it.” But it turns out we’re very good at recovering from those, and not just that, but those very events that we thought were really extremely negative were in fact pivotal in making us grow and learn.
Everybody’s got some kind of a belief about whether good things are going to happen or bad things are going to happen. There’s no way to scientifically prove that one of these beliefs is more accurate than another. But if you believe life is benign, you’re going to see lots of evidence for it. If you think life is malign, you’re going to see lots of evidence for it.