Inside: The happiness formula is pretty simple: Do more of what you like and less of what you don’t. Craft a life of purpose and intention around what really matters…to you. This is a guest post by Jay Harrington of Life and Whim.
At a recent dinner party with friends, much of the conversation focused on an adventurous trip around the world taken by one of the couples. Historic temples, exotic dining, beautiful beaches, different cultures…it sounded amazing.
But it was definitely not for me. I get stressed out and start longing for home after more than a week on the road.
At 43, I’ve reached at a point in my life where I’ve come to not only accept but embrace the fact that there are certain things—such as world travel—that likely will never be a part of my life. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the appeal. It just doesn’t appeal to me.
Lots of people who love to travel try to talk me out of my feelings on this issue. People who love brussels sprouts and kombucha do the same when they learn that I steer clear of those things, too.
Jazz. Golf. Yoga. Nope. Nope. Nope. It’s not that I haven’t tried all of these things. I have. But I’ve accepted that they’re not for me. Don’t get me wrong—I get a kick out of trying new things. But I get contentment from spending most of my time pursuing a small number of carefully curated passions rather than dabbling in ambivalence. Or worse, spending time trying to fulfill other people’s expectations rather than my own desires.
Call me stubborn. Call me close-minded. Call me boring.
And, yes, call me happy.
The Happiness Formula
Over time, I’ve come to learn that the happiness formula is pretty simple: Do more of what you like and less of what you don’t. And, no, I’m not happy all of the time, because I’m not doing things I like all of the time. To believe that’s possible is to be delusional. But I’m happier now than I used to be because I’m more conscious of who I am, who I want to be, and how I spend my finite time. Most importantly, with age I’ve come to better direct my actions to better reflect my priorities.
There’s a fancy term for this concept in the field of behavioral psychology called “self-concordance theory.” Coined by Kennon Sheldon, self-concordance theory suggests that the most important thing you can do to become your true, authentic, happy self is to pursue goals and objectives that are right for you. If you spend your time in pursuit of someone else’s priorities, then even if you achieve your goals, you’re not going to feel happy or fulfilled.
On the other hand, if you identify and stay focused on things that are meaningful to you, then you’re more likely to be happy. For example, if deep down you really want to become a writer, but after college you decide to enroll in law school, the odds are that you won’t be happy, and vice versa.
Again, simple, right?
But then what accounts for the masses of people—myself included (see stifled writer who goes to law school story above)—who spend significant portions, if not all, of their lives acting at odds with their goals, dreams, and interests…and, therefore, their happiness?
Lack of Self-Awareness Equals Lack of Happiness
A lack of self-awareness is largely to blame for this consequence. You need to know yourself before you can know how to spend your time and resources to best effect. This requires experimentation and thoughtful introspection. It necessitates asking and answering difficult questions such as: What do I like? What feels good? What makes me happy? What has meaning? What can I do effortlessly? What feels like drudgery? Who lifts me up? Who drags me down?
You need to hold a mirror up to yourself and see what’s really there, not what you think is there, wish was there, or hope someone else sees there.
Doing this sort of introspective work, however, can get tricky, because when we look closely we often don’t like what we see. For many of us, gaining self-awareness is a painful moment of realization that our true self is inconsistent with our idealized self. The person we truly are is not the person we are projecting to the world.
I know this from experience. After three years of law school and a decade of practicing law, I finally learned this lesson. I had become my idealized self: A successful, well-compensated, well-regarded attorney running my own law firm. But the very thing that gave me status in other people’s eyes was making me miserable. I was a fraud, living not for myself, but rather living out a shadow life built on a rickety foundation of what others expected of me.
Recognizing this discordance between my intentions and my actions was the first step. Doing something about it was the more difficult second step.
Have the Courage to Act in a Manner Consistent with Your Intentions
Anyone who has made a significant life change can attest to how hard it is. As Steven Pressfield writes in the War of Art, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” All forms of Resistance will rear up to try to stop you as you cast aside who you thought you should be and start to embrace your authentic self. You’ll doubt, and possibly even sabotage, yourself. Those close to you who can’t muster the courage to change themselves will place obstacles in your path. As you seek to claim your true identity, old habits and fears will stand in the way.
One of the things that makes living authentically so difficult is that it often requires the rejection of social norms and expectations. My own journey involved moving with my family from a big house in a wealthy suburb to a small town 250 miles away. In the process of doing what was right for us, we endured blowback from those close to us who internalized our decisions as an indictment on their own. Yes, there are costs to embracing one’s authentic self.
But grapple with this question: Isn’t the cost of the inauthentic status quo even greater?
I began this piece with the trivial example of owning up to the fact that I am not, nor will I likely ever be, a world traveler. Even an admission as superfluous as this comes at a cost. In our carefully curated, social media-obsessed world, where everyone’s feed is a personal highlight reel, it’s cool to be a world traveler. It attracts followers. It creates status.
My own interests, which include reading books, writing in my journal, watching movies with my kids, and taking quiet walks in the woods—in other words, the introvert’s life—are low-status activities. There are no external benefits to time spent in this fashion. But to me, the internal rewards are great. My only regret is that it took me so long to come to this realization.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with traveling the world. If that’s your thing, have at it. Problems arise, however, when our actions misalign with our deepest intentions; when our desire to cultivate status outweighs our desire for contentment; when we live in our shadow and not from within our heart.
The average person lives approximately 27,325 days. Time is the most finite of resources. How will you make each day count? A good starting point is thinking deeply about your true desires so that you can craft a life of purpose and intention around what really matters…to you.
Jay Harrington is a “reformed lawyer” turned author and entrepreneur, and blogs at Life and Whim where he helps people find purpose and live big through small moments. You can also find him on Facebook.