On the pursuit of happiness

I attended a talk today by Tony Hsieh of Zappos fame.  He's out plugging his new book "Delivering Happiness".  Thankfully, rather than this being a generic leadership talk, I found myself pleasantly surprised at the amount of research that Tony has done and the effort to which Zappos has gone to integrate a lot of research takeaways into actionable items for their company.  I recognized a lot of the observations that Tony had made in forming his own opinions on company culture, and so a lot of what he said rang true.  And not in a trite manner.

So, long story short, I'm pretty sure I'm going to get around to reading this book.  But first, I thought it might be useful for me to expound here on the subject of happiness.  Fair warning … some of this is derived from my own reading … some of it was jogged by Tony's talk.

Being a little unhappy is good.  And necessary.  The desire to be better or to improve the state of things requires a certain level of dissatisfaction with the status quo.  To be perfectly content means that there is no possible betterment to be had … and paradoxically, that is something one rightfully should not be too happy about.

Happiness reverts to the mean.  There are plenty of studies out there indicating that individuals aren't any happier now than they were 50 or 100 years ago, despite vast increases in the standard of living.  Objectively, we should be happier.  In truth, once we rise up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, much of our happiness is actually determined by our relative wellbeing compared to others.  If you've never heard of a plasma TV, it doesn't factor into your calculation of happiness.  The instant your neighbor has one, you may damn well want one as well.

Happiness can be measured along simple vectors.  The prior point about reverting to the mean isn't saying that you can't really be happier.  Many measurements of happiness look at your quality of life in several areas.  Personally, I like the simple areas … health, wealth, and love.  Health … does your body get in the way of your ability to do things?  Wealth … can you buy the things you need or desire?  How do you socially compare to others?  And love … do you have or are you easily capable of pursuing a fulfilling relationship?

However you measure your happiness, it's generally important to balance the different factors.  They are interrelated and ignoring one area will drag down the other areas of your life.

Personally, I view the health and love areas of happiness as the ones that have some fixed level of maintenance.  Perhaps another way of saying it is that there are decreasing returns as you allocate more time to them.  Wealth is where all the self actualization and learning occurs.

People have different time orientations when it comes to achieving happiness.  It's also worth mentioning that different types of people approach the achievement of happiness in different ways.  Specifically, some people have short term or impulsive orientations to happiness, whereas others have more long term or measured orientations.

The implications of this are quite interesting.  Can you name some extreme examples of short term oriented people?  Let's try.  Drug addicts.  The next hit is always just around the corner.  Assholes.  These are the kinds of people that cannot help but insult you or cut others down to make themselves feel better.  Cheaters.  They have to win now no matter what the risk could be.  The problem with this mindset is that the short term "hit" of whatever behavior in question always goes away, requiring another "hit" or, eventually, more extreme behavior to generate feelings of happiness.  Short term happiness orientation tends to result in all kinds of socially unacceptable behavior.  Do an exercise and consider some of the people that you don't particularly like.  Are they short term oriented?

Long term orientations are healthier … the ability to forgo happiness now for greater returns in the future.  This is usually associated with higher self esteem … in other words, some inner core of positive happiness that isn't fully associated with your actions in the past hour.  Consequently, there is also a lack of need to continually replace that emptiness with harmful short term behavior.  It goes without saying that you want to be on this side of the fence.  I'm not sure if one can simply be told "this is the right way to behave", however … I think most people simply *are*, or evolve here over time if they are lucky.

On a side note, observing this characteristic in people is, not surprisingly, an unusually powerful way of predicting how someone will react in a particular situation.  It is one of a few major factors taught in some law enforcement programs for "reading" people.

So how do I end up applying this happiness stuff to my life?  Well, first of all, I try to spend some appropriate amount of time on the health and love areas of my life.  As far as happiness and wealth … I view that as more of a journey.  The understanding that some level of dissatisfaction is appropriate actually minimizes the impact of that dissatisfaction on me.  I don't strive to be perfectly happy, and I don't assume that if I reach some level or accomplish some "thing", that it will keep me happy forever.  Instead, I strive to constantly move from one level to the next.  And this doesn't mean a job … it means whatever task or objectives you've set for yourself to accomplish.

Refer to the chess kids in The Art of Learning for the negative aspects of focusing just on outcomes and not the process.  It's the moving through the process that is important.  Reaching new levels of understanding or skill will come naturally as a consequence.  In other words, focus on the journey, not the destination.

P.S. If you made it all the way to the end of this, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Zappos offers the book Tribal Leadership for download as an audio book.  Probably worth getting!

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