When you ask someone what’s their ultimate goal in life, most people would probably say happiness. In the pursuit of this elusive feeling we’re ready to work endless hours in a corporate world slowly climbing the ladder, or grinding the startup life waiting for the big brake. Happiness awaits us after the next promotion or after the IPO, we tell ourselves. But what happens once you manage to “reach” happiness? If you’re happy with how things are now, why would you continue to strive for more? Assuming you believe that as a human race we’re galaxies away from perfection, losing the drive to change and improve would be massively detrimental and would stagnate both an individual and a society. So the real question becomes, how can we be happy but not lose our hunger for reaching higher?
Illustrating its importance in our culture, happiness has been thoroughly studied and researched by psychological and other scientists for the last five decades. While the concept of happiness means something different for everyone, let’s define it as a state-of-mind where you feel positive feelings such as joy and satisfaction heightening the emotional state-of-being. On a neurological level, happiness is produced through the four primary neurotransmitters: endorfin (to mask pain during a physical activity), dopamine (to reward individual achievement), serotonine (for belonging in a group), and oxytocin (for bonds, friendships and love). Stress hormones and fear inducing survival chemicals, on the other hand, suppress and diminish the production of these four positive neurochemicals.
While you may get a shot of happiness from hitting your monthly quota (dopamine) or going for a run (endorphin), any long lasting feelings will most likely be a results of rewarding relationships with other human beings and a generally positive outlook for life. It’s the skill of finding something positive in things that happen – both good and bad – and understanding the long-term implications. Heavy traffic is an opportunity to listen to good music or a podcast while stuck in the car or a bus, losing a job is an opportunity to try something new in life, and a stubborn child an opportunity to grow your patience. With a mindset like this, almost nothing can ruin your mood or take away the happiness.
It probably wouldn’t be far-fetched to argue that most, if not all innovations have been a result of being dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Why would you invent a round wheel if you see a sledge as an opportunity to grow you muscles? Why would you go to the gym if you happily accept the extra layers on your waist as a sign of wellbeing? Why would you put in the extra hours at work if you’re happy with where your company stands today? Why would you educate yourself if you see your lack of knowledge as an opportunity to test your resourcefulness?
You can probably start to see how acceptance, satisfaction, and even happiness can stand as a growth obstacle for individuals, organisations, and societies. And since nothings stays the same in life, not growing results in stagnation. The waistline will keep expanding, company will start to lose its position, and even resourcefulness won’t be enough to cover the holes in knowledge once time goes by. When talking about growth I mainly refer to the intangible kind, which is endless by nature and not ruled by scarcity.
Are happiness and progress mutually exclusive then, and we have to choose one over the other? A choice between the miserable genius producing world-class results but never being satisfied, and the happy Joe living a dirt hole, happy filling his life with TV? Between a rural society happy with struggling to get food, and a society where progress is everything and nothing is enough? I believe that there is a golden road leading through both lands. Specifically, I’ve found three key principles that help with being happy AND continuing to improve.
Principle #1: Gratitude
Most great philosophies and religions contain a practice of gratitude as an important aspect of good and happy living. Being grateful for what you have and appreciating where you are will naturally increase your level of happiness through a combination of neurotransmitters. It’s worth noting that being grateful is not the same thing as being satisfied. I might be grateful and happy for not losing my home during a recession, but not satisfied with being without a job. I might also be grateful for the opportunity to practice patience with my child, but still strive to teach her understanding towards her parents and others around her.
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.
― John F. Kennedy
If you’re already writing a daily list of things you’re grateful for, that’s a good start. Yet as Kennedy beautifuly put it, the highest form of gratitude is through action, not words in the wind. For example, if you’re grateful for having had such awesome parents, give them a call or visit them. Or if you appreciate having a great job, show that by giving your best every day. Action precedes progress making you happy for doing something, which brings us to the next principle.
Principle #2: Enjoying the journey
Life is a journey. So is being a great brother, mother, or building an amazing company. Once you embrace this mentality, it’s apparent that a very effective way of combining happiness and progress is merging them into one, or more specifically being happy about progress. In order to do this, we need to expand our understanding of progress and see the bumps in the road as what they are, learning opportunities which push us forward. You might have heard the Chinese saying: “If you enjoy your job, you will never have to work a day”. While this is very true, there will always be hardship on the journey. Thus, we need to enjoy the entirety on the road, not just the good parts. After all, it is the struggle that shapes us into who we are, not the celebration.
“We are at our very best, and we are happiest, when we are fully engaged in work we enjoy on the journey toward the goal we’ve established for ourselves. It gives meaning to our time off and comfort to our sleep. It makes everything else in life so wonderful, so worthwhile.”
Principle #3: Growth for others
The reason why we choose to pursue growth matters. I believe the third and the final piece of the puzzle in merging happiness and the pursuit of progress is doing it for the sake of others. Improving the life of others is a never-ending task with millions of paths to choose from. You innovate because it will make the life of others better, easier or happier. As a CEO you continue to grow your company so you can have a larger positive impact on your clients. As a teacher you improve how mathematics is taught so children can learn more effectively. Examples are endless, but the common thread is that they’re all driven by increased value to others, not yourself.
“Happiness doesn’t result from what we get, but from what we give.”
― Ben Carson
If you’ve read this far, with some luck you might even feel slightly inspired. From personal experience I know that inspiration is nice but doesn’t lead anywhere without directed action. Thus, if you want take away something that will last for more than five minutes, try doing one or more of the following: (1) Write one thing you’re grateful about right now, and act on it, (2) Next time something negative happens, stop for a moment and think about what can you practice or learn from it, (3) Write down a goal that is driven by improving the life of someone else.