Things don’t make you happy, but experiences and relationships do. Highly productive people understand this and apply it in their own lives to maintain spiritual and emotional well-being. Great leaders also leverage this truth to create a positive culture and get the most out of their people.
If you survey the happiness literature, one theme you’ll find is that happiness depends on one’s ability to accept the world for what it is, and to be content with what you have today. From the ancient writers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, right down to the modern best-selling author and Harvard professor Dan Gilbert there is agreement that material wealth and possessions have no magic effect on our well-being. Yes, the new car, bigger home or promotion will provide a temporary bump in perceived happiness, but in short-order (much faster than we anticipate), the effect wears off and we return to our baseline level the same prior level of happiness.
Here is Dan Gilbert:
“As it turns out, people are not very good at predicting what will make them happy and how long that happiness will last. They expect positive events to make them much happier than those events actually do, and they expect negative events to make them unhappier than they actually do. In both field and lab studies, we’ve found that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or failing an exam—all have less impact on happiness than people think they will. A recent study showed that very few experiences affect us for more than three months. When good things happen, we celebrate for a while and then sober up. When bad things happen, we weep and whine for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it.”
From my own experience, it seems that our minds naturally wander to fixate on what we do not have. It takes a concerted effort to reverse this tendency, and redirect our attention to feelings of gratitude for the many blessings in our life. Over the years, spiritual practices like meditation and mindfulness have been adopted to help us focus more on the moment, and to be both aware of and content with, our daily existence.
One practice I’ve recently adopted, and found very effective, is to read a daily passage from our greatest thinkers about accepting the world for what it is. Here is an example from Seneca, the Roman writer and Stoic:
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbor’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.”
And here is another of my favorites from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (8.32):
“You have to assemble your life – action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening.
– But there are external obstacles…
Not to behaving with justice, self-control and good sense.
– Well, but perhaps to some more concrete action.
But if you accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself – another piece of what you’re trying to assemble. Action by action.”
By setting aside some quiet time and reflecting on these passages and others like them, I find I’m more able to accept the events and realities of my life, and maintain my focus on the present. As a leader, it is important to cultivate a healthy emotional state, free of anxiety and distraction. My daily meditations help me redirect my mind to the task at hand, be present to my friends and family, and find contentment and joy in our everyday experiences.
Focusing on the task-at-hand has another benefit. I find I’m happier when I’m productive – working on tasks that are important and making progress toward meaningful goals. Dan Gilbert was asked a question about this. The premise was basically; don’t we want employees to be a little on edge and a little tense? We don’t want them to be happy or content, do we?
“I know of no data showing that anxious, fearful employees are more creative or productive. Remember, contentment doesn’t mean sitting and staring at the wall. That’s what people do when they’re bored, and people hate being bored. We know that people are happiest when they’re appropriately challenged—when they’re trying to achieve goals that are difficult but not out of reach. Challenge and threat are not the same thing. People blossom when challenged and wither when threatened.”
Gilbert’s research also determined that happy people are both more creative and more productive. If you want to become a better leader, start paying more attention to your thoughts and the wanderings of your mind. If you find yourself dwelling on some future event outside of your control or fixating on that new car, gently guide your thoughts and focus back to the task at hand. Spend your time on what’s most meaningful for you, and get the most out of every moment.