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Why Our Goals for Happiness Keep Us Unhappy

Posted by Joe Robinson

Bicyclist  having fun 868482084

Despite the day’s grim headlines, we are all in luck. We happen to be alive at a time when the science has figured out what makes us happy. All we have to do is follow directions. For centuries, humans had to rely on the opinions of elixir salesmen, court jesters, peers, and herd instinct to track down hubs of happiness. That didn’t work out too well.

It’s still not working out, since most are unaware of the research and rush headlong for what doesn’t make us happy—money, success, status, beauty. These traditional metrics of happiness provide a quick bump in good vibes, but it is ephemeral, gone swiftly without a trace, and then we have to get more of it. It's called a hedonic treadmill, on which there is always another external want beyond the one we just achieved.

THE FLEETING PHANTOM OF HAPPINESS

The thrill of a job promotion is gone in two weeks, studies show. Lottery winners go back to however they felt before the winnings six months later. If you want to go for a long stretch of happiness, the thrill of a new home lasts a full year. Unfortunately, the bills for it last a lot longer.

There are several reasons why our go-to happiness goals are a flop. One, they are dependent on external approval, what others think. That can’t make you happy. It doesn’t go to your internal bottom line, what validates you inside. You don’t buy it, because it's someone else's opinion. Only you can make yourself happy through intrinsic goals and experiences, as researchers such as Tim Kasser and Edward Deci have detailed. Happiness is about living richly, not material riches.

Two, our brains are programmed to habituate to the new situation, get used to it, and then it’s no big deal, and boredom sets in. And three, our idea of happiness is at odds with the nature of this highly sought-after emotion. The elation state we associate with happiness is a brief affair. We feel giddy, high. And then we soon come back down to reality. Reality and us suffer in the comparison to the peak state of intense happiness. We can’t hang on to its slippery ether.

PLEASURES VS. GRATIFICATION

The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman draws a distinction in happiness between pleasures and gratifications, a distinction that concerns duration and depth. Pleasures, like a glass of wine or a piece of German chocolate bundt cake, make the senses tingle, a surface happiness, but don’t go to our core, so they fade quickly. Most of us equate pleasures with being happy—and have to keep going for them because they don’t fill us up.

There’s a brilliant description of happiness in the great bossa nova classic, “A Felicidade” (“Happiness”) by Tom Jobim and the poet/lyricist Vinicius de Moraes: “Happiness is like a drop of dew on a petal of a flower that shines quietly, then swings so slightly, and falls like a tear of love.”

De Moraes nailed the fleeting ephemerality of happiness, or at least the form most associated with the happy feeling—something intensely pleasurable. Pleasures are fun, but they are a brief affair.

Our brain neurons are designed to cut us off from excess jubilation and bring us back to our survival default—what’s wrong, how am I going to make it, what’s going to happen, and general worrywart action. This is how the species has made it this far, erring on the side of the negative.

THE 3-TO-1 RULE

But we don’t face a life-or-death struggle every day as we did 150,000 years ago. We don’t have to stay in the negative bunker all day, and studies show that we are much better off if we go the positive route. Positive emotions and an optimistic framing of events (temporary, not permanent; not taking it personally) are the building blocks of the longer form of happiness that comes from gratifications, which is about doing things that involving seeking, learning, and feeling the satisfaction of growth, gratitude, or helping others.

We need three positive events to every one negative to stay on the positive side, because the negative is so powerful and drags us down, reports Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina and author of Positivity. Her work has shown that positive emotions broaden and build us, buffering setbacks, and driving initiative, new friendships, and opportunities. They are the bulwark of long-form happiness, the gratifications, and key to bouncing back and resilience. 

In other words, happiness isn’t something that happens to us. We have to put ourselves in the vicinity of it. To do that, we need the right goal, an intrinsic one, and act unconditionally.

Intrinsic goals are things we do for the inherent interest, fun, challenge, learning, excellence, service, craft, or community. We act not for instrumental gain or reward. When you dance, the purpose isn’t external, to shake your way to the other side of the dance floor. It’s simply to be in the fun of the experience of body in sync with rhythms. When you act for no payoff, you get one internally, and as a result, it sticks with you, unlike external goals.

EXPERIENCES MAKE YOU HAPPIER

The glow lasts, because it’s your personal event or experience, no one else’s. The University of Colorado’s Leaf van Boven and others have documented that experiences make us happier than material things because they can’t be compared to anyone else’s experience. Experiences are also interactive, so they fire off lots of different parts of the brain. The neurons that fire together wire together. That means we remember experiences for a long time.

Memory is key to happiness. It’s your ongoing status report, at any given time adding up the recent happenings and reporting back good or bad. A study by Sonia Lyubomirsky from the University of California at Riverside and Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri detailed that you are as happy as the most recent positive and novel thing you can remember.

Studies show that 50% of our potential happiness is genetic, and another 10% is due to circumstance—the state of your health or the environment you are raised in. You can’t do anything about either of those, sorry. That leaves you with 40% of potential happiness that you can actually control. It’s a realm known as intentional activities, the proactive things we do to engage with our world.

Intentional activities such as pastimes and hobbies fall squarely into the gratification column. They create positive mood, self-esteem, social support—things that not only increase positive emotions but also make us feel we are writing our own script as participants on this planet. As the University of Rochester's Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have documented, that results in gratification of our three core needs—autonomy, competence, and connection with others. Ultimate gratification. 

The brain responds by releasing dopamine, the chemical form of satisfaction. When your skills meet a challenge while doing something fun, you can satisfy both short and long-term forms of happiness through optimal experience, also known as flow. If you have a passion you partake in on a regular basis, you can add eight hours of joy to your week (Villerand, University of Montreal).

THE PARTICIPANT MANDATE

Anything that improves skill and makes us stretch beyond the routine gratifies the core need of competence. It’s our mastery need, and we feel great when we are tapping it. We feel we are doing what we are supposed to be doing on this planet. And we are. Your brain wants novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment, reports brain scientist Gregory Berns in his book, Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.

Lyubomirsky and Sheldon say there are two keys to sustainable happiness: initiating intentional activities and sustaining them. Both of these require us to engage with our world and follow our need to learn and grow. It’s about being participants in the journey, since this is when we gratify core needs such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others.

Initiating and sustaining are hard. We have many distractions and obligations, and the stuff of life gratification isn’t considered important enough to vie with it all. Yet all it takes to get the living in we are making for ourselves is to prioritize these behaviors and make them important, which they most definitely are.

The great psychologist Erik Erikson, who studied the stages of life and worked with many seniors, said that one of the questions we will have at the end of our days is: “Was it a good time?” Go for intrinsic participation and experiences now, and you can make sure you have the right answer to that question.

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Tags: life balance, happier life, leisure activities and happiness

The Secret Agent of Happiness and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If there's one thing that people around the world agree on, it's that being happy beats being miserable. But what exactly makes us happy? That's something that hasn't been crystal-clear over the ages, which has allowed others to decide for us that a certain luxury sedan or a 55-inch flat screen will do the job. It's also led to the habit of shortcut happiness through default pleasures—double fudge chocolate, "Grand Theft Auto"—that obscures the real deal.

Social psychologists have decoded much of the puzzle of subjective well-being over the last two decades, showing that the external metrics assumed to be the route to happiness can't deliver the goods. There's a momentary bump from toys, money or a promotion, and then it's gone, because these outer symbols are based on what others think. What works is the secret agent of happiness—the subtler art of internal gratification, and understanding it is a key piece of work-life balance.

PLEASURE VS. GRATIFICATION

We usually don't have time or patience for that. The reflex for positive mood states tends to gravitate to quick-fixes, the sensory and momentary delights that University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman calls "pleasures." The impulse is to make a beeline for that hunk of Swiss chocolate or boost the adrenaline with a cinematic nail-biter. You feel good briefly but it doesn't fill you up.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

There's a big difference of opinion between the body's idea of happiness and that of the mind. Pleasures are fun, but they're cotton candy for your brain, which has a higher threshold for satisfaction and demands a more engaged version of happiness, what Seligman calls "gratifications."

The eye candy and bodily sensations of pleasure mode require little in the way of participation or thinking, so their effect on well-being is ephemeral. "Once the external stimulus is gone, the positive emotion sinks beneath the wave of ongoing emotion without a trace," Seligman has written.

Since pleasures are easy and what's drilled into us, they can wind up the only strategy for happiness, leaving us always wanting more. It's the "Is that all there is?" syndrome. They keep you chasing the next momentary hit while doing nothing to fill the void that fuels the chase.

It takes effort for the more lasting form of well-being, the gratifications, something I detail in my book on the power of participant experiences, Don't Miss Your Life.

HIGHER HAPPINESS

Satisfaction and fulfillment are not drive-thru affairs. These higher forms of happiness require challenging and involving activity. That's hard to fathom given the human default to what's easy. It seems that more and more comfort is the mission of life, but your brain neurons say no. They don't like terminal boredom. They want engagement, something required by our core psychological needs, say researchers.

What kind of gratifications can satisfy those needs over the long term? The research points to experiences that allow you to be absorbed and fully engaged, that let you feel you're freely choosing things, that make you feel competent and allow you to learn and grow, and that connect you with others through close relationships, social activities and service to others.

Active hobbies, learning new things, recreational pursuits and volunteering are primo gratifications, satisfying your core as few other things can through challenge and growth. Participant activities, from dancing to aikido to painting, deliver experiences that stick with you through the competence and relationships they build and the joy that lingers in indelible memories.

Unlike fleeting pleasures, gratifications are expansive events, giving your brain the forward movement it craves. "You're constantly learning," says Werner Haas, a chemist from San Jose who gets his gratification from two activities that are a world apart—orienteering and ballroom dancing.

THE SEEKING MINDSET

Another way to look at gratifications is that they come from a seeking mind-set, as opposed to the escapist mode typical of pleasures, as the University of Maryland's Seppo Iso-Ahola puts it.

Recreation seekers, who are driven by personal and interpersonal goals, are less bored, more fulfilled, and healthier than people fueled by the escapist motive, says Iso-Ahola. Spend too long in escapist mode and you become dependent on the entertainment served up until you don't know how to occupy yourself off the clock anymore.

You can find more gratifications if you manage attention better. The reflex to divert attention to phones and distractions in a free moment undercuts the engagement your brain wants.

Try to become aware when you have the impulse to shift attention to a distraction. Instead, think about what you can focus on before grabbing the remote, phone or the Skittles. Ask yourself: What can I learn? What can I try? What can I experience? Where can I discover something?

We don't put much thought into our free time, which we're led to believe doesn't have much value. Without planning or engagement skills, it leaves things up to autopilot escapes and pleasures.

We can opt out of that mode, though, by exercising choices we're not told we have—to go with the gratifications and the seeking mind-set, a prerequisite to finding things, such as satisfaction and missing lives.

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Tags: happiness, recreation, gratification, life balance, life skills, happier life, work life balance, play,

The 6 Skills You Can't Live Without

Posted by Joe Robinson

dance class

Despite all the classes we take, degrees we get, documentaries we watch, many of us never get the word about a remedy as key to health and happiness as watching cholesterol or eating the right food. It's the invisible cure for a host of our problems, from stress to obesity to loneliness: leisure skills.

What's that? Microwave popcorn popping? Isometric finger exercises for the remote? Actually, what we do with our time off-the-clock has a lot to do with our satisfaction with life and work, too, since life is the engine of our energy, creativity, and productivity. Knowing how to participate in engaged recreational activities is also one of the best stress management tools and guarantees that we have work-life balance in our lives.

When we don't have leisure skills, what do we do? Flip on the TV. The average state of someone watching TV, though, is a mild depression, reports Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, author of Finding Flow and the pioneering authority on optimal experience. Considering what's on the tube -- Dog the Bounty Hunter, Worst Tattoos -- that's no bulletin.

GET ON UP

A sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for heart disease and other serious health problems. A recent study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reported that men who spend 23 or more hours a week sitting, watching TV or glued to car seats had a 64% greater chance of fatal heart disease than those who only logged 11 hours or less per week in seated mode.

That could well be a bigger problem, since some 78 percent of Americans over age 30 don't get any exercise, according to Census Bureau statistics and Seppo Iso-Ahola of the University of Maryland.

The root of the problem? Missing leisure skills, something we don't know we need. The assumption is that leisure is a vegetative condition, and therefore there are no requirements aside from batteries for the remote. But it's actually the exact opposite. As Aristotle saw it, the non-work arena is a realm of engagement, of self-fulfillment and learning. 

In one of the not-so-great ironies of the modern world, we are trained to make a living, but not how to do the living we're making. We wind up without the skills to do what is essential for physical and mental health -- participate in our lives through engaged experiences.

WORLD'S HAPPIEST PLACE

The link between active leisure and health is plenty clear to researchers. Leisure experiences have been found to reduce stress by buffering setbacks and building coping mechanisms. They also build self-esteem and confidence and improve mood through increased self-control and social support.

Aerobic exercise and vacations have both been shown to reduce depression. The more active leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction, says Iso Ahola.

Passions and the active leisure skills that create them work wonders for your health and outlook because they satisfy core psychological needs for autonomy, competence and connection with others. Yet this power of this health resource doesn't filter down to us because we are using the wrong skill-set to access it.

THE LIFE SKILL-SET

You can’t play hopscotch with a flowchart. The work skill-set is the opposite of what’s needed to activate your life. On the work side, the objective is results, output. On the life side, it’s about the experience itself, not where it’s going. On the work side, it’s about control and micromanaging; on the life side, risk-taking. On the work side, it’s about the familiar; on the life side novelty and challenge.

It takes another skill-set to create a fulfilling life outside the professional world. Here are some of the key leisure skills that get your life going:

1. Intrinsic motivation. Pursuing and enjoying experiences off the clock takes a different motivation: intrinsic motivation. You do it for the inherent interest, fun, learning or challenge. Research shows we enjoy what we're doing more when the goal is intrinsic. Expect no payoff, and you get a big one, internal gratification.

2. Initiating. We have to break out of spectator mode and self-determine our lives to feel gratified. We need to research and plan activities, seek out and try new things, invite others to get out and participate -- and if they don't reciprocate, go alone.

3. Risk-taking. The real risk is not risking. Security is a red flag for the brain, which is built to seek out novelty and challenge. Make the risk intrinsic (the result doesn't matter), and you're able to venture much more because, instead of having anything on the line, you're just exploring.

4. Pursuit of competence. Since competence is one of your core needs, it's a handy thing to build and sublime to feel. The idea here is that you want to get better at something -- not to show off, not for anyone else but for your own gratification and mastery need. Pursuing competence leads you to build your skills at an activity to the point where it can become a passion. It's a fabulous happiness-building skill. Having a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week.

5. Attention-directing and absorption. The key to optimal experiences is being 100 percent engaged in what you're doing now. That means losing the electronic devices and distractions and putting all your concentration on the activity at hand. The more absorbed you are, the more your thoughts and deeds are the same, and the happier you are.

6. Going for the experience. Observation and hanging back don't satisfy the engagement mandate of your brain neurons. To activate a fulfilling life, we have to participate in the 40 percent of our potential happiness  we can actually do something about -- intentional activities. That's the realm of experience. Experiences make us happier than material things because they can't be compared with anyone else's experience. They don't lose value through social comparison. They are personal events that engage our self-determination needs.

These skills take us inside the participant dynamic essential to a healthy and extraordinary life. They show us that the good life comes from a place quite a bit different than we thought, and only we can make it happen, nobody else. Life's out there, if you are.

 

Tags: happiness, fulfilling life, life satisfaction, life coach, life skills, happiness speakers, happier life, work to live, work life balance programs, work life balance

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