The pedestal we give happiness as our ultimate life goal means we can be too precious with it. Elevating happiness to ‘life project’ status is often how we end up disillusioned. We need to take a different, more experimental approach to improving happiness: one that allows us to learn as we go.
Part of our disillusionment comes from how we invest in happiness at the outset. We save happiness for big life projects like buying a new house, going on vacation, retiring even, meticulously planning with the expectation that reaching these goals will bring us joy, satisfaction, relaxation and contentment.
We behave a little like big organizations, where detailed cost-benefit analyses and formal decision-making are seen as pre-requisites for action. When we talk to businesses about improving happiness a lot of the subtext of our dialogue is encouraging them to think about improvement differently. We create the tools that focus employees, managers and senior executives into listening to their experiences and feelings. We suggest they use this information to guide the action they take. The analytical side of the brain has its role, but we use it to give meaning to our emotions. This is different to deciding what’s important and then convincing ourselves that we feel positive about it.
So how does this apply to individuals in their day-to-day lives? We need to find ways to close the feedback loop between how we feel and what we do. This is about trial and error. It is like watching a child play - they have an instinct that doing x will lead to y, but they can’t be certain. So, they give it a go and watch eagerly to see the results. They check in with what their experience has taught them. If positive, they do it again. If surprising, they give it one more go. If negative, they give it up and try something else. They are reflective, explorative and creative. They influence their world through a series of mini-experiments that allow them to fail small, fail fast and fail forward. Enjoyment, excitement and satisfaction flow seamlessly from this learning process.
So, when thinking about your approach to improving happiness, can you become more purposeful about how you play?
Do you check-in regularly to ask yourself honestly about how you feel, here and now? The capacity to reflect on our emotional responses - and use what these reflections tell us about what to do next - is a uniquely human trait. And one we can use to be more agile and responsive to our ever-changing realities.
If you rate your experiences today, what would make your top three experiences?
Do you talk enough to your nearest and dearest about your emotions? Happiness can have an elusive presence because the patterns of behavior that pull us toward happiness or push us further from it are not always obvious to us. They are found in the details of our habits and cultures which affect what we do in an unthinking way. Conversations about our emotions surface about why some plans are going well and other aspects of life are a struggle.
Who will you share your top three experiences with?
3) Build from what works
Are you changing small, changing fast and changing forward? Rather than planning big life events, invest your mental energy to take in the effects of smaller things you change up, learning as you go so you can do more of what works. As a rule of thumb, if our clients feel too much is at stake, then there probably is. If we lose the freedom to challenge our decisions, and go back on what we first thought, then our efforts are no longer informed by how we feel and what we experience.
Which of your top three experiences will you try make happen tomorrow?
We realize this process is a different way of thinking about happiness. It is not about rule books, detailed planning or formal decision-making to make people’s lives happier. It is about using how we feel day-to-day as an important piece of information to shape our efforts to improve things for the better, one experiment at a time.