The happiness paradox: What you should (really) wish for

By Joel Gerschman | Uncategorized

Oct 14
Man looking out at mountain range

What do you wish for? What do you dream about?

More profit in your business? A higher salary? Perhaps a tattslotto windfall? 

That way, you’d be happier, less stressed and more fulfilled, because you could finally live the lifestyle you’ve always desired, right?

Well, I’m not so sure. Let me explain why.

Money and meaning

Don’t get me wrong: Money is important. We all need it to buy food and shelter to survive. And, even if we’re not on the poverty line, most of us could ably justify why we need more than we have right now. 

But what’s interesting is that money alone won’t actually make us happier and more fulfilled.

Indeed, research shows that once our lower order needs are met to a basic degree, they stop affecting our happiness. Princeton professor, Daniel Kahneman, surveyed low, medium and high income earners to find out how happy they were. Not surprisingly, the medium income earners were happier than then low income earners, who were on the poverty line. But, interestingly, the high income earners were no happier than then medium income earners. 

In other words, once you’ve reached a certain threshold, more money doesn’t make you happier. Real fulfillment lies in the realm of our higher order needs – in particular, the need to ‘live meaningfully’. Renown Psychiatrist and Viennese Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, put it eloquently:

“For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” 

Of course, that’s not to say we don’t enjoy meeting our physical needs – like taking a holiday, having a hot bath or eating an ice cream. But in the long run they don’t lead to genuine fulfillment. 

So what does? 

Empirical research has revealed some surprising truths. Playing a great round of golf, taking a hot bath or going on a holiday to Hawaii may be thoroughly enjoyable, but those activities are all essentially focused on you, and thus don’t usually create meaning. 

An incredible paradox is at play here: it’s usually when we don’t focus on ourselves that we derive the most meaning and fulfilment. When you orient outwards, away from yourself, and focus on the impact you can have on others and on the world, you’ll often find the most meaning.

Again, here’s how Frankl expresses it:

The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it … Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Then you will live to see that in the long run … [happiness] will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.” 

Steve Jobs: The pinnacle of success?

In case you need some evidence for this perspective, take Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs – one of the most successful entrepreneurs in history.

In November 2015, a deathbed essay that Jobs left behind after he passed away in 2011 began circulating on social media. It’s a sobering take on the meaning of his life. Here’s an extract:

“I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world. In others’ eyes, my life is an epitome of success.

However, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to.

At this moment, lying on the sick bed and recalling my whole life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in, have paled and become meaningless in the face of impending death.

In the darkness, I look at the green lights from the life supporting machines and hear the humming mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of god of death drawing closer…

Now I know… we should pursue other matters that are unrelated to wealth… Should be something that is more important: Perhaps relationships, perhaps art, perhaps a dream from younger days.

Non-stop pursuing of wealth will only turn a person into a twisted being, just like me.

God gave us the senses to let us feel the love in everyone’s heart, not the illusions brought about by wealth.

The wealth I have won in my life I cannot bring with me. What I can bring is only the memories precipitated by love. That’s the true riches which will follow you, accompany you, giving you strength and light to go on.”

While this essay hasn’t officially been confirmed by those close to the Apple founder, his biographer Walter Isaacson did record Jobs expressing regret at the end of his life about how he lived, including failing to make enough time to raise his children.

So how do we apply these ideas to our lives so we don’t regret the life we’ve lived? 

Finding your purpose

Thankfully, it’s not difficult. It simply requires you to stop and consider what’s important to you in life – your values – and in particular the values that relate to the outward-focused impact or contribution you’d like to make to the world.

You see, David Brooks in his bestseller, The Road to Character, draws a sharp distinction between two kinds of values: what he calls ‘resume’ virtues – the achievements associated with material and personal success – and ‘eulogy’ virtues, the ones that are often spoken of at funerals. This latter category comprises the virtues and strengths that make you the kind of person you are, the ways in which you leave a lasting impact on your family, friends and the world. And it’s when we live in alignment with these eulogy values that we derive most meaning and fulfillment.

One powerful approach to help you uncover those values is an exercise called ‘Finding your purpose’. It requires you to do something that might seem a little strange at first: you’ll need to write your eulogy (not physically, but in your mind’s eye). 

Here’s how it works: Imagine you’re at your own funeral, looking down at your loved ones, friends, acquaintances – everyone you’ve ever cared about. Then, take a few minutes to consider what you hope they’d be saying about you, about the kind of person you were, what you achieved, how you impacted them and their lives. Once you’ve done that, ask yourself: What were the most important words or phrases that came up? Were there some common themes? 

Those themes represent your core values. If you can, summarise them in a simple, concise purpose statement – a bit like your slogan for life. 

When you have a clear sense of what’s truly important in your life, you can start to become more deliberate – more mindful – about making choices that keep you in alignment with your values. And when you’re living in alignment, you’ll feel more fulfilled, more resilient, better able to cope and more motivated. Oh, and by the way, you might just help to create a better, more refined world in the process. 

So, back to our original question: What should you really wish for? Here’s my suggestion: Ask for the wisdom to identify what values are truly important in life, and the strength to live those values each and every day. (And, yes, of course, there’s no problem wishing for some more money too!). 

All the best,

Joel.

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About the Author

Joel is a leading business coach, bestselling author and educator in the field of business growth, management and leadership.