Not happiness, meaning

A colleague of mine shared this recent article from The Atlantic titled “There’s More to Life than Being Happy” by Emily Esfahani Smith.  The article describes recent research on the difference between living a life in pursuit of happiness and living a life of meaning.

I’d have loosely assumed that the pursuit of meaning has as its outgrowth a high degree of happiness or, putting a finer point on it, of satisfaction.  Which would mean that happiness and meaning are pretty highly correlated.

The researchers came to a different conclusion.  They found that “a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different.  Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver.’”

The counter-intuitive piece of the research, for me, is around what a happy life devoid of meaning looks like, and how a life of meaning can sometimes have low degrees of happiness:

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided… In the meaningful life ‘you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.’  For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing.

Put another way, the pursuit of meaning isn’t always a bed of roses.  It can involve higher degrees of stress and anxiety, it’s characterized by more thinking about the past and the future, rather than the present.  It’s hard work.

And yet it is this work that makes us human.  Smith refers back to the wisdom of psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning:

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is… A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

The people I see making real and lasting change in the world distinguish themselves with their grit and resilience.  And while I believe that the foundation of grit and resilience is character and values, it makes sense that it is also a sense of meaning, of purpose, of “why” that gives people the strength to bear almost any “how.”

Emily Smith’s full article is definitely worth the read.

An “intangible” dividend?

So here’s a curious narrative: in the early 1990s, 4,600 poor families in LA, New York, Chicago and Boston were moved from very poor neighborhoods (more than half the residents living in poverty) to wealthier (less than a third of the residents living in poverty).  The hope was this would result in better jobs, higher incomes, and better educational outcomes.

After rigorous, scientific testing, the initiative failed to deliver the desired results.

And yet, in what was described as an “intangible dividend” by the NY times, the recipients ended up significantly, quantifiably happier.  “The improvement [in happiness] was equal to the level of life satisfaction of someone whose annual income was $13,000 more a year.”

This is the dividend that’s called intangible.  Happiness.

Of course it’s hard to measure, of course it is squishy and self-reported, but if we’re ever going to get anywhere we have to have the comfort and confidence to say out loud that things like human dignity, pride, and yes happiness are the whole point, the only point really, and that everything we’re doing is aimed at loose proxies to those results – what could be more real or concrete than that?

Just think how much we’ve punted on this issue, if we’re really honest with ourselves.  We’ve come to a point where we’re saying with a straight face that if we put a lot of money into the impact investing sector and that money realizes a healthy level of financial return then we’ve had success.  That puts us about seven degrees removed from actually understanding if anyone is better off, happier, freer, more proud or connected or more able to realize their potential, if someone is more likely to realize justice if they’re wronged or less likely to fall back into poverty if they get sick.

As a sector we have to have the courage to say out loud that happiness is not an “intangible” dividend, it’s not a silver lining in a program that otherwise failed to raise people’s incomes.

Would that we lived in a world in which the NY Times headline could have been: “large-scale government program a huge success, making 4,600 families happier, healthier, even without increasing incomes.”

It feels like looking at the sun, saying out loud that the whole point is happiness or pride or dignity.  It’s so much easier and safer to look away.

I am the decisive element

My wife reminded me of this powerful quote from Goethe, via Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project blog.  It’s worth returning to daily.

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides…

Happy Friday.

You, only better

There are certain things that you’re best at.

The moments when you thrive, when you shine, when others say, “Wow, that was just amazing.”  The moments that make you feel energized and clear and focused.   The moments that pass quickly.

This is you at your best.

We all have things things we need to work on.  We all need to round out the picture.  But we need to know where to start.  And why not start with your strengths?

I’ve never been a five-year career plan kind of guy, and for a long time that worried me.  I secretly feared that I would never have that plan and that without knowing where I wanted to go I would never get there.

Lately, though, I’ve gotten a glimpse of what my highest and best use might be.

And I’m beginning to think it may well be all that I really need to know.

add to : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

Ski bum insight

A few months ago, I had arthroscopic surgery on my knee.  This was my first surgery since a 1993 ski injury, when, younger and without much good sense, I skied off a marked “cliff area” that had no snow, and partially tore my ACL while causing considerable cartilage damage.

Four months ago, after my surgery, I began the normal course of physical therapy, a mostly routine undertaking involving stationary bikes, colored bands, and walking up and down a ‘step’ taken straight from 1980s aerobics classes.

The one bright spot comes at the end of therapy, when Jim, my therapist, puts two electrical stimulation pads on my knee and then wraps my knee in ice for 10 minutes.  The stimulation is like a massage inside my knee.  Aaaah!

Setting the stimulation level is a mildly medieval process:  Jim turns the dial until I cry “uncle,” the level at which I can barely stand the intensity.  That’s the most I can take.  After a while the stimulation level drops, which I assumed was how the machine works, to let the patient ease out of the therapy session.

But here’s the surprise: Jim told me last week that the stimulation level doesn’t change at all.  It’s my body that adjusts.  So while Level 46 (whatever that means) is where I start, after 10 minutes I’m comfortable at Level 55 (he let me turn up the dial).

Right now you may feel like you are at your maximum potential – running flat out, working as hard as you can, doing as much as you can do.  Don’t underestimate your ability to adjust and grow.  Taking on that next big idea (starting a blog, launching a new project, mentoring a student) may put you just past your maximum today, but soon that maximum will be your new routine.  You’ll adjust and you will have space for more.

add to : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

How busy should you be (the 125% rule)?

Whatever amount of time you set aside for work, you don’t want to be 100% busy.  You don’t want just enough work so you can get it done in the time you’ve set aside.  You want more.

How much more?  Lately I think the right amount is around 125% – that is, having 25% more work to do than you could really get done.

If you handle this in the right way, it forces you to work both smarter and faster: smarter comes from being forced to triage and put the most important things at the top.  Faster comes from learning to spend the right amount of time on things, which means less time for things that are less important (without throwing quality out the window).  Faster also comes from learning to say ‘no’ politely to things that you should say ‘no’ to (e.g. meetings you don’t need to attend); and smarter comes from making time for new things that could be great, knowing that something will be sacrificed in the meantime.

There’s a limit, of course.  200% busy is a disaster…it means the end of your personal time and your sanity, and it’s completely unsustainable.  I started my career as a management consultant with a 200% job.  I learned a ton, but I was always exhausted, I essentially sacrificed my personal life, and I never could have kept that up for the decades it takes to build a career.  And 25% is mind-numbingly boring (it’s possible – I actually had a job that devolved into this), not to mention you’ll never produce enough to get anywhere professionally.

So if you’re at 100% and have been asked to do more, take advantage. Don’t be afraid to work hard. And if you haven’t been asked to do more, find somewhere to jump in and do more.

What does 125% feel like?  It feels like (usually) controlled chaos…”usually” because there are always ebbs and flows, so if you’re normally at 125% you’ll have some 150% peaks that are very hard to manage.  125% is a little overwhelming, but it’s also exciting.  You’re stretched, you’re pushed, you’re learning.   And you’ll discover that you can get a lot more done than you thought possible.

(Oh, and if you hadn’t noticed, this is part of the reason that having a job you hate makes it very hard to be very successful.  Success comes from a lot of things, but hard work is part of the answer.  Think about how painful it is to work really hard for 10, 20, or 30 years at something you basically dislike or don’t care much about.)

What’s the tag cloud for your life?

What I love about the tag cloud for this blog (on the right) is that it really reflects what this blog is about – and, as a result, serves as a visual summary of what I’ve found interesting and blog-worthy.

The big words in my site-tag-cloud1tag cloud are “storytelling,” “communications,” “philanthropy,” and “raising capital” but there’s also space for “4 in the morning,” “empathy,” “listening,” and “Moth Smoke.”  That sounds about right – a few focus areas for the blog, and the prerogative to jump around to other topics I find interesting.

So here’s the question: what would the tag cloud for your life look like?

What are the big words and what are the little ones?

What’s on the list that you’d like to see grow or shrink?

What’s missing that you’d like to see?

What I like about this idea is that it gives space for all of the different hats we wear throughout the day, and allows us to think about how we spend our time and what shifts we might make in our lives.

The nice thing is, something doesn’t have to be big to be on the list.  So you don’t have to have “exercise” or “tango dancing” or “speaking up for myself” be big to have them be part of your life.  You just need to start somewhere.

And once you get started, you might be surprised to see what grows and what fades away.

(By the way, you could take this post literally if you like: go into Microsoft Word, brainstorm a list of words that describe how you spend your day, then play with the fonts to figure out what’s big and what’s small in your life.  Voila, a tag cloud for your life.  Redo this every 6 months and revisit the old ones to see if you’re heading where you want to go.

Or, more publicly, you could create a blog that JUST has tags for each daily post.  Instant tag cloud.  And you don’t even have to write real posts if you don’t want to – just a chance to figure out how you’re spending your time.)

Your Money or Your Health?

I’m sick today. Being sick in the middle of the summer is a double whammy. Eighty-five degrees and sunny with a sore throat should be an oxymoron.

Yesterday I completed an alumni survey sent out by my esteemed business school. It was more or less standard fare: what have you been doing professionally, what kind of responsibilities do you have at your job, how much money do you make, how happy are you? I wonder if the compilation of these results are more for collective voyeurism and one-upmanship (“I’m wealthier than my peers”) than because they give the administration the opportunity to reflect on the curriculum.

Two questions stood out for me. One asked me to rank what is most important to me, from most to least, choosing between things like my health, the well-being of my children, my income, my net worth, time to do stuff outside of work, my involvement in my community, etc. Are they serious? My health and my children’s well-being are in a category by themselves, aren’t they? Are there actually people out there who put those things at the bottom of the list? I’m curious to know.

The second surprising question asked what skills most help me in my professional life. The surprise was that the list included both the obvious skills for a business school to care about (analytical thinking, leadership ability) and some surprises (ability to listen, empathy). I suspect that my rank-ordering will be in the “long tail” relative to my peers (I put those “soft skills” high on the list). My question is: if all the alumni came back and said what they really needed most was empathy and listening skills, would that result in an about-face in the business school curriculum? If not, why is HBS asking?