A simple happiness approach - staying on track

In some ways, achieving happiness is like going on a diet to lose weight.  You set up a program (a goal), you work at it, and you monitor your progress.   Happiness (your happiness approach or method) requires work.  You should never desire effortless happiness:  it does not exist!   Your mind requires that you repeatedly put forth effort in order to get the mental reward of happiness.  At no point in life will you be able to stop and say:  “That’s it, I’m done, I need nothing else to make me happy!”

Since a large part of happiness involves achieving your goals it follows that figuring out what these goals are, pursuing them, and achieving them are the central tasks of happiness.  And among your goals, your major productive goal (your career or the major productive work you have set for yourself) needs to be the central focus of these activities.

Now knowing what to do with you life - that is - figuring out your major, long-term productive goals - is beyond the scope of this discussion.  Determining such goals is extremely important though in your life.  For this complicated topic, I refer you to the ‘flower exercise’ which can be found in the book “What Color Is your Parachute?" by Richard Bolles  The flower exercise is a way to get a broad outline of who you are when it comes to current skills and interests in order to set your career direction.  It is fun to do this exercise and can give you great insight into yourself and what you should do.

Once you have done this work (or assuming now you already have a major productive purpose in mind) then you need to make sure it is well-defined.  This means having a goal that is well-enough defined that you know when you have reached it.  You also should have a general time-frame involved so that it becomes a spur to action.  Long-term goals, even ones that could last 10 years, can be broken down into yearly or monthly goals to keep yourself motivated and involved.

Let’s look at an example of a simple major productive (career) goal.  Alice wants to be a famous singer.  How can she turn this into an actionable goal?  She first might ask:  How long might it take to achieve this goal?  Can she sing well now?  What does she like more - the idea of being famous - or the idea of making a living by singing?  All of these questions are important for her to develop this goal.  Let’s say she already sings rather well and in fact is singing for a choir and is well-regarded by her singing coach, who believes she has significant talent.  This makes the goal more realistic.  She will need to think about what type of singing she enjoys most or has the best chance of getting well-known for.  She will have to consider whether she will choose standard career routes such as having auditions and eventually seeking large recording contracts - or unusual approaches such as publishing her own music and looking for an internet following.  She could hire song writers who can emphasize her particular strengths.  These are some first steps involved in shaping this goal into something she can reasonably act on.

Now - if being famous to her means she has sold 100,000 copies of her song at the end of 10 years - then she has a clear goal.  She may start with an intermediate goal of making her living by singing for others - and using her spare time to develop her own music and selling it on the internet.   So she might come up with a goal for the first year of surviving by singing (getting jobs singing for others) and at the same time starting a website and recording her own music and selling at least 100 copies of her song within that first year.  Having this very actionable, shorter-range, goal is extremely helpful in keeping her on track.

This is just one example - and the example itself can turn on 100 different factors.  There are obviously millions of different types of careers and interests - and no person will navigate through these options in the same way.  Each of us must develop not only our overall goals - but to be most effective - we must break those goals into reasonable parts that we can make actionable.

So, to summarize, with respect to your major productive goal:

  • Define the goal reasonably well
  • Measure your progress towards your goal
  • Periodically assess your progress

Let’s talk about periodic assessment.  Each week, preferably at the beginning of the week when you are psychologically fresher, you should assess your progress towards your goal.  Ask yourself one simple question:
“Did I make good progress towards my goal?”

    If the answer is yes - congratulations!  Just keep doing what you are doing.  You should feel good about this progress towards your goal.
    If the answer is no, then analyze why not.  Your answers might be related to several of the following categories:

           Your time was limited - >  Maybe you don’t really have the time you thought you had.  If you are working so hard at other things, that you have no time or energy to devote to your goal, you then you are handicapped.  The goal maybe isn’t appropriate or your arrangement of your life around it needs to change so that you have more time and energy for it.  Did you actually schedule sufficient time to devote to this goal in order to make progress?  Think about a way to solve your time or energy problem - or modify your goal to fit the time if this is necessary.

        Something unexpected interrupted your progress ->  there are always things you cannot control and hopefully in the next week you can do better.  But think for a few minutes if there was a way to avoid the disruption in your life.  Is there something habitual or chronic that caused this problem?  Is there something you could change to reduce the chances of this disruption occurring in the future?

        Something good interrupted your progress -> this is obviously something of a mixed bag.  Sometimes good things occur but they interrupt your ability to make progress on your goal.  Perhaps your significant other bought you a ticket to Florida or someone threw you a surprise party.  These things are good for short term enjoyment, though if they continually interrupt long-term progress, they won’t ultimately add to your happiness.  Enjoy them - but better yet - try not to have them occur unexpectedly if you can help it.

        Motivation->   Keeping yourself motivated is part of the process of achievement.  If you are not motivated by your goal, then maybe that goal is too easy, or too hard, or it has no spark to keep you interested.   Perhaps you can tweak the goal in some way to make it more interesting.  Maybe you need to make it a greater challenge, or make it easier, or add some flair to the goal to pique your interest.  If none of these approaches seem to make a difference in your mind, then maybe the goal isn’t salvageable.  After thinking long and hard, you may have to consider dropping the goal in favor of a better one.  You cannot always predict your reaction to pursuing a goal and you may need to make modifications.

        Motivation can also lag when you cannot see your progress towards a goal.  Sometimes you need to think of better ways to measure your progress - or re-cast the goal in a way that is easier to measure.  Can you map out your goal in some more detail and visualize the path to achievement?  Can you give yourself some physical or visual reminder of your goal?  Can you tell someone else about your goal and work on it together or at least remind yourselves about it periodically?  Is there an easier way to follow your progress towards the goal that you haven’t thought about before?

What about non-career aspects of life?

Its true.  There is certainly a lot more to happiness, a lot more to ‘get right’, than just your career when trying to maximize your happiness.  These things include your love life, hobbies, relaxation-time, work-life balance, your health, money, etc..  But in my opinion, these issues are all secondary to getting the main issue, your career (that is, your overall purpose) right.  It is much easier for these things to fall into place when you have figured out the big picture for yourself and are pursuing it.  And without getting this major piece right, it is impossible to be very happy for an extended period of time.

So, in summary, in order to keep yourself on the happiness track, start with these simple steps:

  • Determine your overall major productive goal
  • Define the goal (or subgoal) well and include a time frame for achieving it
  • Find a way to measure your progress towards this goal
  • Review your progress weekly and make changes in your goal, time-frame, or your approach to achieving it based on your analysis.