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Focusing on four simple questions can be the key to fulfillment

Focusing on four simple questions can be the key to fulfillment

Why finding happiness at work may be less complicated that you think.
Happy girl

Everyone wants to be happy at work. Nearly everyone also wants to feel fulfilled by what they do. The Baby Boomer generation thought they could achieve both of these by hard work, long hours, and (hopefully) hard cash. Many people today are not so sure they were right.

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Their conventional approach at least had the merit of being clearly understandable and easily translated into action. It also proved to have serious drawbacks in terms of delivering either happiness or fulfillment; often providing stress and anxiety in their place as people launched themselves into a frenzy of competitive striving where losers inevitably outnumbered winners.

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I don’t believe that there are any sure-fire recipes for obtaining happiness. It’s too personal a concept. Too much of it relies on chance elements like genetic make-up, early family circumstances, and social background. The best that anyone can do, in my opinion, is make sure that they don’t choose a path that is more likely to squash opportunities for happiness that create them—which is what my generation, the Baby Boomers, has done on a massive scale.

So here’s my alternative approach. It has less to do with grim effort and following a set of rules and much more to do with creating the circumstances in which happiness and fulfillment can arise by themselves. And, since it neither prescribes what happiness is, nor assumes that what makes me happy will do the same for you, it at least has the merit of being applicable to almost anyone’s circumstances.

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The approach is based on providing guidelines for answering the four commonest questions that people ask:

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  • What should I do with my life?
  • What should I avoid?
  • How should I go about doing whatever I choose to do?
  • What else should I leave space for besides work?

What should I do with my life?

  • Do something that gives you a sense of purpose. Empty, meaningless work, however well-paid, is rarely satisfying. At best it should be tolerated only as a temporary means to raise essential cash. At worst it is a form of prostitution. The only purpose that satisfies long-term is based on expressing your deepest values in whatever you do.
  • Only do work that you believe is inherently worth doing. You won’t find self-esteem via a job you despise. Each morning you have to look at your face in the mirror. What kind of person will look back at you? One who is engaged on something worthwhile, or one who is about to spend another 8 hours or more doing something he or she cares nothing about? Do you value yourself so little that you can afford to waste your life in that way?
  • Always do what you are good at doing. It’s the simplest way to enjoy yourself and stand a chance of excelling. I don’t believe that anyone finds happiness through doing work that they’re not very good at, or work that reminds them of their weaknesses on a hourly basis. Forget whether anyone else values your particular strengths. Use them for your own satisfaction and pleasure. You may be surprised how wrong you were about what others would applaud.

What should I avoid?

  • Don’t do anything that gives you a bad conscience. Even if you don’t end up in jail, or shunned and despised by your friends, you’ll spend too much time being anxious about who will find out—and probably hating yourself into the bargain.
  • Don’t do more than is good for your health. No job—no amount of money—is worth harming yourself for, physically or mentally. You won’t be happy if you know you traded your well-being for money and a position you’re now too miserable, sick, or damaged to enjoy. Not only do the ends of life rarely, if ever, justify the means, they won’t compensate you either for the problems using those means may have inflicted on you, your family, your relationships, or your ability to enjoy what you achieved without feeling ashamed.
  • Don’t do things that rob you of your peace of mind. You have to live with yourself and others have to live with you. Inner torment is no path to happiness. Nor is trying to silence personal turmoil with drink, drugs, or conspicuous consumption. This is one situation where that old warning is entirely true: you can run, but you can’t hide. How can you hide from the accusations of your own mind?

How should I go about doing whatever I choose to do?

  • Do it with people you like and respect. The opposite is virtually certain to make your life a misery—and nothing will be an adequate compensation. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the line: “Hell is other people” (in a 1944 play called No Exit). It’s often true of the workplace too, but only if you allow it to be.
  • Do it with people you trust and who trust you. If you can’t trust those around you, your life will pass in a blur of suspicion and paranoia. If they don’t trust you, you’ll never be given anything worthwhile or important to do.
  • Do it for enough reward to make you feel valued. That’s all you need. More than that won’t make you feel better, and will likely excite jealousy and continual competition to bring you down. One of the reasons why many super-rich people go on working, when they already have more money than they can ever spend, is the fear that, if they stop, they will discover that they are worth nothing except their bank balance. What kind of a life is that?

What else should I leave space for besides work?

  • Time and leisure to enjoy life while you’re living it. Don’t put off enjoying your life until some time in the future. You never know what may happen first. Don’t make your happiness contingent on achieving some longed-for goal. You may find what you sought doesn’t deliver.
  • Time to pursue other interests. People who are single-minded easily become narrow-minded too. An investor who puts all his or her wealth into a single investment is a fool who is asking for trouble. Someone who invests all their happiness in their work is taking an even bigger risk.
  • Time to give enough of yourself to those you love. Do they deserve only what you have left after everyone else has taken all they want? Can you build good enough relationships on putting the demands of your work above their needs? Will they accept money in lieu of your attention? I think you can work out the answers for yourself.

You can’t compel happiness. You can’t buy it—save for the briefest of periods, usually at an exorbitant price. But you can—so very, very easily—drive it away.

Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. Recent articles there on similar topics include Why you should sometimes think very seriously about giving up and Why perfection isn’t a viable goal. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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