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Your Happiness Plan

Your Happiness Plan

Blue sign points the way to happiness

    A Quick Survey

    Before we get under way with today’s briefer-than-normal chat, I want to conduct a little research on the run. Put up your hand if happiness is one of your aims in life. And no, participation is not optional at Stepcase Lifehack today. Yep, even you scaredy cats. Okay, keep ‘em up so I can count… 1001, 1002, 1003… yep; that’s all of you. Guessed as much. So it seems that despite the fact that we’re all different people, in different situations, inhabiting different parts of the globe… we have one common goal; happiness.

    Who’da thought?

    But do we Need a Happiness Plan?

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      We create plans to build wealth. And plans to lose weight. Plans for our dream home. Future plans. Travel plans. We plan the academic path that will lead to our ideal career. Or so we think. We plan our wedding (well, some do). Our marriage. Our family (2.3 kids and a Golden Retriever). It seems we have a plan for pretty much anything that’s remotely important in our lives, so why wouldn’t we have a plan for the thing which drives us all: a desire to be happy? Perhaps we think we’ll find it in all our other plans? That is, happiness will be the net result of all the other.. stuff.

      Blaah Central

      If happiness is such a universal pursuit, why does it prove to be so elusive to so many? Dare I say, to the majority? Perhaps not in your (personal) world, but step back a little and take a peek beyond your fence. Take a look around. And not a cursory glance, a proper look. Examine the faces, the body language, the posture. Listen to the conversations, the words, the tone. So much of it reeks of… blaah. So much of it seems to be devoid of happiness.

      Why the Long Face?

      Walk around your city and look people in the eye (don’t get beaten up in the process) and what do you see most? Fear? Uncertainty? Stress? Self-doubt? Frustration? Apathy? If you had to label it, what would you say the dominant emotion is these days? Would it be closer to the positive or negative end of the emotional scale? To be honest, I’m not seeing a whole lot of joy out there lately. Why all the long faces? Why all the busy therapists? Why all the affairs? And body-modifying surgery? And substance abuse? And other addictions? And why all the accumulation of stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have?

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      Could it be that when it comes to the universal goal, we’re missing something crucial? Something massive perhaps? Like the whole point? Could it be we’re looking where happiness ain’t? Perhaps we’re chasing the wrong things? Perhaps we shouldn’t chase at all?

      Could it be that happiness is not to be found in the chasing but rather, in the choosing?

      The Accumulation Lie

      Maybe happiness doesn’t live in places or things? Maybe our happiness methodology and mentality is all wrong? Could it be that we don’t really understand it? Or maybe we don’t recognise it because we’re not sure what it looks like. Perhaps we already have it and don’t know? Perhaps we unknowingly and unintentionally make happiness an impossibility? Perhaps that’s it over there, hiding behind our insecurity, fear and self-doubt? Maybe it’s in the second drawer underneath all our issues? Perhaps it’s obscured by the crap. The cerebral crap. The emotional crap. The human crap. The crap we hold on to. The crap we believe. Perhaps we don’t see it because, like the masses, we have somehow bought into the lie of the ego; the accumulation lie. The when we get enough stuff we’ll be happy paradigm. You know the one. And if we’re not happy, it’s obviously because we need more stuff. Or new stuff. Or different stuff. Or best of all: stuff nobody else has.

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      Bingo.

      Perhaps happiness is not to be found in the chasing, the acquiring, the accumulating or even the planning; perhaps we’ll find it in the letting go. That’s where I find it.

      I’s love to hear your thoughts on happiness. It’s such a universally relevant issue — it might make for some interesting group discussion. Feel free to be as deep, philosophical and/or spiritual as you like. What has your journey taught you? What do you have to teach the rest of us? Could we (the collective mindset) possibly have it wrong? Has your thinking (about happiness) changed over time? If so, how? What have you had to un-learn along the way? Can happiness be a permanent state or will it always be transient? Is happiness a matter of perspective? Is it different things for different people? Is happiness.. joy? Is it contentment? Is it the absence of fear? Or perhaps the absence of pain? What do you think?

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      As always, we’re not about “right or wrong” here at Stepcase Lifehack, we’re all about the respectful sharing of ideas, lessons and experiences. And yes, we’d love to hear from you Newbies and Lurkers too. We don’t bite.

      More by this author

      Craig Harper

      Leading presenter, writer and educator in the areas of high-performance, self-management, personal transformation and more

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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!

      More About Goals Setting

      Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

      Reference

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