Why Do We Do Anything?

What motivates you to get out of bed each day and do your life’s work? In 1651, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes chalked up the motivation for all human activity to some combination of ‘passion’ and ‘aversion.’ That is to say, we move towards pleasure and away from pain. Think about what makes you happy at work. Now think about what would make you even happier? Is it a corner office? A bigger team? A salary increase? There are certain milestones which we hope will give us happiness once we reach them. Yet somehow most of us remain unhappy as we climb the career ladder; we’re working longer hours with greater intensity, while satisfaction is elusive. While we continue to invest more time and energy into our careers, we somehow remain disconnected from our work. And no matter how hard we push, recent research reveals that we’re forfeiting vacation time. We simply aren’t getting it right.

Reframe Happiness

Rashida Jones, in a series for Wired, suggests that the solution to this paradox is to reframe our definition of happiness altogether – we should view happiness as a process instead of as a project. The fundamental difference being that in a project, goals are about creating something new or about implementing a change – by design, a project is complete. Whereas in a process, the goal is to create value by repeatedly performing a task – by design, a process is endless:
“I try to remind myself that happiness is not the endgame. If your happiness depends on selling your company, snagging one perfect job, finishing the design for your perfect living room, you’ll never actually achieve it. And now that work and life have merged together, it’s doubly important to remember that you deserve to be happy all the time. Luckily, there are techniques and tools that can help you achieve this total world domination—or at least a smooth day at the office.”
By reframing happiness as a process, you can can achieve it every single day. You don’t have to sacrifice it today for some elusive, greater happiness later. But does this sacrifice of happiness mean lowering your standards? Does it mean that you’re settling? Mark Manson counters the popular narrative that people are becoming unhappier because we’re all narcissistic, entitled little snowflakes who want happiness all the time. In a piece titled Stop Trying To Be Happy, he echoes Jones’ suggestion that happiness should be a journey, not a destination – a journey including all the trials & tribulations:
“The failure to meet our own expectations is not antithetical to happiness, and I’d actually argue that the ability to fail and still appreciate the experience is actually a fundamental building block for happiness…The “lower expectations” argument falls victim to the same old mindset: that happiness is derived from without. The joy of life is not having a $100,000 salary. It’s working to reach a $100,000 salary, and then working for a $200,000 salary, and so on. So, I say raise your expectations. Elongate your process. Lay on your death bed with a to-do list a mile long and smile at the infinite opportunity granted to you. Create ridiculous standards for yourself and then savour the inevitable failure. Learn from it. Live it. Let the ground crack and rocks crumble around you because that’s how something amazing grows, through the cracks.”

Don’t Wait For The Unicorn

Investing disproportionately in happiness as a project leads to inevitable disappointment because our level of happiness won’t meet the our endlessly changing standards. Once we reach our destination, there’s more that we need in order to feel happy. And the cycle repeats itself. Why would we want to do that ourselves when we have tools & techniques at our disposal to make us happy in a much more sustainable way, today? Don’t wait for the corner office, the bigger team or the salary increase to make you happy. But don’t stop pursuing them either. All you’ve got to do is redistribute your stock of happiness. Invest disproportionately in things that will make you happy right now, and let the rest play out.