Around this time, each year, many of us take time out to do a little reflecting and setting ourselves some hopes and expectations for the following year. This time last year, I posted a blog entry on how to stick to your resolutions. The ideas hold and I shalln’t repeat them here – please check it out.
A few weeks ago, I posted a blog entry about happiness and how we were beginning to understand much more about the science of happiness. I mentioned that there are now a number of ‘meta-analyses’ summarising the research evidence and that these make useful points to check our intuitive understanding. So, given the time of year, I thought it might be helpful to try to capture the latest evidence around goals and human happiness and performance…
Back in the 1970s, psychologists commonly believed that personal happiness was determined by a comparison between our current state of being and what we thought it could be. If the gap seemed huge, we’d be unhappy; if it seemed easily ‘achievable’ then we’d be happier. Although they were a little more sophisticated in their argument, this was essentially the view of people like Campbell et al (1976), and represented the mainstream perspective. If this was the case, then the simplest way for someone to become happier, would be to lower their expectations of themself!
Psychology in the intervening years has, to some extent, politicized. Left-wing thinkers, seeking more equality in the world, reject this idea on the basis that it is likely to reinforce the ‘have/have not’ or ‘us and them’ mindset that dominates much of the world. Right-wing thinkers, who tend to seek the reward of ‘excellence’, also reject it, because it discourages their Nirvana-like seeking.
What, we now realise both schools of thought were missing, was that human beings do not approach their goal setting efforts as blank sheets of paper. Three things in particular affect our approach to the future: our present state of mind (on a scale from ‘gloom’, through ‘neutrality’, to ‘optimism’), our determination to shape our future (from the passive to the dynamic) and our response to a world/system that doesn’t change precisely how we want it to (our response to rejection – ‘fragile’ or ‘resilient’).
The key to happiness and our goal setting is the middle one of these: our determination to shape our own future. We know that children generally like to challenge themselves – without competing against others, they will instinctively set themselves scales against which they test their own performance. And it is in that self-reference that the secret lies. It is not in competing against others but in stretching ourselves that we achieve more AND feel happier. Happy people always have projects that they are working towards; new things to understand; new achievements.
If we set ourselves too high an expectation, then our frustration at not realising them taps into our ability to handle rejection and, soon, this translates into a state of despair and depression. It is important to stretch ourselves, but not too far.
Conversely, if we set ourselves too low an expectation, then we become bored. In the 1970s, the economist, Tibor Scitovsky, wrote a book called the Joyless Economy, in which he explored why so many people were unhappy, even though they had plenty of money. His explanation was boredom. They had chosen a state of comfort over one of stimulation. They had failed to develop interests outside work that engaged them, stimulated them, and encouraged them to seek to grow themselves emotionally and spiritually. Despite the huge pressure many people report themselves as being under today, the average American and Briton still find time to watch television for a staggering three and a half hours each day. Without being disrespectful to the TV producers, watching other people do things is no substitute for doing them yourself.
That boredom is a serious contributor to unhappiness is not a new idea, both Bertrand Russell and John Milton Keynes said as much too.
The psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), used the word ‘flow’ to describe the sense that we can all experience of being so engaged with something that we lose much of our conscious awareness of the rest of the world around us, albeit temporarily. This state is one ‘goal’ of meditation, but it is also crucial to athletic performance, the creative process, and sensuality.
So, this year, as the mince pies slowly work themselves through our systems, and we reflect on the coming year, let’s stretch ourselves – but not so far that we are likely to be frustrated, and determine to find new projects and new ways of engaging – in which we can become truly absorbed. In these ways, we will be happier, more productive, and leave an even greater legacy.
In my blog last year, you’ll find a link to the 212 – The Extra Degree short web ‘movie’. If you find yourself struggling to accept that just a little stretch is all it really takes, or your boss is encouraging the ‘reach for the clouds’ sort of goals, then this will challenge your thinking, so I’d urge you to look at this and maybe even send them a link to it – hey, you could send them this blog and remind them that I’m available to help leaders as they achieve more than they ever dreamt was possible!