There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for being happy: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?
If you take the need for mastery—the need for competence—there are two broad approaches that one can take to becoming very good at something. One approach is to engage in what people call social comparisons. That is, wanting to be the best at doing something: “I want to be the best professor there is,” or something like that.
There are many problems with that, but one big problem with that is that it’s very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension? What are the yardsticks for being the best professor? Is it about research, teaching? Even if you take only teaching, is it the ratings you get from students, or is it the content that you deliver in class, or the number of students who pass an exam or take a test and do really well in it? So it gets very difficult to judge because these yardsticks become increasingly ambiguous as a field becomes narrower or more technical.
And those yardsticks are ones that we adapt to really quickly. So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you’re going to get used to it and you’re going to want another big bump. And you’ll want to keep getting those in order to sustain your happiness levels. In most people, you can see that that’s not a very sustainable source of happiness.
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An alternative approach
What’s highly recommended is an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate toward things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress toward mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.
If you were to go back to the three things that people need—mastery, belonging, and autonomy—then, add a fourth, after basic necessities have been met. It’s the attitude or the worldview that you bring to life. And that worldview can be characterized, just for simplicity, in one of two fashions: One extreme is a kind of scarcity-minded approach, that my win is going to come at somebody else’s loss, which makes you engage in social comparisons. And the other view called a more abundance-oriented approach is that there’s room for everybody to grow.
The line between abundance and scarcity
The scarcity mindset is either shallow or completely useless. If you’re caught in a warzone, if you’re in a poverty-stricken area, if you’re fighting for your survival, if you’re in a competitive sport like boxing, the scarcity mindset does play a very important role.
Most of us are the products of people who survived in what was for a very, very long time, in our evolution as a species, a scarcity-oriented universe. Food was scarce, resources were scarce, fertile land was scarce, and so on. So we do have a very hardwired tendency to be scarcity-oriented. But I think what has happened over time is we don’t have to literally fight for our survival every day.
As intelligent beings, we need to recognize that some of the vestiges of our evolutionary tendencies might be holding us back. If I’m at an advertising agency, for example, or in software design, those are the kinds of fields where it is now being shown in quite a lot of studies that you actually perform better if you don’t put yourself under the scarcity mindset, if you don’t worry about the outcomes and enjoy the process of doing something, rather than the goal.
Being happy is simple?
On the one hand, we are hardwired to focus more on negative things. But at the same time, we are also all hardwired to be seeking a sense of happiness and the desire to flourish and to be the best we can be. Ultimately, what we need in order to be happy is at some level pretty simple. It requires doing something that you find meaningful, that you can kind of get lost in on a daily basis.
When you observe children, they are very good at this. They don’t get distracted by all those extrinsic yardsticks. They go for things that really bring them a lot of enjoyment. When a 3-year-old-boy saw a neighbor get a car, he was into the car for about three days. After that, he wanted to play with the box in which the car came. It was just a box. He didn’t have any idea that the car cost more, or was more valuable, or more technologically advanced. He was into the box because he saw a character on a TV show called Hamilton the pig, who lives inside a box. He wanted to replicate that life for himself.
What we were trying to do in that particular study is bring that focus back into people’s attention. For example, rather than sitting in front of the TV, a father might decide to play a little game of baseball with his son. What people might do varies, but when there’s a reminder, what we discover is that—and these are studies conducted with Fortune 500 employees, undergraduate students—they make seemingly small, you might even call them trivial, decisions, but they add up to a happier life overall. This simple reminder on an everyday basis is a kind of reality check, which puts things in perspective for people.