Why is happiness so important?
Are we born happy and then lose it?
What has happiness to do with business success?
I recently became aware of a number of business owners who work such long hours that they neglect all the things that make them happy, except their work.
Because I believe that most of our best ideas come to us in the downtime when we are playing or relaxing, and because I believe that we are all so much more than our businesses, this bothered me a bit so I decided to conduct an experiment.
I asked people to list ten things that they DO that make them happy and then to schedule into their diaries every day something they looked forward to doing and then actually DO them.
Over 130 people shared their lists with each other on-line and about 30 turned up for a meeting to discuss their ideas on happiness, led by philosopher John Turner
These are some of the ideas the people in the group expressed:
To be happy we need to focus our minds, not drift along without being aware.
To be happy we need to be in the flow with an absence of distractions
To be happy we need to be creating and doing
To be happy we need to feel valued – by ourselves as well as others
Nurturing friendships is a major part of being happy
We need a verb: “to happy” (apparently, in ancient Greek, there is/was)
On one thing everyone was agreed:
If there was a machine that could make everyone happy all of the time, we wouldn’t want to turn it on.
There are times when we need sadness, and happiness is something to be worked towards.
“Happiness depends on ourselves.”
2500 years ago, Aristotle enshrined happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself.
2500 years later neuroscientists came to pretty much the same conclusion.
The Nature of Happiness
Despite the fact that many human beings live their lives believing that they will be happy if they get everything they want, both ancient and modern wisdom shows that this is far from true.
Tests show that we are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy or unhappy and we prove ourselves wrong time and again. Rich people are not happier than poor people and yet much of our society is geared to the pursuit of material possessions and fleeting pleasures.
There is a school of thought that says that happiness cannot be pursued or sought and we just need to be open and wait for it to alight in our lives but this too is disputed by both philosophy and science.
This is because happiness is not something that can be gained or lost in a few moments, like pleasurable sensations. It is about the ultimate value of a life, measuring how well we have lived up to our full potential as human beings.
Aristotle tells us that the most important factor in the effort to achieve happiness is to have a good moral character — what he calls “complete virtue.” He argues that virtue is achieved by maintaining the balance between two excesses – reminiscent of Buddha’s Middle Path.
Neoroscience shows that happiness is inextricably linked to the faculty of attention.
Attention systems that lack focus or have become habitually trained on feelings of poor self worth or criticism lead to emotional states that are out of control and lead to anxiety, depression and other distressing states. Studies show that contemplative practices such as meditation are wonderful ways to train the brain into new habits of paying attention to subjects or feelings that enhance self-worth and strengthen new neural pathways.
The language is different but the message is the same.
Happiness takes effort.
Aristotle advocates the education of the whole person, including one’s moral character, rather than merely learning a set of skills. He taught that developing a good character requires a strong effort of will to do the right thing, make difficult decisions, not give in to immediate gratification and that through training and practice we can achieve our full potential and the enrichment of human life.
Neuroscience shows that we can change our brains, not by intervention with medication or stimulants but by practicing new thought patterns. The basic structure of our mental life is habit and, just as we strengthen muscles in our bodies by practice, so we do the same with our brains.
Qualities we admire in others, e.g., kindness, generosity, humour, patience, compassion are not innate qualities but are skills that we can learn with practice until they become new habits. If we admire these qualities in others we can aquire them for ourselves by paying attention, repeating behaviours and becoming the kind of person we most want to be.
So, happiness is about human flourishing and thriving, not about feelings of pleasure, and it is an activity rather than a state.
What does this have to do with business?
Building a successful business, especially when you are working alone, requires great discipline.
Doing the right things at the right time, even when we don’t feel like it, making difficult decisions, turning away from the quick fix in order to stick to a long term plan, staying focused on a task, being mindful, keeping the promises we make to ourselves, are all important.
If the pursuit of happiness is about human flourishing and thriving, applying the same principles to business can only be a good thing. Happiness is not something we take time off to do and then feel guilty about, it becomes both the reason and the way in which we do everything.
Rather than say “I’ll be happy when ….” (I’ve got to x turnover / this job is finished / that client is satisfied / I have some reliable staff), and recognising that these things are not what makes us happy and that we don’t have to wait for them to happen, creates the freedom to make the pursuit of happiness an habitual activity that leads to real fulfilment of our potential as human beings.
Take part in the experiment
If you would like to take part in the happiness experiment simply schedule into your daily activities things that you DO that will make you happy and then DO them. Repeat until being happy is something you do every day.