Three Little Words to Unlock Your Happiness
February 20, 2013
— Burkeman, Happiness, Health, mental-health, Oliver Burkeman, Oprah Winfrey, Optimism, Self-Help
After years of being told to map out our life goals, a new book says focussing too rigidly on our dreams is a recipe for disappointment. The secret to happy-ever-after can be found in just three little words: Let. It. Be.
We’re constantly being told that by simply imagining what we want, we are moving closer to achieving it. Self-help manual The Secret – which advocates positive thinking as a means to wealth, health and happiness – has sold over 21million copies and even counts Oprah Winfrey among its followers. But now a refreshing new book, The Antidote to Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman, suggests that far from delivering the promised wealth, health and happiness, single-mindedly chasing a goal can lead to disappointment, disillusionment and can close you off to other more exciting, but unforeseen, opportunities. By even subscribing to this ‘positive visualisation’ philosophy we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and unhappiness, says Burkeman. Instead he advocates a more relaxed approach to the future: tear up ‘the plan’ and learn to enjoy uncertainty and embrace imperfection. “Optimism is wonderful; goals can sometimes be useful; even positive thinking and positive visualisation have their benefits,” says Burkeman. “But the culture of positive thinking seeks to make things certain, to make happiness permanent and final. And yet this kind of happiness – even if you do manage to achieve it – is shallow and unsatisfying.”
As the saying goes, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” So perhaps it’s time to let up on yourself when your life goals don’t miraculously fall into place.
“We spend too much of our lives seeking closure,” warns Burkeman. The problem is that life can very rarely be tied up in a neat little bow: it’s messy. And much as we try to imagine it, none of us know what’s around the corner. But instead of being scared of the unknown, Burkeman says we should embrace the mystery and excitement. By accepting that what will be will be, he argues, we’ll ultimately be much happier.
Let Go Of The Reins
Kelly Brightwell*, 35, had no idea a break-up was around the corner and was left shocked and devastated when her boyfriend pulled the rug from under her life plan. “I’d always imagined I’d be married by 35,” says Kelly. “That was the age I imagined my career would be on track, and I could therefore focus on the next stage of my life plan – marriage and family. I met Dan* when I was 33. On paper he was everything I’d imagined in a future husband: he was smart, had a good career and came from a nice family. A year down the line, I was expecting a proposal, but Dan broke up with me instead. I couldn’t believe it. I was mortified, angry and hurt.”
Kelly found out the hard way that one of the fundamental flaws in focussing intently on a goal is that it rules out interference from outside factors – such as other people. “We habitually act as if our control over the world is much greater than it really is,” says Burkeman. “Even such personal matters as our health, our finances and our reputations are ultimately beyond our control; we can try to influence them, of course, but frequently things won’t go our way. And the behaviour of other people is even further beyond our control. For most conventional notions of happiness – which consist of making things the way you want them to be – this poses a big problem.”
Burkeman suggests that instead of focussing intensely on the future, we should enjoy the present. “Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of the future – not because it will help us achieve it but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.” He adds, “There is a powerful alternative possibility: we could learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty and exploit the potential hidden within it, both to feel better in the present and to achieve more success in the future.”
Looking back, Kelly acknowledges that she was so focussed on her ‘plan’ that she was blindsided by her break-up – despite the warning signs. “I can see now that Dan wasn’t right for me, but he was perfect on paper, so I tried to shoehorn him into my life plan. I wanted to get married and I didn’t really care who it was to. If I’m honest, I found him a little bit boring, and we didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. I ignored those doubts because I was so eager to stick to my marriage timeline. I can see now that he did us both a favour by ending it.” Kelly adds, “I’m still single and happier than ever. For the first time, I’m enjoying not knowing what my future holds.”
Achievement At Any Cost
Another problem with becoming consumed by achieving a goal, suggests Burkeman, is that it can negatively affect the other areas of your life. Jenny Goldman*, 42, became so focussed on making partner at her law firm that she lost sight of what is really important to her.
“I was one of only a handful of female employees at my firm,” says Jenny. “I’ve always been fiercely ambitious. At 32, when I first joined the firm, I vowed to make partner by the time I hit 40 – my goal was to be the youngest female partner the firm had ever had. For eight years, I threw myself into work, spending 16 hours a day at the office and working over weekends. When I finally reached my goal and was made partner, I felt completely deflated. I had the corner office and the pay-rise, but I had no friends, no partner and no social life. I’d pursued my goal so single-mindedly that I’d forgotten what was really important to me – the people I love.”
This is a common problem with goalsetting, says Burkeman – people set goals that are too narrow or overly ambitious and end up disappointed when they achieve them and aren’t instantaneously happy. A recent survey found that 41 per cent of people agree that achieving their goals had failed to make them happier, while 18 per cent said their goals had destroyed a friendship or marriage.
“Formulating a vision of the future requires, by definition, that you isolate some aspect or aspects of your life, and focus on those at the expense of all others,” explains Burkeman. He adds, “Goal-free living simply makes for happier humans.”
What’s The Worst That Could Happen?
Burkeman argues that we should stop thinking about our goals in terms of how wonderful our life would be if we achieved them – and start looking at how big the loss would be if we failed. “Failure is the thing that the culture of positive thinking strives at all costs to avoid, but we might be better off learning to embrace it,” he says. “An openness to the emotional experience of failure can be a stepping stone to a much richer kind of happiness than can be achieved by focusing only on success.”After all, when things don’t go our way, it’s often not the catastrophe we imagine. “When things go wrong, they’ll almost certainly go less wrong than you were fearing,” says Burkeman. “Losing a job won’t condemn you to starvation and death; losing a boyfriend won’t condemn you to a life of misery.” The key, he says, is to replace irrational notions with more rational judgements: spend time vividly imagining exactly how wrong things could go in reality and you will usually find your fears are exaggerated.
Stella McKay*, 33, lived in fear of her career going off-plan – until it did, becoming the best thing that happened to her. “My company was hit hard in the recession and cuts were being made across the board. I was terrified my head might be on the chopping block. I’d worked for five years to get where I was and imagined all my hard work going down the drain. I also didn’t want a blemish on my perfect CV. I feared I’d never work again. I worried about losing my flat, my car… everything.”
Ultimately, Stella was let go, but it wasn’t the disaster she had imagined. “I was given a glowing reference and was hired pretty quickly by a rival firm. I love my new job, even more than my old one. If I’d thought about the worst case scenario rationally before I lost my job, I could have saved myself lots of sleepless nights.”
As Stella can testify, living in fear of failure is stressful and exhausting. But Burkeman insists our anxiety needn’t overwhelm us, advising, “Confronting the worst case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power.”