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How to Have a Year that Matters

January 30, 2013


Let’s cut the crap. Life is short, you have less time than you think, and there are no baby unicorns coming to save you. So rather than doling out craptastic advice to you about Making!! It!! To!! The!! Top!!™, let me humbly ask: do you want to have a year that matters — or do you want to spend another year starring-slash-wallowing in the lowest-common-denominator reality show-slash-whiny soap opera of your own inescapable mediocrity-slash-self-imposed tragedy?

If (congratulations) your unquenched desire to have better than a smoking trainwreck of a so-called life exceeds your frenzied mania for spending another 365 days wallowing in a sea of junk-food wrappers, then — don’t worry, I’ll be gentle — here are a few tiny questions.

Why are you here? I don’t mean to induce a full blown heart palpitation accompanied panic attack filled existential crisis in you (or maybe I do) — so let’s keep it simple. This coming year: why are you (really) here? There are plenty of answers to this biggest of questions — but, no: all answers aren’t created equal. There are poor ones, which will probably lead to a long, dull, dismal, rainy Sunday of a year. And there are better ones — which just might begin to explosively unfurl a life that feels fully worth living. Allow me to break it down for you.

What do you want? Here are some perfectly valid answers, if tedious mediocrity’s the limit of your horizon this year: money, sex, power, fame, keeping up with the Kardashians. Here are some better answers, if a year in a life meaningfully well lived is what you’re after. To make a difference. To transform something that sucks. To create that which transforms. To build that which counts. To experience what’s true. To do stuff that matters.

How much does it matter? Here are some pretty good answers, if a snoozer of a year in a cavernous landfill of a life is what you’re after. To your boss, her boss, his boss, or their boss. To shareholders, to the markets, to “consumers.” Here are some better answers, if you want this to be a year that one day that, in a surprisingly short time, you don’t just remember, but that you still savor: to society, to humanity, to tomorrow. To the timeless spirit of furious impossibility that characterizes the art of human excellence — not just to the zombie vampire robots that make up the bulk of our beige, big-box, yawn-inducingly banal infomercial-for-dystopia of a so-called economy.

What’s it going to take? You don’t get to a life well lived using the tired capabilities and skills built to Farmville the cubefarm. You need to “use” not just your whole mind, but to learn to employ your whole being: mind, heart, soul, and body. If nothing less than a life worth living’s your goal, you probably need to nurture not just the so-called pseudoscientific skills of a sartorially power-suited spreadsheet jockey — counting beans, pillaging the townsfolk, sweetly stabbing your peers in the back, all the while slickly glad-handing your higher-ups — but the arts of empathy, humility, passion, imagination, rebellion, to name just a few.

Who’s on your side? A life meaningfully well lived isn’t a Western, and you’re not John Wayne (although I bet you, like me, look darn good in a cowboy hat). Rugged individualism is nice in theory, but the truth is: if you’re going to make a difference, you’re probably not going to make it happen all by your lonesome. So who are your mentors and allies, friends and peers? Who’s at your back, manning your sails, crewing your boat? Here’s a hint: if you look around and your boat’s empty, learn to lead. Challenge, provoke, inspire, connect — and then, harder still, evoke the best in people. For it is the best in us that, in turn, elevates our capacity to love; the truest currency of a life well lived. And so respect is earned — and love given — not just to those who pander, but those who matter.

Where’s your true north? If you’re going to live a life that matters, you need an ethical compass: a belief system with a true north that points toward values that are in some sense enduringly, meaningfully good. Lance Armstrong’s true north seems to have been trophies — not championships; and the result, I’d bet, is a life that now feels arid, empty, wasted. So what’s your true north? In what direction do you find the stuff that makes life “good”? Does your true north point to consumption, status, transactions — instead of investment, accomplishments, relationships? If it’s the former, I’d bet: a life well lived is going to remain as elusive to you as it’s been to Lance.

What breaks your heart? Follow your passion, we’re often told. But how do you find your passion? Let me put it another way: what is it that breaks your heart about the world? It’s there that you begin to find what moves you. If you want to find your passion, surrender to your heartbreak. Your heartbreak points towards a truer north — and it’s the difficult journey towards it that is, in the truest sense, no mere passing idyllic infatuation, but enduring, tempestuous passion.

What’s it worth? A life well lived isn’t partytime with the airheads at the McClubs in Ibiza. And here’s the inconvenient truth: it’s going to take more than the tired old refrains of hard work, dedication, commitment, and perseverance. It’s going to take very real heartbreak, sorrow, grief, and disappointment. Only you can decide how much is too much. Is it worth it? Aaron Swartz, who packed an astonishing amount into his short 26 years, was relentlessly persecuted by an overweening prosecutor — and tragically took his own life in part for it. Van Gogh, of course, famously died for his art. A life well lived always demands one asks of one’s self: is it worth it? Is the heartache worth the breakthrough; is the desolation worth the accomplishment; is the anguish balanced by the jubilation; perhaps, even, are the moments of bitter despair, sometimes, finally, the very instants we treasure most? There’s no easy answer, no simplistic rule of thumb. The scales of life always hang before us — and always ask us to weigh the burden of our choices carefully.

Sure, you might read all the above and mutter: “Duuude? Check me Broseph. All I really want is a mega-bonus, a lifetime membership to the VIP room, and the keys to a Maserati.” Welcome, then, to bootylicious mediocrity. For mediocrity isn’t the poor, hardscrabble immigrant cleaning the bathroom at the 7-11: it’s the lucky trust fund kid who could’ve, just maybe, lived a life worth living — and thinks a life worth living is a loft, a corner office, a sports car, and a designer coffee machine instead. All that stuff’s nice — but entirely besides the point. Of life. For the simple, timeless truth is: You’ll never find the rapture of accomplishment in mere conquest, the incandescence of happiness in mere possession, or the searing wholeness of meaning in mere desire. You can find them only — only — in the exploration of the fullness of human possibility.

Hence: every moment of every day of this year, and every year that follows, what I want you to map is the uncharted shore of potential: the capacity of life to dream, wonder, imagine, create, build, transform, better, and love; the infusion of the art of living into the heart of every instant of existence.

We’ve been taught to be obedient rationalists. And the rationalists say: there’s no magic in the world. But they miss the point. There’s a kind of quiet magic that each and every one of us is condemned to have in us, every moment of our lives: the facility to exalt life beyond the mundane, and into the meaningful; beyond the generic, and into the singular; through the abstract, and into the concrete; past the individual, and towards the universal. And it’s when we reject this, the truest and worthiest gift of life, that we have squandered the fundamental significance of being human; that the soil of our lives feels arid, featureless, fallow, a desert that never came to life; because, in truth, it has been. And so this almost magical facility you and I have, potential, is something like an existential obligation that we must live up to: for it’s only when we not just accept it, but employ it at it’s maximum, that we can reconcile ourselves not merely to regret, but with mortality; that we can escape not merely our own lesser selves, but the all-destroying scythe of futility; and come, finally, to find, at the end of the day, not merely time’s revenge on life, but life’s revenge on time: an abiding grace for both the fragility and the fullness of life.

I don’t pretend any of the above is revolutionary, or new, or anything less than obvious. Yet, the lessons of a life well lived rarely are: they’re simple, timeless truths.

So let me ask again. Why are you here? Do you want this to be another year that flies by, half-hearted, arid, rootless, barely remembered, dull with dim glimpses of what might have been? Or do you want this to be a year that you savor, for the rest of your surprisingly short time on Planet Earth, as the year you started, finally, irreversibly, uncompromisingly, to explosively unfurl a life that felt fully worth living?

The choice is yours. And it always has been.

More blog posts by Umair Haque
Umair Haque


Umair Haque is Director of Havas Media Labs and author of Betterness: Economics for Humans and The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business. He is ranked one of the world’s most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50. Follow him on twitter @umairh.



Three Paths to Happiness

January 10, 2013 1 Comment

By Shelley Prevost at

Happiness is like sex. It’s something we all want yet rarely talk about. But unlike sex, when we do talk about it, we usually dismiss happiness as some hokey concept that, if pursued, qualifies us as an idealist with no sense of reality.

Happiness is something we can all achieve. (Photo: MGNOnline)

Why is the idea of happiness so easily dismissed? Is it so difficult to attain happiness that the mere discussion of it becomes a reaction against our very desire for it?

Some people think happiness is trite, not a serious subject or too vague to be relevant. The thing is, we make decisions every day because we believe that these decisions will bring us closer to what we want. For most of us, what we want is to be happy. So let’s get serious about happiness. Here are three paths that can help you get more of it.

The pleasurable life
When someone says “happy,” for many of us this conjures up images of a pleasurable life—beautiful sunsets, good wine, a massage. This type of happiness, also known as hedonia, is reflected in having positive emotions like awe, curiosity, gratitude, play and satisfaction. The expression of these emotions is witnessed in an ebullient personality—big smile, bright eyes, laughter. This type of happiness is epitomized on the red carpet—what we think of when we imagine the life of Hollywood’s elite.

But herein lies the big misconception about happiness. Happiness is not all fun, games and positive emotions. These alone are not sufficient for achieving a life well-lived. This is just one version of happiness.

Happiness is also developing grit, living out personal values, working hard, achieving goals, taking personal responsibility and practicing empathy—skills that aren’t typically “fun.” So, I’d like to propose two more sustainable paths to happiness.

The good life
When you are pursuing the good life, you are deeply engaged in all facets of your life. You show up. You know what you’re good at, what you’re bad at, when you’re mentally strong and what values you’re unwilling to compromise.

Engagement is also about finding your flow, which is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” When you know your strengths, have time to develop those strengths and are able to make a positive impact on the world with those strengths, flow will happen.

Although you can’t be in flow all the time, identifying your strengths—by using a test like StrengthsFinder 2.0—and defining your guiding values (life-work balance, being an honest person, having lots of social time with friends) will go far to set you down the path to the good life.

The meaningful life
The third path to happiness is found in living a meaningful life. Meaningfulness is believing in a purpose or cause. It’s contributing to something bigger than you. It’s belonging to a tribe with shared values in order to do something more significant than you could do alone.

People without meaning live hollow lives. They struggle to find their life’s purpose. I can think of nothing sadder than living a life without clarity in one’s purpose. We all have one. And we usually find ours through the relationships we find ourselves in.

Like the show “Lost,” we go to the island to fulfill our destiny. The cast of characters we spend our time with help us not only to find it, but also to live it out.

Who are the cast of characters in your life? And what are they showing you about your purpose? Find the answer to these two questions, and you may be well on your way to a happier life.

Dr. Shelley Prevost is a positive psychologist. She is a partner and director of happiness at Lamp Post Group. Follow her on Twitter @thegladlab. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, or its employees.

As 40 is the new 30, ‘meaning’ is the new ‘happiness’

January 9, 2013

By Emily Esfahani Smith, The Atlantic

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”


Kacper Pempel/Reuters

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”

As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. “In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:


This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”


RTR6BQFinset.jpgViktor Frankl [Herwig Prammer/Reuters]

In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listedMan’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”

According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”


This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.

Nearly a quarter of Americans do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.

“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers write.

What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with doing activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.

“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister told me in an interview.

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”


Which brings us back to Frankl’s life and, specifically, a decisive experience he had before he was sent to the concentration camps. It was an incident that emphasizes the difference between the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of happiness in life.

RTR29GZDinset.jpgPeter Andrews/Reuters

In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. As a 16-year-old boy, for example, he struck up a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and one day sent Freud a two-page paper he had written. Freud, impressed by Frankl’s talent, sent the paper to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis for publication. “I hope you don’t object,” Freud wrote the teenager.

While he was in medical school, Frankl distinguished himself even further. Not only did he establish suicide-prevention centers for teenagers — a precursor to his work in the camps — but he was also developing his signature contribution to the field of clinical psychology: logotherapy, which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.

That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.

As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”

When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.


The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”

Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

You May Have To Choose Between A Happy Life And A Meaningful Life

November 25, 2012

By Gus Lubin.  Read more:

As psychologists zero in on the key to a good life, it’s becoming clear that there are two distinct paths.

A forthcoming paper by Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, and Emily Garbinsky in the Journal of Positive Psychology looks at the difference between a happy life and a meaningful life. Here’s the abstract:

Being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences. A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness.

In short, a meaningful life involves suffering for a greater cause.

The study, based on multiple surveys of 397 adults plus past research, found that people can feel both happy and meaningful — indeed the two feelings reinforce each other — but at some points you may have to choose.

The authors hope you’ll choose meaningfulness:

Our data enable us to construct a statistical portrait of a life that is highly meaningful but relatively low in happiness, which illuminates the differences between happiness and meaningfulness. This sort of life has received relatively little attention and even less respect. But people who sacrifice their personal pleasures in order to participate constructively in society may make substantial contributions. Cultivating and encouraging such people despite their unhappiness could be a goal worthy of positive psychology.

The paper concludes: “[H]umans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.

We’ve previously discussed another article by Professor Aaker of Stanford Graduate School of Business on the psychological benefits of awe.


Not the Meaning of Life

June 13, 2012

By Mia Shaw of the

“What do you want to be in life?”

Long, dramatic pause.


If I had a nickel for every time somebody told me that his or her overarching life goal entailed “happiness,” I’d have enough to confuse and infuriate every cashier whose store I tried to buy anything from.

Age-old question: What’s the meaning of life?

And I don’t just mean life on Earth in general. I’m not asking you, “What’s the meaning of life … for brine shrimp?” No, see, if that were the case, the obvious answer would be: “To eat and reproduce.” Which would be true for lots of organisms, I guess.

But no, I’m asking what the meaning of your life is. What you feel like you were put on this Earth to do in the time allotted to you. Tough question, right?

Actually … apparently not. The other day, I was hanging out with one of my friends. Curious, I asked, “What do you want out of life?” She barely took more than a moment to think about the question before promptly responding with a confident “I just want to be happy.”

Let me just put this out there before I start to sound as if I have a better answer: I do not, nor have ever claimed, to know what the actual “meaning of life” is. I am not God; I’m a little white girl with more freckles than IQ points, and I admittedly probably know a lot less about life than most people do. But in my own personal opinion — as unaccredited as it may be — I don’t think there really is a “meaning” to life at all. And absolutely not one that can be given as a short, simple answer to a philosophical question that profound.

Yet I’ve heard so many people state that they want “to be happy” in life that I’d like to talk about it a little. Because, although I can’t think of a better answer, that one happens to be my least favorite.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once stated, “Happiness is not a goal — it is a by-product.”

People everywhere seem to be getting new cars, impressive jobs, pretty girlfriends, what have you; they seem happy with their lives. It’s very difficult not to see the things that bring other people happiness without feeling inadequate and consequently wanting more. Some of us equate “seeming happy” with “being happy,” but there’s definitely a difference between the two, and some people who excel in the former are truly lacking in the latter. Just as it’s very easy for people with no real problems to act like they have problems, it’s equally easy for miserable people to pretend that they’re happy so that no one asks them what’s wrong. Problems can rarely be seen at surface level. But even so, looking around us at the lives of other people, it’s easy to see what we don’t have and feel as if we’re missing something. We go out in search of things that we could find that would make us feel better, and we turn happiness into a goal.

But “achieving happiness” is an impossible goal, at least when happiness is viewed as something to be achieved. It’s hard to know what it truly means to be “happy.” There’s no scale to measure happiness by, even on a personal scale, and that makes it difficult to determine that we are fully and completely satisfied with life. How can we search for something when we have absolutely no idea what it would mean to actually find it? We simply can’t. This makes “achieving happiness” an impossible goal, and impossible goals are ones that must surely be met with imminent disappointment and failure.

People could talk for millennia about whether or not humans will ever find happiness; they have. So I suppose regardless of whether or not happiness can ever be found, I’d really like to know, above all, what exactly makes happiness so important that we should dedicate our lives to it and want it so badly. In my head, happiness should be avoided. After all, it is actually the absence of happiness that helps us most grow as individuals — adversity strengthens us, and we learn through our mistakes. Personal development would not exist were we all perpetually content with exactly the way we already were.

Do what you love, do what makes you happy. But don’t do anything solely in an attempt to bring yourself happiness. As Eleanor Roosevelt concluded, “The one sure way not to be happy is to deliberately map out a way in life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively.”

The Meaning of Life in Two Words

May 22, 2012

From Lisa Earle McLeod, Huffington Post

Beyond food and shelter, people of all ages have two core emotional needs: connection and meaning. We want close personal relationships while we’re on this planet, and we want to make a contribution that outlasts our stay on it.

Our deepest desire is to make a difference, and our darkest fear is that we won’t. The need for belonging and significance transcends age, culture, sex, race and socioeconomic status.

Connection and meaning are simple concepts, yet the full context of their meaning is huge. We connect through relationships, and we make meaning through accomplishment. They’re forever intertwined around each other in the dance of human life.

Connecting makes life more meaningful, and accomplishments shared with others are more satisfying than those we achieve alone. Meaningful accomplishment goes beyond just doing things; it’s about creating things, like art, or a family, or a community.

Your life’s “work” (whether it be paid, unpaid or both) is your legacy. And whether you do it with your hands, your head or your heart, the meaning you get out of it is in direct proportion to the meaning you put into it.

That’s where the conflict comes in.

The biggest challenge most of us face in accomplishing our life’s work are all those other crazy humans trying to do same thing. They plague us with their unrelenting demands, they don’t love us the way we’d like, and they insist on bringing their own quirks and ideas into every situation.

If only they would see things our way, then we could really get something done.

Who hasn’t found themselves thinking, “This project would go quicker if so and so weren’t involved?” I confess, I’ve actually found myself thinking, “I’m trying to create a happy family, but my kids and husband keep messing it up.” Irony noted.

Alas, such is the nature of the human ego. Our soul wants to be part of something bigger than ourselves, yet our ego tells us that all those other people are standing in our way.

Enter the cheap, no-work, pop culture solutions: TV and shopping. We can connect, we can create, and we don’t have to put up with real people at all.

Craving better personal relationships? No need to converse with your real family. Modern Family is much more interesting. Sure, they have quirks, but nothing a few witty one-liners won’t solve.

The beauty and the curse of television is that it satisfies our desire for intimacy without any real emotional investment on our part. Want the satisfaction of a meaningful accomplishment? Forget toiling over a multi-department project or a community garden. With one click of your mouse, you can have new patio furniture or a fabulous wardrobe today. TV fulfills our need for connection and consumerism feeds off our need for creative accomplishment.

Look, I’m no Earth Mother. I’ve got a closet full of shoes and I can recite the words to the Brady Bunchsong by heart. But I also know that the connection and meaning we crave can’t be found in pop culture solutions.

The path to lasting happiness is never easy. It takes mental discipline to turn away from the quick fixes being marketed to the masses. And it takes patience to make emotional investments in the people around you.

But TV and shopping aren’t cheap substitutes for the real thing. They’re expensive ones, and you deserve the real deal.

Connection and meaning. It’s really that simple. And it’s really that hard.

(c) Lisa Earle McLeod

Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant. Companies like Apple, Kimberly-Clark and Pfizer hire her to help them create passionate, purpose-driven sales forces.

She the author of The Triangle of Truth, which the Washington Post named as a “Top Five Book for Leaders.”

More info:
Lisa’s Blog – How Smart People Can Get Better At Everything

One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and Finally Let the Sunshine In

April 22, 2012

Happiness radiates from within

KEVIN CULLEN Commercial-News

Todd Patkin had it all: the respect of his community, leadership of his family’s growing auto-parts business, and a great wife and son.

But over time, he became paralyzed by depression and anxiety. At 36, he suffered a nervous breakdown.

His new book, “Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and — Finally — Let the Sunshine In” is a primer in how to set priorities, establish limits and find happiness.

Several of his suggestions hit home with me, for instance:

— “You have to choose and prioritize happiness — it doesn’t just happen.”

Long ago, someone told me that real happiness requires three things: something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to. You may live in a shanty in ol’ Shantytown, but if you have a job, a dream, and the right girl, life is sweet.

— “Striving for work/life balance is worth its weight in gold.”

I once knew a reporter who earned four weeks of paid vacation each year, but took only one week; the other three were forfeited. His job was everything to him. He acted as though the newspaper would shut down if he weren’t there. He’s gone now, but the paper has never missed an issue. Lesson learned.

— “We are our own worst critics.”

Comparisons are corrosive. No matter who you are, there always will be lots of people smarter than you, richer than you, better looking than you. Run with your blinkers on.

— “It’s never too late to start living in the present.”

It’s one thing to be nostalgic, and another to constantly relive mistakes, become mired in disappointments and wallow in regret. When someone asked George Burns what he would change in his long life, he replied that he wouldn’t change a thing … but he would like to live it all over again, just as it was, one more time.

— “Focusing on what you’re good at is best for everyone.”

I once knew a Nobel Prize laureate. In his 90s, he still came to work each day, directing post-doctoral students in his university laboratory. He wasn’t on the payroll; he loved chemistry. The happiest people are those who have a knack for something and find a way to make a living doing it. As Robert Frost said, vocation and avocation should be one, “as two eyes make one sight.”

— “Exercise is worth its weight in therapy.”

Physical exertion — even scrubbing a floor — can cleanse the mind, ease sadness and mend a broken heart.

— “Being friendly is a good investment.”

Strangers used to make eye contact and say “hi” to each other on the street. Now, it seems, they’re glued to their smart phones and iPods. We need to unplug, smile, and radiate kindness.

— “A grateful heart is a happy heart.”

We Americans are the luckiest people on earth, but we love to gripe, gripe, gripe. Our country isn’t perfect, but nobody’s leaving.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at

We’re pursuing, but are we finding #happiness?

March 27, 2012

By JENNY SOKOL, Orange County Register

Pursuing happiness is our constitutional, unalienable right. A critical piece of the American dream, it’s something we’re practically programmed to chase with gusto.

Why then, in a wealthy nation ripe with religious and personal freedom, does it seem so elusive?

Numerous studies contend that Americans aren’t content. An estimated 40 million have been diagnosed with depression, according to a 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey. A Medco report states that more than one in five adults took prescription anti-depressants in 2010. Annually, suicide consistently ranks in the top 10 leading causes of death, and insomnia costs the U.S. economy $63 billion annually.

How can the U.S. boast the strongest gross domestic product in the world, but can’t break into the top 10 on the “Happiest Countries” list?

Director Roko Belic explores these issues in his new, aptly titled documentary, “Happy.”  Viewers are introduced to compelling figures who radiate happiness, from a rickshaw driver in India to a surfer in Brazil. The filmmakers travel across the globe, capturing fascinating expressions of joy in places ranging from African villages to Okinawan streets.

Is there a secret? Yes, and it doesn’t include gobs of money, ambition, or success. The world’s happiest people, Belic found, maintain strong relationships and engage in meaningful work. They take care of their bodies, express gratitude often and make time to play and laugh. Also, cultures that value all age groups and live in intergenerational communities are among the happiest.

Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” suggests that the American “culture of abundance” contributes to a persistent sense of dissatisfaction and anxiousness.

Because so many decisions must be made on a daily basis, consumers tend to agonize over even small choices, only to then question whether they made the right decision. A non-fat chai or a seasonal pumpkin latte? Iced or hot? Extra pump? Sugar or Splenda? If you’ve tried to choose a cell phone plan or deliberated between laptops in a massive electronics store, you’ve been there.

If you hate buying underwear because you can’t choose between low-rise, hi-rise, brief, hi-cut, boy-cut, or bikini, wait until you come face to face with the new Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. This soda dispenser allows customers to choose from over 100 beverage combinations. Add a spritz of orange flavoring to your Sprite or a burst of grape to your Coke, all with a touch of a finger.

Schwartz maintains that an abundance of alternatives can lead to perpetual stress. Additionally, expectations are high once a decision has been made, so consumers tend to inevitably be disappointed and feel remorse for having not chosen differently. What can help? Lowering expectations and agonizing less about less meaningful decisions.

Take heart, America: Happiness doesn’t require a promotion, a fancy sports car, or size 4 jeans. It’s a skill that can be learned with practice. A skill, as our forefathers agreed, worth pursuing.

Contact the writer:

NYT Critique of Martin Seligman’s “Flourish”

March 13, 2012

By JOHN TIERNEY, New York Times

Is happiness overrated?

Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania

Martin Seligman now thinks so, which may seem like an odd position for the founder of the positive psychology movement. As president of the American Pyschological Association in the late 1990s, he criticized his colleagues for focusing relentlessly on mental illness and other problems. He prodded them to study life’s joys, and wrote a best seller in 2002 titled “Authentic Happiness.”

But now he regrets that title. As the investigation of happiness proceeded, Dr. Seligman began seeing certain limitations of the concept. Why did couples go on having children even though the data clearly showed that parents are less happy than childless couples? Why did billionaires desperately seek more money even when there was nothing they wanted to do with it?

And why did some people keep joylessly playing bridge? Dr. Seligman, an avid player himself, kept noticing them at tournaments. They never smiled, not even when they won. They didn’t play to make money or make friends.

They didn’t savor that feeling of total engagement in a task that psychologists call flow. They didn’t take aesthetic satisfaction in playing a hand cleverly and “winning pretty.” They were quite willing to win ugly, sometimes even when that meant cheating.

“They wanted to win for its own sake, even if it brought no positive emotion,” says Dr. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “They were like hedge fund managers who just want to accumulate money and toys for their own sake. Watching them play, seeing them cheat, it kept hitting me that accomplishment is a human desiderata in itself.”

This feeling of accomplishment contributes to what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, which roughly translates to “well-being” or “flourishing,” a concept that Dr. Seligman has borrowed for the title of his new book, “Flourish.” He has also created his own acronym, Perma, for what he defines as the five crucial elements of well-being, each pursued for its own sake: positive emotion, engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

“Well-being cannot exist just in your own head,” he writes. “Well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.”

The positive psychology movement has inspired efforts around the world to survey people’s state of mind, like a new project in Britain to measure what David Cameron, the prime minister, calls GWB, for general well-being. Dr. Seligman says he’s glad to see governments measuring more than just the G.D.P., but he’s concerned that these surveys mainly ask people about their “life satisfaction.”

In theory, life satisfaction might include the various elements of well-being. But in practice, Dr. Seligman says, people’s answers to that question are largely — more than 70 percent — determined by how they’re feeling at the moment of the survey, not how they judge their lives over all.

“Life satisfaction essentially measures cheerful moods, so it is not entitled to a central place in any theory that aims to be more than a happiology,” he writes in “Flourish.” By that standard, he notes, a government could improve its numbers just by handing out the kind of euphoriant drugs that Aldous Huxley described in “Brave New World.”

So what should be measured instead? The best gauge so far of flourishing, Dr. Seligman says, comes from a study of 23 European countries by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So of the University of Cambridge. Besides asking respondents about their moods, the researchers asked about their relationships with others and their sense that they were accomplishing something worthwhile.

Denmark and Switzerland ranked highest in Europe, with more than a quarter of their citizens meeting the definition of flourishing. Near the bottom, with fewer than 10 percent flourishing, were France, Hungary, Portugal and Russia.

There’s no direct comparison available with the United States, although some other researchers say that Americans would do fairly well because of their sense of accomplishment. The economist Arthur Brooks notes that 51 percent of Americans say they’re very satisfied with their jobs, which is a higher percentage than in any European country except Denmark, Switzerland and Austria.

In his 2008 book, “Gross National Happiness,” Dr. Brooks argues that what’s crucial to well-being is not how cheerful you feel, not how much money you make, but rather the meaning you find in life and your sense of “earned success” — the belief that you have created value in your life or others’ lives.

“People find meaning in providing unconditional love for children,” writes Dr. Brooks, who is now president of the American Enterprise Institute. “Paradoxically, your happiness is raised by the very fact that you are willing to have your happiness lowered through years of dirty diapers, tantrums and backtalk. Willingness to accept unhappiness from children is a source of happiness.”

Some happiness researchers have suggested that parents delude themselves about the joys of children: They focus on the golden moments and forget the more frequent travails. But Dr. Seligman says that parents are wisely looking for more than happy feelings.

“If we just wanted positive emotions, our species would have died out a long time ago,” he says. “ We have children to pursue other elements of well-being. We want meaning in life. We want relationships.”

In observing people’s need for accomplishment, Dr. Seligman says, he’s reminded of his early experiments that famously identified the concept of “learned helplessness.” He found that when animals or people were given a series of arbitrary punishments or rewards, they stopped trying to do anything constructive.

“We found that even when good things occurred that weren’t earned, like nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people’s well-being,” he said. “It produced helplessness. People gave up and became passive.”

To avoid that sort of malaise, Dr. Seligman recommends looking at the basic elements of well-being, identifying which ones matter most to you, setting goals and monitoring progress. Simply keeping track of how much time you spend daily pursuing each goal can make a difference, he says, because it’s easy to see discrepancies between your goals and what you do.

You might also start to question some of your goals and activities, the way that Dr. Seligman occasionally wonders why he spends so much time playing bridge. It’s brought him some clear achievements — including a second-place finish in the North American pairs championship — but he doesn’t pretend that bridge provides any meaning in life. He says he plays for another element of well-being, the feeling of engagement. “I go into flow playing bridge,” he writes, “but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am merely fidgeting until I die.”

Is playing bridge for the feeling of flow any more worthwhile than playing it just to win? Dr. Seligman doesn’t want to judge.

“My view of positive psychology is that it describes rather than prescribes what human beings do,” he says. “I don’t want to mess with people’s values. I’m not saying it’s a good or a bad thing to want to win for its own sake. I’m just describing what lots of people do. One’s job as a therapist is not to change what people value, but given what they value, to make them better at it.”

Click here for Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

via The New York Times

Flourish: A New Theory in Positive Psychology

March 13, 2012 2 Comments

Summary of Chapter 1 of Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman new book – “Flourish:  A New Theory of Positive Psychology”

Happiness Is Not Enough

When I started my work in Positive Psychology, my original view was closest to Aristotle’s—that everything we do is done in order to make us happy—but I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science, or for any practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life. Moreover, the modern ear immediately hears “happy” to mean buoyant mood, merriment, good cheer, and smiling. “Happiness” historically is not closely tied to such hedonics—feeling cheerful or merry is a far cry from what Thomas Jefferson declared that we have the right to pursue—and it is an even further cry from my intentions for a positive psychology.

To understand what “happiness” is really about, the first step is to dissolve “happiness” into more workable terms. When I wrote Authentic Happiness a decade ago, I thought that happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. Positive emotion refers to what we feel: pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and other such emotions that contribute to the “pleasant life.” Engagement is about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity, experiences which contribute to the “engaged life.” The third element is meaning. I go into flow while playing bridge, but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am fidgeting until I die. Human beings, ineluctably, want the “meaningful life”: belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than you are. Happiness and life satisfaction, I thought, could be increased by building positive emotion, engagement, and a sense of meaning in life.

This is not enough.   I no longer think that positive psychology is about happiness, or about a quest for increasing life satisfaction through positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. It turns out that how much life satisfaction people report is itself determined by how good we feel at the very moment we are asked the question. Averaged over many people, the mood you are in determines more than 70 percent of how much life satisfaction you report. If positive psychology is to be more than a “happiology” of cheerful mood, we need to shift our focus to well-being. I believe the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing. Flourishing rests on five pillars, each of which we value for its own sake, not merely as a means to some other end. Positive emotion, engagement, and meaning are three of the pillars, but they cannot do the “heavy lifting” of supporting human flourishing by themselves.

The Need to Achieve

Accomplishment (or achievement) is often pursued for its own sake, even when it brings no positive emotion, no meaning, and nothing in the way of positive relationships. Here is what ultimately convinced me: I play a lot of serious duplicate bridge. I have played with and against many of the greatest players. Some expert bridge players play to improve, to solve problems, to be in flow, or to experience outright joy. Other experts play only to win. For them, losing is devastating no matter how well they played. Some will even cheat to win. It does not seem that winning for them reduces to positive emotion (many of the stonier experts deny feeling anything at all when they win and quickly rush on to the next game), nor does the pursuit reduce to engagement, since defeat nullifies the experience so easily. Nor is it about meaning; bridge is not about anything remotely larger than the self.      Winning only for winning’s sake can also be seen in the pursuit of wealth. In contrast to philanthropic millionaires, there are “accumulators” who believe that the person who dies with the most toys wins. Their lives are built around winning, and they do not give away their toys except in the service of winning more toys. So well-being theory requires a third element: the “achieving life,” dedicated to accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment.

Other People Matter

Near the Portuguese island of Madeira, there lies a small island shaped like an enormous cylinder. At the top is a several-acre plateau on which are grown the most prized grapes that go into Madeira wine. On this plateau lives only one large animal: an ox whose job is to plow the field. There is only one way up to the top, a winding and narrow path. How in the world does a new ox get up there when the old ox dies? A baby ox is carried on the back of a worker up the mountain, where it spends the next forty years plowing the field alone. If you are moved by this story, ask yourself why.

Very little that is positive is solitary. When was the last time you laughed uproariously? The last time you felt indescribable joy? The last time you sensed profound meaning and purpose? The last time you felt enormously proud of an accomplishment? Even without knowing the particulars of these high points of your life, I know their form: all of them took place around other people. When asked what, in two words or fewer, positive psychology is about, Christopher Peterson, one of its founders, replies, “Other people.” Other people is the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.      Recent streams of argument about human evolution point to the importance of positive relationships in their own right and for their own sake. Studies of the big social brain, the hive emotions, and group selection persuade me that positive relationships—key to “the connected life”—are a basic element of well-being.

Well-Being Theory: PERMA  

In the new well-being theory, human flourishing rests on five pillars, denoted by the handy mnemonic PERMA:

Positive Emotion

These elements, which we choose for their own sake in our efforts to flourish, are the rock-bottom fundamentals to human well-being. What is the good life? It is pleasant, engaged, meaningful, achieving, and connected.

This excerpt is edited from Chapter One of Martin Seligman, Flourish, 2011. Simon and Schuster.

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