Five years on after making my career change, I felt fear. Fear that I am not working hard enough. Fear that maybe I am not doing the right thing and wasting time. Fear that I am not good enough or achieving as much as the next person. And yet this is the life I have chosen!
After feeling stuck for so long in a career where it felt like a part of my soul was dying every day, I decided to go back to university and study Psychology. I was petrified but it also felt liberating to do something simply because I liked it without thinking about where it would take me. A few years later, I am fortunately able to combine my love of Psychology with the science of career decision making. Yes life is definitely better, but to say it is a stroll in the park now is a lie.
I get to do what I love but by moving in a direction I really value means I also open myself up to what I really fear. Because I care so much about pursuing a meaningful path, by definition I am scared by it too, it represents my highest hopes and my darkest fears! Oh the humanity!
The truth is that you can live a life where you do avoid difficult emotions like fear, or you can choose to move towards something that you really value. If you want to live a fearless life, be prepared to stay in your comfort zone or worse still, stuck like I was. Both options can be painful but the latter makes the experience of fear worthwhile with a sense of meaning. I have come to realise that to pursue a life of meaning, we must be willing to have the fear. Like the flipside of a coin, I can’t have one without the other.
Fear is here, ultimately I believe, to protect us. Our minds did not evolve to ensure our happiness; it evolved to scan the environment for mortal danger constantly. Is that a bear I see in the distance or a blueberry bush? Our minds evolved to detect the bear to ensure our survival; after all you can have lunch many times but actually be lunch once!
Fear is not a bad thing in and of itself, but sometimes we forget its true evolutionary purpose. In order to pursue what really matters to us, it also means risking failure and taking steps into the unknown. And when we do that, guess what happens?! Yep – fear shows up. Right before any major good thing in my life, I was scared.
When I walked away my soul crushing job – fear.
When I decided to study Psychology – fear.
Right before I speak at a presentation – fear.
Writing my first blog entry – fear!
So if you feel fear, nothing is wrong with you. And if you are feeling fear because you are in danger, then that is how you should feel, it is protecting you and keeping you alive! If we can use fear as fuel, it can act as a compass keeping us on our chosen path. So the real question is, are you willing to carry your deepest fears with you if meant you get to live your dreams?
Written by Nimita Shah (This blog was first featured in the online Womanthology magazine).
It has been a few months since I wrote a blog post. I haven’t been able to come up with a ‘great idea’ for a blog post. My mind tells me ‘Rob writes so well, better that he writes the blog’ or ‘others express things better than me, why try?’ or ‘I need to think of something amazing, and until I think of something amazing, I can’t write anything’ or ‘Something needs to emotionally move me, before I can write about it’ – So – I procrastinate, and procrastinate and experience more and more anxiety about writing blog posts for TCP.
This is where values come in. My values underpinning writing blog posts are:
- Connection (with myself and with the readers)
- Contribution (I want to make a difference)
- Self expression (I want to share me, the authentic me)
What is not in here as a value is ‘being perfect’ or ‘being better than other writers’ – it is simply about me connecting with the readers of TCP, contributing to both the business and our readers, and a vehicle for self expression.
As you can see – my mind comes up with a lot of reasons for not living my values. It gets stuck in a number of ways:
1) It compares my writing, ideas and abilities, to others (in this case Rob’s). This comparison serves to de-value me – make me ‘not ok’ somehow, or ‘not good enough’ Is it helpful? Not at all. Comparison usually puts us in a ‘better than’ or ‘less than’ position – and may stop us from truly discovering who we are – what our own unique strengths are. So notice when you are comparing yourself to others, and ask yourself ‘is this helpful’? If it is – great! If it isn’t, what might be more helpful, in this moment? What ‘action’ might help you move towards what is important to YOU, your values?
2) It gets stuck into the ‘if…then’ rule – that I can only take action if a certain number of conditions are met. This can be the case in a number of areas in our life. When I am more flexible I will join a yoga class. When I have found the perfect topic or idea for a blog post, I will write a blog entry. Perhaps it is ‘action’ itself that results in experiences that move us forward, towards our values, towards a more meaningful career. If we wait until we have the ‘perfect’ conditions – we will not take any action, and stay stuck . So, I decided to just start writing – and this is what is flowing out. Maybe action IS the first step?
3) When I move closer to my values – my mind gives me 100’s of reasons of why moving in that direction is not a good idea. If I listen to my mind, I often ‘get stuck’ – I go around and around in circles. Your mind will give you so many reasons why a particular career is ‘impossible’ before you even give yourself a chance. We therefore discount so many options that might meet our criteria, before we have even explored the options. My mind gave me lots of reasons I shouldn’t be writing this right now – yet here I am, writing this anyway, living my values, despite all the reasons my mind tells me not to. What value are you going to live today despite what your mind says? What ACTION are you willing to take today, to move you forward?
Taking action is sometimes the first step. When I sat down to write this today, I did not know what was going to come out, I did not have a clear idea or picture or vision for this blog – I am not saying that having a vision isn’t important – what I am saying is, sometimes taking action can help us discover our vision, our values, our wants, our needs. Perhaps action IS the first step?
6. It’s other people that make us happy – Csíkszentmihályi (1996)
You might not believe it, crammed onto the Northern Line, but it’s true. Evidence shows that it is isolation, not feelings of despair, which cause mental illness, depression and even suicide. This is perhaps unsurprising as being with other people and collaborating with them successfully meant that you were accepted in the tribe, which was critical to survival.
Conclusion: getting rich is unlikely to make you happy by itself. Instead, think about how you can best add value to or help others. Not only will this make you happier, it may well make you richer.
7. ‘Meaning’ is about understanding – Steger (2008)
If you want a meaningful life, you need to firstly understand your true self. Who are you? What do you stand for? Then you have to understand how you fit into the world. What do you believe in? What do you want to do whilst you’re here?
Without meaning we feel uneasy and anxious because we don’t fully understand what we’re doing. This definition of meaning can be applied for small things like understanding the meaning of a word in a sentence, or larger things like understanding our lives. Meaningful work can therefore be found at the intersection of where you use your unique strengths in a purpose that you believe in.
Conclusion: Focus on understanding what you uniquely offer, and then focus on understanding what sort of cause you want to contribute to. If you’re consistently doing that the end result will bring meaning.
8. Control over our work lives is critical - Langer and Rodin (1976), Whitehall study (2005)
A famous experiment in 1976 by Langer and Rodin showed that if elderly people were given a plant to care for they had much higher levels of happiness than if they were given a plant but the nurse cared for it. This finding has been repeated many times in many ways. The Whitehall Study is a large-scale experiment which showed that those with less control over their daily work schedule had poorer health and died younger than those who had great control. If you are looking to be happier in your work, look for ways in which you can increase your control over it.
Conclusion: ask yourself how you could exert greater control over your working life. What could you learn or train in that would help you? What role or field would you feel more in control in?
9. Goals work – e.g. Nicholls (1990)
The brain evolved to solve lots of different problems in different situations and it is very good at it. That’s why only motile organisms have a brain in the first place. There is evidence to suggest that even just writing down a goal will help you achieve it.
Conclusion: if you’ve been thinking about a career change for a long time, action beats thinking.
10. There is magic in starting something
OK, this one can’t be proven, but we believe it intuitively. Once you commit to doing something bold, strange forces move to help you and opportunities open up. People you meet respond differently, the nature of conversations changes, you read about things that could help, you chance upon solutions. If you make choices repeatedly based on your vision, your values, your highest talents, you shift the whole universe to act in your favour. Doing work you love becomes somehow inevitable.
1. We’re poor at decision making – Kahneman & Tversky (1979), Gilbert (2004)
When weighing up the costs and benefits of a decision, we make two errors. First, we overestimate the probability of failure in a new direction because of our negative bias. Second, we underestimate the benefits of change because we fail to imagine or visualise the results of that change in much detail. This has been shown time and again, not least by Dan Gilbert.
Conclusion: we have to think differently about career decision making. Firstly, we need to become more aware of our successes and achievements. Second, we should try to visualise what we actually want in life in greater detail. Sounds obvious. Not many do it.
2. Our brains are pre-wired for survival, not fulfilment – Maslow (1943)
We’re survival machines. Our brains think evolved to anticipate and predict the worst and we try to eliminate this risk. That’s why our cognitive functions and emotions evolved too – and why we’re 3 to 5 times more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive.
But as Maslow predicted, once we have survival we adapt and want fulfilment. And fulfilment isn’t created by avoiding risk, or by surviving. Happiness, after all, is not the absence of sadness. Fulfilment often requires us to imagine something better and to take risks to achieve it.
Conclusion: your brain will protest if you consider something new, but fulfilment probably depends on it. Fulfilment is about contributing something unique to a cause you believe in. And remember we adapt and learn from failure – very few decisions are irreversible.
3. We learn helplessness – Seligman (1975)
Let’s say you fail once at something. Then you try and fail again. The third time you don’t try quite so hard so you fail again. Then you give up. You stop trying. This is known as ‘learned helplessness’ and it is amazingly easy to induce. In fact, it’s possible to induce learned helplessness in about 2 minutes.
When we think about our careers we often come at it from the perspective of a learned helplessness. When all you’ve done is what you know, it’s hard to imagine that you could do anything else.
Conclusion: being aware of where you may have learned helplessness is a good first step. But second, ask yourself how useful these thoughts are to the achievement of your goal.
4. Negative emotions are to be expected – Hayes (1998)
We often treat emotions like fear and anxiety as though they must be avoided, when in reality they are an inevitable part of growth – and of being human. Equally we often treat our internal thoughts as representing the ‘truth’, when in reality they are just thoughts. Many people try to avoid negative emotions or ‘fight’ the pain, but research shows that being willing to accept these thoughts whilst progressing towards your valued outcomes is more effective.
Conclusion: Negative emotions are an inevitable part of any activity where we learn and grow. Acceptance of negative emotions whilst continuing to make progress towards one’s valued goals is a far more effective strategy than avoiding or fighting them. (If you feel the need to beat your negative emotions first, check that the valued outcome is valuable enough and check that you are truly willing to accept the emotions that come with it).
5. Happiness is not a luxury –Fredrickson (2000)
Many people see work as something to be endured. But happiness has consistently been shown to lead to better health, longer life and more productivity. Barbara Fredrickson’s famous ‘broaden and build’ theory explains why people who regularly experience positive emotions show heightened levels of creativity, inventiveness, and “big picture” perceptual focus. These experiments have also shown positive emotions play a role in the development of long-term resource such as psychological resilience and flourishing. However, it is happiness as the side product of meaning and engagement that counts. Hedonic happiness cannot be controlled!
Conclusion: The fact is, being happy is as likely to make you more successful at work, than less. However, chasing happiness by trying to limit our exposure to unhappy thoughts is a trap!
Psychology is frustrating because it seems at once to offer no answers at all and at the same time to prove things which are obvious. But occasionally, it strikes at the heart of something.
Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, describes an experiment whereby 17% of people agreed to have an enormous ugly billboard reading “Drive Carefully” erected in their front gardens. Two weeks earlier, a subgroup of residents had agreed to display a three-inch-square notice saying “Be A Safe Driver”. Revealingly, 76% of those who agreed to the large billboard agreed to the smaller one.
The point is this is how most of us make decisions. Even big ones, like career choices. We drift into jobs often through chance, sometimes because it’s what’s expected of us or because it pays well or because we’ve done something similar before. But this small decision is likely then to shape a huge part of the rest of your life, because humans justify their decisions to themselves after the event. We seek consistency, above all.
As Oliver Burkeman says: Partly, this is a matter of keeping up appearances: if you’ve presented yourself as committed to road safety, you may fear, albeit subconsciously, giving a contradictory impression.
This is where career psychology can offer some insight. We need to know ourselves better, and as objectively as possible, if we are to make sound decisions. Otherwise we risk falling into something, then justifiying our decisions for the rest of our lives.
Last year I set myself two goals. The first was to write a book and the second was to get fitter. (Me and err, everyone else in the country).
The problem I faced with both is time. I don’t have any. (Me and err…etc etc).
So how did I get on?
Well, I don’t have a book. I did some writing when on holiday and that was valuable. But other than that, nada.
However, overall I maintained my levels of fitness. So, partial failure, partial success.
What were the differences and what can I learn from that?
- The most obvious difference is that running offers me a break from sitting at my desk, whereas writing is just more of the same.
- Exercise is also clearly connected to a value. I see exercise as essential to my mental wellbeing, whereas the book is connected to the idea that I ‘should’ write one.
- Exercise is a habit. I know what it feels like to start running and to have a thought that says ‘I can’t be bothered’. I am able to have that thought without feeling the need to actually stop running. With writing, any thought that says ‘now is not the right time’ or ‘you are rubbish at this’ feels more powerful. In ACT terms I am more ‘fused’ with it. So I stop writing.
- Perhaps the most important difference is that with exercise I am prepared to focus on tiny steps. I run in the margins of my life. I run home. When I can’t run home I do 5 minute sprints right outside my flat. I feel ridiculous and my mind says that it’s not enough….but I do it anyway.
So here are my top tips for setting new year resolutions:
- Start with a value. What matters to you? Whether you are changing career or getting fit, start by getting clear about why this matters. What values do you want to move towards?
- Focus on behaviour. What specific behaviour will take you towards your value? What would I see if I were to film you taking action in the direction of your value?
- Focus. Working in short, intense bursts is better than setting aside whole chunks of time. Try the pomodoro technique to encourage focus and urgency.
- Accept that change is about compromise. In the early days any change will feel strange and perhaps half-hearted. You will feel like an imposter when you step into a gym for the first time. I felt strange when I called myself a psychologist for the first time. This is normal. I am strange. So are you.
- Defuse from your thinking. When it comes to behaviour change your mind is not your enemy, but it is not your friend. What matters is not what we think per se, but our relationship to those thoughts. I can have the thought ‘I can’t be bothered’ and still bother. So can you. It’s amazing. Try it.
Today is Monstrous Monday or something. It’s one of those made up days like Blue Monday which is basically nonsense but which perhaps does a useful service in reminding us that for some, today is the day they’ve been dreading for weeks.
If you dislike your job, enough to be miserable, but not enough to leave; if you endlessly think about other options, only to discount them and end up staying right where you are, then you may be stuck in career paralysis. If so there are plenty of excellent resources and books I can recommend. But unquestionably the most popular place to start (for my clients at least) is here, with my Career Paralysis slides. The first set outlines the problem. The second provides free tools and resources to try and solve it.
I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Tas and I have been working with Rob since 2009 here at TCP. I have been meaning to write a blog entry (or many) for about 4years now and so here goes… My first blog entry for ‘headstuck’. Given this is well overdue, I am making up for it in length:
I kept buying into the thought ‘I have nothing of interest to say’ until I came across the image below on facebook which was posted not by one person, but by multiple people in the past week. As I read the words on the image below, I found myself experiencing all kinds of emotions, including shame, anger, frustration, blaming myself or others, feeling belittled and judged. Yet actually, I do agree with some of his underlying points. I realised, I actually have A LOT to say, and for some reason, this time I was able to unhook from the thought ‘no one’s going to find what I have to say interesting or useful’. I therefore had a go at writing some responses to these 11 rules, with the aim of bringing in my own values, of contribution, connection, compassion.
I work with people primarily aged 25-35 who may be going through a quarterlife crisis. I wonder what kind of advice may have been helpful for my clients to have received during high school.
I did seek the help of my big sister, Amira Chilvers, who I bounced some ideas off. I know in school, this would have been me cheating, however, in adulthood I am grateful I have such a wonderful older sister, who is so inspiring and willing to share ideas and thoughts. It didn’t stop there, I also asked Rob and Nim for their help in places, and I am grateful for two things:
1) I have learnt it is OK to ask for help.
2) That my sister, Nim and Rob (and others) are willing to provide support, help and encouragement when I have the courage to ask.
So, here goes:
It is important to note that Bill Gates did not write the above. It was written in 1996 by Charles J. Sykes and he used these in a book he published in 2007.
Rule 1: Life is not fair — get used to it!
Tas’ Response to Rule 1: Life is not fair. The biggest challenge in my life so far, has been accepting life as it is. Accepting what is right here, right now. Understanding what is in my control, and what is not in my control. Then, taking action where I can, to live a more meaningful and richer life. This takes courage, determination and a whole lot of willingness. The serenity prayer comes to mind here:
‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference’
Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.
Tas’s response to Rule 2: Firstly, I have learnt that it is much more important for ME to care about myself and my own self-esteem. However, that also the way in which children and adults learn to develop self-care and compassion is by the experience of being nurtured by others, and when we are young, this is usually our parents. This nurturing, supports the development of a sense that ‘I am ok, just as I am’. As one of my clients put it, ‘who I am, isn’t wrong’. To me this is esteem (thank you to my wonderful therapist Dennis Durby who has helped me understand this), the idea that every human being has worth, simply for existing, and being who they are. We value a baby, a baby has inherent worth, is so precious simply for being born into this life. So too, are adults. We don’t have to accomplish anything to have worth.
This is very different to self-confidence, a sense of ‘I am good at x or y’ or ‘I can do x or y’. In order to develop confidence, we need practice, and the more we practice, and maybe accomplish, the more confident we get. We had to attempt to stand up and walk maybe100′s of times, and fell on our arses so many times before we finally learnt how to walk. Were you a confident driver the first time you sat behind the wheel of a car? The first time you cooked a meal? The first time you picked up and played a musical instrument? Are you willing to try things, despite not feeling confident? Are you willing to make mistakes in order to learn?
The downside is we may never feel good about ourselves, even when we do accomplish. However, is that a reason not to try? Not to keep going? For more on this I recommend Russ Harris’ book ‘The Confidence Gap’
Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.
Tas’ response to Rule 3: I do agree with the above, nothing in life is for free, a lot of things take hard work and time. You may or may not earn $60,000 a year straight out of school. However, what is important to you about earning money? Is money the only thing important to you? What is worthwhile in your life? What are YOU going to do to get there? What steps are YOU going to take towards what is really important to you? Are you willing to work hard, do what it takes to get there?
Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.
Tas’ response to Rule 4: I realised, a long time ago, that I am my harshest critic. What other people say to me is experienced as tough, largely because of how I react towards it. As an adult, I can also choose to stay where I am (in a job I don’t like, with a boss that I don’t get on with) or I can do whatever it takes to get myself out of that situation, or at least better manage the situation I find myself in.
We will always come across tough people in our lives, tough bosses, tough colleagues, how do we want to respond? How can we take responsibility for our role in our interactions with others? What is there to learn from these difficult situations?
My sister, who used to be a high school teacher said to me that the point that was being made here was that teachers are tough because they want students to be more committed, to work hard and put more into their school work. This is a valid point, in that the more we put into ourselves, into our work, into life, the more we are likely to get out of it.
Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping — they called it opportunity.
Tas’ response to Rule 5: Google’s definition of dignity is ‘the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect.’. This relates back to the definition of ‘esteem’ and maybe even humility, respect for all human beings. Some industries (even the corporate ones) don’t always treat their employees with respect. They may not value work life balance, employee well-being etc. No matter what job you are doing, use this as an opportunity to live your values. If you ask a cleaner who works for NASA what they do for a living, they respond ‘I help send people to the moon’ they see their work as having value, that is what is important. Whether that value is because of the job itself, or because it earns money to put a roof over one’s head, or provide for our families. Knowing what it is YOU value is key!
Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault, so don’t whine about your mistakes, learn from them.
Tas’ response to Rule 6: Our circumstances do have an impact on our lives. Often this is not our fault, and many things are outside of our control. I feel that this links back to Rule 1. Learning to accept what life has dealt us. Learn from our experiences, and our mistakes, and take action towards a more meaningful, richer life. Maybe it starts with working through (and with) the hard stuff, so we can let go, and start to move forwards.
Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent’s generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.
Tas’ response to Rule 7: Firstly, our parents would have made the choices to do all of the above, it was their choice. However, they are human too, imperfect. It has been a difficult journey to accept that my parents are human, imperfect, yet somehow in accepting this, I am able to be more loving and compassionate towards them. What values underlie your relationship with your parents or close family members? What one action can you take today, that is in line with those values?
I am reminded of this quote: ‘yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world, today I am wiser, so I am changing myself’
Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they’ll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.
Tas’ response to Rule 8: It is very sad to me, that this is the reality for so many, especially in the Western world. We live our lives based on comparisons with others, either being a winner, or a loser. Comparisons take us away from humility and acceptance and towards feelings of unworthiness, hopelessness, helplessness, and also anxiety, fear, isolation. Without comparing yourself to others, what are YOUR strengths? WHO do YOU want to be?
I am often worried about ‘competition’ and Rob Archer reminds me, to be my best self, to work on doing what I do exceptionally. I am learning to compare myself with me, how can I do better than I did last time? What would be a personal achievement to me? How can I develop on my strengths? This is a bit of a paradox, but the less I compare with others, and the more I allow me to be me, just the way I am, the more space I have to grow, to develop, to learn, to change.
These two quotes from Carl Rogers come to mind:
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl R. Rogers
“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, “Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.” I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.” Carl R. Rogers
This is the kind of future I want for my children, one where we support others to achieve something they never believed they might have been able to achieve:
Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.
Tas’ response to Rule 9: Many young people work throughout their holidays. Time off does decrease in adulthood, so my recommendation is, really enjoy and cherish all those moments you have. Some young people have significant responsibilities already, for those who are fortunate enough to not have those responsibilities, make the most of your holidays. The reality is, we don’t have much time or free time on this earth, watch this you tube clip which shows your life in jelly beans, and make the most of today!
MAKE the time to find yourself. Some organisations do value self development, and growth. However, really make the time for yourself, make time to look after yourself, physically, emotionally, spiritually. It is hard to balance all the things we have to do in life, so really prioritise what is important to you and start taking action!
Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
Tas’ response to Rule 10: Same as Rule 9 plus….
I’m self employed and often work in coffee shops, so maybe one can live their life in a coffee shop and still work! Jokes aside… When you watch TV, allow yourself to fully engage in that activity, be present, when you eat, allow yourself to really engage with eating, be present, enjoy the flavours, the textures.
Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.
Tas’ response to Rule 11: This seems to suggest an ulterior motive to being nice. Do we need to have a reason to be nice to people? What about being nice being an end in and of itself. I ask you this question. Who do you want to be? How do you want to be? Tie your behaviours towards others to VALUES.
So that’s it if you managed to read all the way through – thank you
Role models come in many different types and they appear at different times in life. With luck, we find people who can expand our horizons and illuminate the way forward. But sometimes we are less lucky.
My first major role model was my Father. One night, when I was about 3, he decided to walk out of the door and never return. He abandoned me and my Mum in a glamorous bedsit in Birkenhead; a decision he would stick by for the rest of his life. Every moment of every day that has passed since, he ratified his decision through silence. There was no reason and no explanation. I just knew that whatever it was, I was not enough to keep him.
I should be grateful, because his absence helped prepare me for life. His guidance taught me a number of valuable lessons which kept me safe in the long dark nights ahead. He taught me to be wary of committing too much to a relationship for fear of it breaking down. He taught me to spare myself the pain of rejection by keeping others at arm’s length. And his guidance forged in me a cast iron strength to survive on my own. As the great philosopher Aguilera once said, ‘thanks for making me a fighter.’
In the eloquent silence that followed, every relationship I’ve had since has been framed by the sure knowledge that I am not enough. I must say, it’s been pretty tiring. Lonely too, at times.
In 2010 I attended a conference in Reno, Nevada. In town that week was a convention of 2000 cowboys – yes, cowboys, there for a rodeo – plus 500 therapists and psychologists. And me, a strange cross between the two.
I was there because I was learning a new kind of therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which was getting remarkable results in organisations. On the first day of that conference I attended a workshop in which I met a different kind of role model with a very different kind of message.
Kelly Wilson is a University Professor who 22 years earlier had lost a brother to suicide. Astonishingly, Kelly stood in front of 100 people that day and said that he too felt inadequate, guilty and that he not done enough. His words were shocking to me, but what I remember most was his presence. He was willing to stand in front of these people, sort of defenceless, and shine light into the darkest areas of his life. And in so doing, he illuminated mine.
What I was able to see that day was a different kind of response to painful feelings. I saw how the cost of avoiding difficult emotions had been to slowly narrow my life. By trying to spare myself the pain of rejection I had foregone the chance to connect.
The alternative – presence – isn’t easy. But since then I’ve been able to summon a different kind of role model when facing difficult feelings.
It is as if my first role model showed me how to run. And the second showed me how to stay.
When I was in my 20s and early 30s I dedicated my life (outside of work) to the pursuit of what you might call happiness. I was the life and soul of the party (transl: got very drunk indeed), went on fantastic holidays, bought nice things and generally lived a great life.
And slowly I grew depressed.
In 2003 I read a book called Authentic Happiness in which Martin Seligman explained how there were three different types of happiness.
The Pleasant life
Consisting of having as many positive emotions as frequently as possible.
The Engaged life
Achieved by knowing your highest strengths and using these as often as possible.
The Meaningful life
Consisting of using your highest strengths in the service of something that you believe in.
I intrinsically knew that this was true. Overall life satisfaction is not just a function of pleasure, it is a function of engagement and meaning.
|On holiday, even my famous koala impressions brought only superficial happiness.|
But I think that ‘happiness’ is most often interpreted as the pleasant life – in other words maximising the number of positive thoughts and emotions one has in any given day. Society certainly points us this way. Dare I say it, so does Martin Seligman. The trouble is this is a very poor strategy for pursuing meaning, and it was meaning that I lacked. That’s why, for me at least, happiness is a trap.
Meaning involves taking a stand, following your values and quite often, change. But in turn these things bring anxiety, doubt and worry. In contrast, happiness is an emotion that says nothing needs to change. In my case, I had to relinquish the pursuit of the pleasant life (or happiness) to pursue meaning. It was that stark.
There’s nothing wrong with having a pleasant life, and I am sure some of Seligman’s techniques can work to increase our ‘happiness thermostats’ from their set point. But now I think, why bother? I’ve realised you can’t have the good without the bad (see Ryan and Deci, 2001) and if you have happy thoughts as a goal you almost certainly compromise the pursuit of a meaningful life.
I think you have to be prepared to let go of happiness in order to find it. Plus, I think if you have happiness as a goal you stop fighting to change the world and become far more insular. Over time, this is a poor predictor of happiness – however defined.
So, does it work? Does letting go of happiness and pursuing meaning paradoxically bring happiness? Well, the honest answer is no, not for me. My levels of stress and anxiety have gone through the roof since pursuing meaning. I am not happier, at least in the way I have been programmed to understand the term ‘happiness’.
But my struggle for meaning has brought a certain amount of compassion towards myself, and this affords me more strength to be compassionate to others. I am more grounded than I was before and far more purposeful. And I do feel pride in what I’m trying to do, for the first time in my life. All of this brings a form of happiness – but not as I would have defined it before.
As I write, shafts of sunlight escape the cloud and bathe the room with light. For a few moments I am typing with sunshine on my back, before it disappears. Happiness feels like that. Temporary, welcome, but out of my control.