Advice On Happiness (Fairy Dust Free)

Kane Waselenchuk is a racquet ball player - he's also the most dominant athlete in his sport. He's a seven time world champion and won 137 matches straight over the course of three years.

Arguably more fascinating is his practice routine.

Kane practices alone because he has worked on his craft so intensely that practicing with other players hinders his progress. A typical practice session for him usually involves taking brand new set racquetballs, locking himself in the court and hitting shots until the balls pop. This usually takes about four hours per session.

A racquet was put in his hands at two years old. His father guided him to improve his talent, but Kane never worked under a formal coach. He was self-taught until he turned pro. 

It's easy to make the correlation that Kane's practice has a direct impact on his progression. The result of his diligent effort yields the benefits.

But when it comes to happiness, we pursue it quite differently. We want happiness without the work - all benefits, no cost.

The reality is that happiness comes with a price.

Similarly to Kane who continually makes sacrifices, and shows up to work each day to yield the benefits of his practice, we too must have the same posture in experiencing happiness.

It takes work to be happy.

And even though that might sound counter-culture to mainstream happiness advice, it's simply reality.

Research from scientist Sonja Lyubomirsky states 40% of our happiness is in your control. Meaning, 40% of your happiness is in your power to change through the way you act and think. A significant amount of your happiness can be cultivated - rather than assuming that the totality of your happiness is genetically fixed. 

Happiness seems to be a moving target - and I'm certainly still a work in progress. But, here are a few things I've learned. 


You Must Wrestle Through Stress and Hardship

We spend an impressive amount of energy avoiding stress, hardship and trauma.

But few lives are without any of these trials. Adversity is a part of life. That means we must be prepared to deal with it - and believe that the possibility to thrive after they happen is possible.

The situations are endless: the failed business, the lost of a loved one, bankruptcy, the broken relationship, terrorist attacks, the medical report that comes back positive.

To be sure, challenges like these aren't simple to deal with. Slapping a bumper sticker quote about happiness over these types of wounds have the potential to make things worst. There must be a season for grieving.

However, we must wrestle our way out of that state at some point.

The good news is that the research on post-traumatic growth offers a breath of fresh air for those facing crisis and hardship. Not only can you recovery and survive, but you can thrive.

In her book, The How Of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky offers three potential paths one can take in the aftermath of a major crisis:

Survival involves a permanent impairment of functioning. This path shows a person who is merely surviving following a trauma, someone who may have lost much happiness and motivation to enjoy love, work, and leisure.

Recovery describes a person who suffers in the aftermath of a trauma, perhaps unable to work productively or have satisfying relationships for a period of time, but who eventually returns to his original state.

Finally, thriving involves someone who also suffers in the aftermath but who ultimately not only returns to her original state but rises above it! This person has experienced a transformation.


*Image re-illustrated from The How Of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky 

*Image re-illustrated from The How Of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky 


On screen, this looks simple. However, it's undoubtedly difficult to do this.

That's the invisible choice we face in each trial: remain buried by the situation or fight to come out the other end transformed.

Turning to social support is the first ingredient to thriving. In times of trial, having a group of people that allow room for vulnerability and simply offer their presence has shown to have dramatic impact on one's ability to handle hardship.

One study revealed that a group facing life-threatening cancer showed a higher level of resiliency post-surgery when they actively sought social support as a way to cope through the trial.

Social support was shown to indicate that having a group of people around during stressful life event of triggered the groups immune system to fight cancer more aggressively. Cancer patients who attend weekly support groups have been reported to live an average of eighteen months longer.

When an arbitrary event strikes, the first inclination is to ask "why?"

This chase left unattended can spiral you down a path to nowhere. The rumination can be overwhelming. Yet, no matter how intensely you ponder, there never seems to be a logical answer.

Instead, you must stomach the situation with acquiescence.

When you take this stance, it opens the door up for you to find meaning in the midst of the tragedy. Interestingly, this isn't bumper sticker advice. Studies show that people who strive to find meaning in a traumatic event - instead of repetitively asking "why" - are better able to cope.

One study followed individuals who had recently lost their loved ones from before the loss to a year after. Those who reported finding some type of meaning in their loss (it didn't matter how) showed less depression and fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder twelve months later.

These two ingredients - social support and acquiescence in order to find meaning - can provide the launch pad to change the trajectory of your coping.

Serious hardship, tragedy and traumatic events are hard, painful and potentially crippling.

However, if you notice, the ones who have gone through the fire, wrestled with the stress and trauma and clawed their way through survival, recovery and eventually found themselves thriving, are the ones who seem to have the deepest and most authentic amount of happiness.

This doesn't mean you go looking for trouble. Rather, it's an awareness that when life throws a right hook, you have the chops to get hit and not only get back up, but the capacity to rise from the blow a transformed person.


You Must Develop a Process-Oriented Life

In the West, it's hard for us to wait for anything.

And maybe the ease of quickness has molded this posture. With credit cards and the internet, the amount of instant gratification at our fingertips is frightening.

To be fair, this luxury offers a ton of value and convenience.

But there's a subtle a lesson that can't be overlooked in this comfort. If you aren't intentional, your set point for immediacy will soon become normal. When this happens, you adopt a false reality that everything should happen quickly - with nominal effort.

You'll slide smoothly into a mindset that whispers "the process doesn't matter."

From this position, the product or outcome must transpire as fast as possible with little or no regard to the quality of the process.

A story from The Practicing Mind, By Thomas Sterner paints this picture beautifully:

A major piano retailer for whom I performed service related a story to me that really illustrated the primary differences between the two cultures (American vs. Japanese).

He had gone to Japan and taken a tour of a plant that manufactured a piano he had sold in his store. While waking down the assembly line, he observed a worker whose job was to prepare the piano plate (the big gold harp assembly that holds all the strings) after it had come out of the casting.

These plates are made from cast iron, and when they come out of the mold, they are pretty rough looking. The plate must undergo grinding and polishing before it can be painted. The finished Japanese plates are absolutely flawless and beautiful.

As the worker prepared the plate, my retailer friend asked him how many plates he finished in a day. The Japanese worker, confused, looked at him and answered, "As many as I can make perfect."

The retailer asked, "But don't you have a supervisor to report to?"

"What is a supervisor?" asked the worker.

"Someone to make sure you do your job correctly," answered the retailer.

"Why would I need somebody to make sure I do my job correctly?" answered the Japanese worker. "That's my job."

This culture influenced the Japanese worker to focus on the process - being excellent in the moment in front of him and to make each piece the best way he can. The outcome would take care of itself. One plate finished flawlessly was better than finishing 10 plates with shoddy craftsmanship. 

If we relay this to our culture in America, it's hard to digest. We have deadlines and we must meet them in any fashion possible - even if it means shipping our 3rd class work. 

The result?

We become obsessed with final outcomes and attaining products with blistering immediacy. And when we get there (whatever there means to you), you find yourself falsely accomplished - completed, but empty.

It feels like the hunger is never sated to produce more or acquire excess. This cycle of speed at all costs will continue until you do one thing: Value the process more than the product.

I've found that achieving my best physique is much less satisfying then working for it. As I'm working on my first published book, I've got a feeling that this concept will be the connective tissue on this journey as well.

You've probably been there too.

Maybe you worked three-jobs to save up for your first apartment.

Maybe you trained nights and weekend to complete your first triathlon.

Maybe you coached a first year high school team to its first victory in school history (after 10 consecutive, soul-crushing blow outs).

The outcome, you'll notice gives you a quick hit of happiness. You're high for a moment. Maybe even for a few days. Maybe weeks. But soon, you'll drip back to a baseline of happiness.

At this point, if your barometer for happiness is dependent solely on the outcome, it'll get tiresome. It'll begin to feel impossible -  like trying to hiss and yawn at the same time.

But if you shift your mindset to relish in the process you'll can tap into a calm, steady stream of happiness.

Like the Japanese worker, you must rely on your ability to focus on the process and be excellent in the moment right in front of you. Doing so will allow for the best possible outcome.

Being excellent requires that you value the process rather than trying to artificially acquire or achieve completion.


You Must Build The Courage To Fail

The greatest mistake a man can make is to be afraid of making one. -Elbert Hubbard.

Growing up as an athlete, whenever I played timid with a sense of protection, fearful of making a mistake, my performance was always sub-par.

It felt like I was walking on egg shells - careful but never effective.

Whenever personal growth is at stake, you must accept that failure is a possibility. And then, you must feel that fear and move against it anyway.

Without the possibility of losing, winning is impossible. That scenario is as exciting as watching paint dry.

The thing we fear the most - failing - is actually the thing that has the most value for two reasons.

First, it plainly allows us to see what our aim should be. Meaning, we can easily point in the direction we want to go with our actions.

Lose twenty pounds.

Win the regional championship.

Hit the sales goal for the year.

Write the draft of the book.

Secondly, it provides feedback. Think of it this way:

When a basketball players steps to the line to shoot a free throw, his direction is pointed at making the foul shot. The feedback is delivered in the outcome.

When he shoots and misses the shot by hitting the back of the rim, it provides feedback that he over-shot the attempt.

Rather than labeling the shot and himself as a failure, digesting the outcome as feedback in order to improve the next attempt would allow him to use failure in a constructive manner - instead of letting it cripple him.

Having the courage to fail unlocks two ingredients needed for happiness: Direction and feedback.

Similar to the basketball player shooting a foul shot, moving against fear will allow you to step up for the shot, establishing a direction for your actions. And then, the outcome will deliver feedback in which you can use to direct your next move.


You Must Question All Consensus Reality

Consensus reality is a cognitive construct we subscribe to as ultimate truth. In other words, if tons of other people are doing something or behaving in a certain fashion, then I might as well be doing it too (and believe it as true).

Getting sucked into consensus reality usually throws you in a vacuum of inflexible rules that restrict you on how to think and act. It's something like wearing a invisible-straight jacket.

Is getting a college degree the only way to succeed in the working world?

Do you have to have a masters in English in order to write a book?

Are restrictive diets that limit you to foods that taste like cardboard the only way to lose weight?

Do you have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to start a business?

Is it possible to do your job from anywhere in the world on your laptop?

Do you have to be financially rich to have influence?

When you take the time to dig for answers when you push back against the consensus reality, you empower yourself with choice.

Instead of blindly following the crowd, you make an educated decision based on your own values and research.

This posture injects a sense of autonomy in your well-being.

Daniel Pink, author of Drive, demonstrates how important autonomy can be in your satisfaction of life.

In one study, he found that when workers at an investment firm were offered "autonomy support" -  choice given choice over how to do things - results showed an increase in job satisfaction and better performance.

Questioning consensus reality doesn't permit going rogue for the sake of rebelling. Rather, it's a way to arrive at a posture that aligns with your personal values instead of jumping into the river because everyone else has jumped.


You Must Accept That You're Not Perfect (And Never Will Be)

"How much is enough? Just a little more."

Doesn't it feel that way?

Whether it's money, fitness, fame, power, accolades, or followers, it feels like we want more of everything in hopes that it inches us closer to perfection.

I'll be the first one to admit that I've spent my life trying to side-step vulnerability and to capture an external presence of perfection.

I didn't know any better. My barometer was heavily influenced by the media. My eyeballs were ambushed with constant flashes of perfection, win at all cost advertising messages, and an unceasing pursuit of more.

And so that's how I carried on with life: Expecting to arrive at perfection.

Maybe you can relate?

But I've learned that perfection is an insidious organism that offers a false sense of control. It makes you believe that if you are perfect, you can dodge pain, embarrassment and failure.

This carriage is false on two accounts.

One, perfection is a mirage - it's not real or attainable. Two, nobody on earth is immune to pain, embarrassment or failure regardless of how much energy they invest into avoiding it.

The irony is that research shows that pursing perfection hinders success.

In fact, Brene Brown, author of The Gifts Of Imperfection found this in her research:

[Perfectionism] often the path to depression, anxiety and life-paralysis.

To overcome perfectionism is to accept a journey that exposes your true self - someone who has no choice but to grapple with the adversities of life.

When you shift into this mindset, the intensity of your ambitions don't need to change. But the process in which you pursue them transform.

This difference lies between perfectionism and excellentism. 

For the perfectionist, failure have no place along the journey.

For the excellentist, failure is not the aim but there's room for it along the journey.

You (and I) must accept the fact that we can't arrive at perfection. But we can strive to be excellent. Asking ourselves to do our best - not the impossible - is all we can ask of ourselves.


Wrapping Up

We all want happiness. I don't think it's worth questioning that.

It's the second question that gets overlooked and is the ticket to unlocking what we want:

"Are we willing to do the work necessary to experience happiness?"

If the answer is yes, the next step is to work through the steps: wrestle through hardship, develop a process-oriented life, build the courage to fail, question consensus reality and pursue excellentism instead of perfectionism.

Happiness isn't somewhere we arrive - it's cultivated daily.



End Notes:

Thanks to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Brene Brown and Thomas Sterner for helping me prompt this piece.

The How Of Happiness

The Gifts Of Imperfections

The Practicing Mind

The Effect of Perfectionism and Unconditional Self-acceptance on Depression