This week it seemed my news feeds were advertising the latest stories about happiness, tips, tricks, and how to’s. It didn’t matter if the source of the information was from a business journal, a relationship columnist, or a parenting forum; the hot headlines were each shouting about the latest research, anecdote, or personal journey to achieving lasting happiness. One columnist quipped that workers who were happiest were the ones doing the least amount of work, while a marriage counselor released research to suggest that happy couples have fewer episodes of forgotten kindnesses shared between them. And how can you escape the battering-ram of happiness when it comes to children? This past weekend was a celebration of Easter for many, Christians and seculars alike, with toothy smiles of overflowing baskets and chocolate bunnies missing ears. All around us we get fed stories of the centrality of happiness to our relational and occupational existence.
While I sure like feeling happy, happiness isn’t the point. If you are basing your company’s, you own, or your marriage’s success on a measure of happiness you are absolutely going to be disappointed. And the level of disappointment is not a predictor of your future happiness, but it is an indication of how well you will weather the ups and downs that lay ahead.
Want your work, relationship, company, or kid to turn out great? Focus on purpose and meaning instead of happiness. When we experience a sense of importance in what we do and who we spend our time with, we are not only more likely to spend our time doing or being with those tasks or people, we are more likely to be better at it, create more pleasurable experiences for others, and basically be more pleasant to be around. If we worked harder to help our children think about their experiences from a meaning-based perspective, instead of a function-based one (wasn’t that fun?), we would do much to create resilience in them when they face challenges that are not easily conquered.
I have recently seen the intersection of these ideas come to the fore as I dig deeper into an emerging area of law. Collaborative Practice is the process of two (or more) parties agreeing to forgo litigation in favor of jointly creating a resolution. The parties are represented by counsel, and the process is facilitated by a specially trained coach facilitator who has both a mental health and mediation background. The coach’s role is to handle the emotional labor involved in helping the parties identify their needs and move towards a resolution that best meets their shared interests. Collaborative law is seeing a surge of interest in family law matters, due in no small part to the very lengthy hearing process and collateral damage associated with litigated divorces. In civil disputes there is a rich history of success for collaborative law, but fewer seem aware of its power as a tool for change.
In seeking to resolve disputes, happiness as an end goal is usually a non-starter. There has been a long history of hurt and bitter feelings, and parties often wish separation rather than union as they work through a collaborative process. But flipping this desire into a goal of feeling valued, feeling heard, and leaving a lasting impression of one’s commitment or integrity may make the two parties more likely to come to agreement because of a shared vision.
Last week’s unfortunate unfolding of Adria Richards’ tweet heard ’round-the-dev-world and this week’s responses to gaming leaders stepping down in response to sexist party events underscores that workplaces are once again facing the strains between status quo and inclusivity. These efforts to frame distance and dispute from a meaning-based, rather than happiness-based, space may result in more human, and humane, responses to each other and to our roles and responsibilities.
I’m really not against having fun! But in the spaces where my work is conducted: leadership coaching, collaborative law process, and company culture and inclusivity, I far too often see the cost of focusing almost exclusively on “happy” to the detriment of “fufilled”. You can click on a lot of recent headlines to learn tricks to happiness, but you will need an endless loop of headlines to hold onto that feeling once achieved. Instead, look to create a map to meaning and your search efforts are likely to be less exhausting and more rewarding than you (or your company, partner, or child) felt possible.
Want to read more?
Petersen, Park, & Seligman (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies.6:25 41
Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Professor, Entrepreneur, and Diversity Columnist.
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Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP, 2011-2014