Archive for the ‘ happiness ’ Category

If money were no object

I’ve been a big fan of Alan Watts ever since I discovered this video (music and life). The video above is another wonderful piece of wisdom.  In it, he offers his advice on how to decide what you want to do with your life. And it is incredibly simple:  ask yourself what you would do, if money was no object. Write a list. Look at it. Then do that.

Most people’s first response is to reject this, and blame money. I can’t do that because it doesn’t pay, or it won’t pay as much as I earn now, or it would at the very least it would require a temporary drop in salary before I would be earning the same kind of money again.

And it’s true that the higher you go and the more you earn, the harder it is to consider dropping your income. Especially if you feel that you did your scrimping when you were younger, and now that you’re finally enjoying the fruits of a grown up salary, the thought of sacrificing those cappucinos is painful. Or maybe you’ve got a mortgage to pay for, or save for. Or you’ve got children and suddenly safeguarding their future becomes your biggest concern. Ultimately, the money seems essential to maintain your lifestyle.

Except we rarely step back and consider how much we really need to earn in order to live the kind of life we want. I did an interesting task once, where you write a list of the best things you did the last year, your fondest memories. And then you plot them on an axis in order of best experiences and level of expense. The results were surprising. My absolute favourite memory was a weekend away in the country with friends, which had certainly cost some money, but nothing compared to other major purchases I’d made that year which cost a great deal more but were quickly forgotten.

The other major barrier to choosing another path, more subtle, less acknowledged, is self identity. Whether starting out on a career path, or as a veteran in a profession, your view of yourself is often wrapped up in the status or comfort and familiarity of being X.  You’re used to introducing yourself as that. Other peoples’ perceptions of you are shaped by that. And perhaps what you’d really like to do, wouldn’t garner the same kind of response. Or maybe it would be equally respected, but you would not be, because you would be the novice instead of the master.

Yet the conclusion of Alan’s entreaty is simple and it echoes the sentiment of “music and life”. A life spent with money and with status but without enjoying what you do every day, is a wasted life. It misses the whole point of life, which is made up of minutes in the present, not memories or aspirations.

And if that isn’t provocation enough, the most common regrets of the dying offers us a Scrooge-like glimpse into our own futures:

I wish I didn’t work so hard.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Advertisements

Good and Bad Autopilot

One of the reasons I moved to London was to slow down time.

Your teens and twenties are full of first-times, new experiences, surprising occurrences. We have a memory peak around that time called the reminiscence bump, because it’s such a unique period in our lives. Once you settle into adult-hood however, you start forming regular routines of work, leisure and socializing. And this repetition means the days and months and years can start to blur into one. The experience of being fifteen years old was a lifetime away from my experiences as a seventeen year old. In contrast, was life at 29 really so different from 27? If you’re not careful, it can quickly start to feel very same-ish.

So I’d read somewhere, that moving to a new place makes everything fresh again. You have to figure out a new routine, a new workplace, a new culture. You can’t slip into autopilot. The logistical challenges force you to be aware. And it’s this awareness of the present, that slows down the passage of time.  And it’s true. London has added a new and interesting chapter to my life. But that only lasts for so long, before the autopilot mentality comes creeping back in.

The wonderful words of David Foster Wallace are finding a new lease of life online at the moment, thanks to these guys. And in his speech one of the things he talks about is the evils of autopilot. The dangers of sludging through life in a numb, self-centered cocoon. It’s so easy to do.

Bad autopilot is letting life pass you by, because you live for the end of work at five o’clock, and you live for Friday evening when you can escape the office, and you live for your two week holiday when you can escape your regular life.

What Wallace is encouraging is a conscious awareness of your surroundings and your daily life. It’s the same practice of mindfulness that’s rooted in Buddhism and encouraged by psychologists as a way of increasing happiness. It’s something I have to constantly remind myself to do.

But there’s another kind of autopilot that’s the polar opposite of the type described by Wallace. It goes by many names and descriptions: “being in the zone”, “hitting your A game” or just “flow”. Flow is when you’re unconsciously engaged in an activity at that perfect balance of challenge and mastery. You get so absorbed in a task that it’s effortless and yet you’re completely motivated throughout.

Modern life can make achieving flow really difficult. Our noisy open-plan offices, our always-on phones and our “multi-tasking” conspire against us, and rob us of the opportunity to get into a flow state at work. And after such an exhausting day, it’s no wonder that in the evenings, all we want to do is choose passive activities like watching TV, over more effortful hobbies like playing sport or music or reading or gardening or painting, even though they would bring us more satisfaction.

Yet understanding these two versions of autopilot is so important for happiness. We need to break the mindless version of autopilot described in the video above. We need to slow down the passage of time by becoming aware of what’s happening in the present moment, avoiding the zombie life at all costs. But alongside this we need to pursue the positive, enriching autopilot state of flow, where we sometimes lose all track of time because we are so enjoyably engaged in what we are doing. Because in the end, it doesn’t really matter how much time we have, what matters is whether it was time well spent.

The Holiday Mindset

Islington in sunshine

Islington in the sunshine is one of my all time favourite places to be and I always feel lucky to live here every time the sun peeks out and the streets flood with people in shades and sandals and strappy tops, regardless of whether it’s actually warm enough to brave bare arms.

This weekend was one of those gorgeous sunny gifts.

And no matter how many times I see it happen, I’m always struck by how powerfully this good weather can affect people’s mood. They might have started out the week feeling busy and stressed and completely preoccupied by work and life, but if the sun comes out, all of those concerns are temporarily shelved. Suddenly, everyone switches into a holiday mindset.

Which makes the simplest things like taking an early morning walk down by the canal or sitting on some grass beside a busy road drinking coffee with friends, feel luxuriously pleasant. We savour every moment. We abandon the schedule and let time just pass us by.

And that’s really odd when you think about it, since the canal and the coffee are always there, all year round and cost next to nothing to enjoy. There’s no reason we couldn’t live this carefree lifestyle far more often, if we allowed ourselves to. But it takes the rarity of a sunny day in a country that can’t count on having a summer, to force us into letting go.

Leo Babauta from Zen Habits wrote a great post recently about cultivating a vacation mindset at work.  It seems like a crazy paradox on the surface, but actually you can see the productivity benefits immediately. Working without anxiety, fully immersed in the present, thinking about the big picture rather than sweating the small stuff and letting go of our clock watching obsession. Those behaviours are the recipe for flow, and high performance work.

But actually I would go one further. Not only could we all do with a bit more holiday mindset at work, I think many of us could use some more holiday mindset in our leisure time too. I know I have a terrible habit of turning my weekends into the same busy, self- pressured affairs as my working days. Feeling guilty if I waste away a precious day on nothing (even if excused by a hangover). Or else packing my weekend full of socializing and errands but watching the clock tick by until Sunday evening comes around again.

So, inspired by the kick in the ass this good weather has given me, I’ve decided to start practicing my holiday mindset. I’ll certainly give it a go at work, but most importantly I’m going to reclaim my evenings and weekends. And I’ll try to make the most of that lovely canal and coffee, whether or not the sun is shining.

Forcing it never works

marissa-mayer-hope-poster

I feel sorry for Marissa Mayer because if she was a man, no one would expect her to be anything other than the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

But she’s not a man, she’s a woman. One of the only women to hold such a powerful post. One of the few female leaders in silicon valley. And because of her rare achievement, she’s now a high profile role model – whether she likes it or not.

Which means everything she does will be scrutinized from the perspective of gender, in a way it literally never is for a man. And as unfair as that is, it explains why there is such disappointment when she appears to be setting back progress for working women. Hard won gains like time flexibility and remote working, which have allowed mothers to take care of children while also maintaining a career. The fact is however, while it’s clearly a hot issue for women as long as they are still the primary caregivers in the home, at it’s heart it’s an issue for everyone.

Penelope Trunk, who I always enjoy reading though frequently disagree with, wrote a piece on the issue which was incredibly depressing, with passages like this:

The reality of today’s workforce is that if you want to have a big job where you have prestige and money and power, you probably need a stay-at-home spouse. Or two full-time nannies. Which means most people don’t have the option to go on the fast track, because most people have not set their lives up this way. So let’s just admit that most of us are not on the fast-track. Stop bitching that people won’t let slow people on the fast track. Stop saying that it’s bad for family. It’s great for family. It means people will not continue operating under the delusion that you can be a hands-on parent and a top performer. People will make real choices and own those choices.

This is definitely a reflection of professional America’s unhealthy relationship with work, but it also spills into many fields across Europe. The idea that people are either fast track or slow track is ludicrous. There is a huge spectrum in between and often the most talented and creative people are exactly that because they have a wide range of interests and influences in their lives. They’re out in the world, aswell as the office.

So a reality check.

It’s the 21st century and in the affluent developed world at least, we are fortunate to have never lived in a more peaceful, comfortable and educated society. Technological innovation has given us unprecedented ability to work effectively and efficiently at any time or location. Why  on earth would anyone want to work like a slave in shackles, or only develop one aspect of their lives at the expense of all others?

Coming back to Marissa’s main issue however, she clearly is trying to figure out how to galvanize Yahoo and stimulate creativity and innovation, and this is a valid problem. What both she and Penelope are missing however, is any simple human insight into how companies instill this passion and dedication in their staff. Because their strategy definitely won’t work.

Whether you lead with the autocratic perfectionism of Steve Jobs or the geeky humanistic spirit of Sergey and Brin, people make a decision to buy into the purpose of a company and give their time and skills towards building it. As Penelope herself writes:

In Silicon Valley, home to Facebook, Google, Airbnb, none of most desirable companies make room for a personal life. They don’t have to. They have plenty of people hoping to give up their whole life to the company.

The point here is that this professional commitment is voluntary. It can’t be forced.

And if passion is lacking in your company, as it evidently seems to be in Yahoo, sending a mandate isn’t going to fix that. Especially one that in reality only affected a small fraction of employees, yet sent a huge message to the rest of the company. A message which frankly smacked of self interest on the part of their management team. It sounded like they cared more about the company, than the people within it. And that’s never going to win people’s hearts and minds.  Richard Branson says for him the priorities go: staff, customers, shareholders. If I were Marissa Mayer, I would put that on my wall.

Learning from Everyone

Wisdom-quotes-by-William-Shakespeare-The-fool-doth-think-he-is-wise-but-the-wise-man-knows-himself-to-be-a-fool.

It’s funny how it’s usually the meetings where you’re completely lost and haven’t a clue what’s being talked about, that you’re most reticent to ask a question. A stupid question will just expose your ignorance. Better to stay quiet and be thought a fool, than speak and remove all doubt.

And the more senior you are, the harder it is to reveal a lack of understanding or expertise in front of colleagues. Part of this is because our cultural image of great leaders is about being in control, all knowing. We’re programmed to think that asking for advice or asking for help, is an admission of weakness, instead of strength.

In the real world though, the greatest leaders are those who show humility and often vulnerability too. You can’t inspire people if you don’t connect with them. And it’s hard to connect with superhumans. They’re just too different from the rest of us.

That’s why one of the biggest things holding back leaders today is that pressure to maintain an unflappable public face. It creates distance between management and staff. It creates barriers to open conversations. And it’s an out-dated approach from a different time. A time when companies were run on top-down authoritarian leadership. Where employees did what they were told, stayed in their boxes, clocked in and out, left their soul at the door every morning to be picked up again at 5PM.

Now we live in a different world. It’s a world where education and access to information are no longer the preserve of the powerful few, but are increasingly democratised. Which means the person at the top may no longer know best. It means more people will be questioning authority and the status quo. It makes it likely that people won’t be content to keep their head down and climb the progress ladder step by step. After all, that’s what happens in the kingdom when the peasants learn to read…

And rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, the best companies are evolving to gain the benefit of a workforce with higher expectations for their jobs.

Like having reverse mentorship schemes where management buddy up with junior staff, not to appease them, or pretend to be listening, but to genuinely learn new skills and new ways of thinking.

Like abolishing performance reviews (which if we’re really honest, are more about keeping salary costs down than genuine staff development – they tend to be quite rubbish at that), and even replacing them with bottom up staff appraisals of how the company is performing and what could be improved.

There’s a lot to learn from everyone if we’re open and interested enough to want to listen. None of us is smarter than all of us – the collective knowledge of all staff will only help businesses do better. And it comes with the happy side effect of happier staff too. Motivated workers and shared responsibility for success.

The only wonder is that in 2013, this is still relatively rare practice. So there’s definitely a first mover advantage up for grabs – the best leaders will take it.

Would we be happier with no goals?

I’ve never been one for New Years resolutions. Partly because January strikes me as a particularly depressing month to try and lose weight/stop drinking/give up dairy etc. And partly because I’ve never been able to shake the back to school feeling of September, making autumn like the real new year to me, turning January into a bit of a fraud.

I suspect there’s also another reason though. Which is that I don’t really like putting myself under the pressure of achieving  – or more likely failing to achieve – a big daunting goal.

Now I’ve always believed, probably like you, that goals are supposed to be good for us. They spur us into action, push us to push ourselves, give focus to what we do today so that we can reach our ambitions tomorrow. And I’ve been taught, just as vehemently, that people without goals are destined (if Hollywood is anything to go by) to become aimless wasters. Living a life full of regret because they failed reached their full potential.

Except I wonder whether this is actually true.

Leo Babauta has a healthy debate on his ZenHabits blog with 4 Hour entrepreneur Tim Ferris, on whether or not goals suck. And I think there is some intuitive truth in the idea that successful people are not succeeding because they are planning ten steps ahead. They’re doing their utmost today, and they’ll keep doing that tomorrow. Cumulatively it all adds up. But an orchestrated long-term strategy is just a guise. As the old adage says that “man makes plans and God laughs”.

More insidiously though, I wonder whether this guise of goals actually gets in the way of our happiness. I’ve talked before about the idea that happiness is often measured as a combination of two things – how happy we are with our lives when we reflect on it (our remembering self) and how happy we are in the moment (our experiencing self).  Goals can piss off both selves.

Our remembering self will judge how happy we feel based on whether we have achieved the many goals we have set for ourselves. And it takes zero heed of whether those goals, our most heartfelt ambitions, were in the slightest bit realistic (see Jim’s video above for a razor sharp observation on this). The higher we aim, the more inevitable it is that at some stage, we will fall short. And rest assured, whatever achievements we do rack up, there will always be a new burning ambition to fill it’s place. We’re built with an insatiable appetite for more.

And worse, while we’re chasing after these goals, we lose track of the moment. Which means our contentment with right now, is always playing second fiddle to our pursuit of whatever prize we think lies in the future. And will the prize be worth it when we wake up at sixty and wonder at how readily we wished our days away to get to that point? Because life isn’t supposed to be a journey with a destination. We’re just supposed to dance while the music is playing.

So my Christmas gift to myself this year is to start out 2013 with even fewer goals than last year. I’m going to throw away the mental picture of what the next year might have in store, and just see where my aimless wandering can take me. Which is quite refreshing really.

Happy Christmas everyone – and think no further ahead for today!

The Happiness Lottery

Recently I had a discussion with someone who felt strongly that people are inherently happy or miserable, and there’s very little you can do to change that.

In the lottery of life, some people are just born with all lucky numbers – an optimistic mindset, a likeable personality, the emotional intelligence to deal with tough situations. The other poor unfortunates, those born awkward, fragile, pessimistic, have the least assets in facing this turbulent world and the least ability to enjoy the pleasures of life.

And it’s true, that there’s plenty of evidence to support the idea that we have an innate predisposition towards seeing the glass half empty or half full.

There’s also a lot of research supporting the idea of a baseline level of happiness – that emotional events can cause boosts or drops in our levels of happiness, but we all return to a pre-existing set-point before long.

However, as always in psychology (something which caused me no end of frustration in college as I chased after definitive answers), happiness is another study in the nature vs. nurture debate. With a healthy dose of free will thrown into the mix.

Happiness isn’t a lottery. In a lottery, you either win or you don’t win. Personality traits and perceptual biases aren’t nearly so deterministic.

Whatever percentage of our well being can be attributed to our genetic code, we know it’s not 100%.

Which gives mankind something to work with.

That’s why I was so pleased to see the UK government officially kick off their happiness research programme last week. The survey is designed to measure psychological and environmental wellbeing in society. Ultimately, the aim is to develop a happiness index as a key performance indicator beyond GDP. As economic progress isn’t and shouldn’t be the most important measure of a successful society.

And closer to home, our digital agency Saint have just created this lovely project, which seeks to understand the mood of the agency on a daily basis. Their hope is to explore the dynamics associated with good and bad days, so that we can use this information to create the most positive workplace across Saint and RKCR.

All this research matters. Because increasingly, the type of happiness research I’ve spoken about before on this blog, suggests that the factors which are associated with a happier life, are behaviours which can be adopted by everyone.

Being happy, far from being a lottery result, may turn out to be a life skill.  Similar to any other skill, from tennis to chess to piano, there will be some people who find it easier to learn. But everyone can work at it. And in the future, it’s my hope that we see happiness skills taught in our homes, schools and workplaces, with the time and effort they deserve.

%d bloggers like this: