How Getting Off the Happiness Treadmill Can Actually Make Us Happier

In my last post, I talked about what the experts call “the hedonic treadmill” – as we acquire more of anything (from material possessions to positive emotional experiences) our expectations and desires tend to rise at the same rate, thereby resulting in a no net gain level of happiness and satisfaction.  Without understanding this reality, we can find ourselves stuck in the proverbial rat race of continual accumulation, making no progress toward the desired goal.  Greater and deeper happiness and satisfaction than what we currently possess remain elusive or unmet.  The point of the experts is, running on the happiness treadmill just doesn’t work the way we hope it will.  My guess is that most of us have already discovered that painful truth (in spite of how much we keep trying).

Which begs the question, what does work to increase our happiness?  Does anything help?  Is it even possible to increase your level of happiness in a meaningful, genuine way? Contemporary research does point the way to some significant conclusions.

A co-founder of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, performed an intriguing experiment.  He made people carry a pager, and told them that every time it went off they should write down what they were doing and how much they were enjoying it. The idea was to avoid the memory’s tendency to focus on peaks and troughs, and to capture the texture of people’s lives as they were experiencing them, rather than in retrospect. The study showed that people were most content when they were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow”— “the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities.” We are at our happiest when we are absorbed in what we are doing; the most useful way of regarding happiness is “a by-product of absorption.”

I relate to this a lot.  My work with the Strengthsfinder resource for both myself and my clients and spiritual community attendees confirms this truth.  When I am “in the zone,” which most of the time means I am using my top strengths in meaningful, productive ways, and I suddenly reflect on how I’m feeling, I realize that my feeling strong during those times is incredibly fulfilling to me – I’m extremely happy and satisfied.  And that’s one of the points Marcus Buckingham (one of the leading proponents and authors in the strengths-based movement) makes – the more we operate in the areas of our top strengths, the more fulfilled and content we are – we are more productive, more effective, and also more satisfied.  Using our strengths produces a higher likelihood that we’ll feel like we’re in the flow, the zone.

That’s exactly what Dr. Martin Seligmann (the psychiatrist who is known as the father of contemporary positive psychology) concludes, as well.  Do you know what his biggest recommendation for lasting happiness is?  Figure out your strengths and find new ways to deploy them.  Quite profound, actually!  According to research, strengths-based living makes a person 6 times more likely to be engaged and 3 times more likely to have an excellent quality of life.

My spiritual accountability partner and I spend the first month of each new year, rather then writing the basic new years’ resolutions, detailing our top five strengths and several goals for how to improve, develop, and use those strengths for the year.  And then throughout the year, in many of our weekly phone conversations, we talk about how we’re doing with our specific strengths-based goals.  It has been incredibly transforming to both of our lives.  And I definitely notice that when I’m following through on those strength-based goals, not only is my sense of accomplishment higher, but my feeling of satisfaction, contentment, passion, and happiness is higher, too (more consistently throughout the year, as well).

If you haven’t discovered your top strengths (those innate abilities that you are wired with that explain how you tend to operate in the various areas of your life), you should take a look at a very effective resource and make the discovery that could potentially change your life (StrengthsFinder 2.0, Tom Rath; or Now, Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham).  Either of those books include the ID code for an online assessment tool to discover your top five strengths.  One of my specialties and passions as a life coach is to help people unpack the results and explore ways to strategically and effectively apply their strengths to their work, their relationships, and even their spirituality.

One of the powerful dimension of this strengths-based happiness finding is how it impacts our spirituality.  Meaningful, powerful spirituality is about paying more intentional attention to who we are, how we’re wired.  That puts us in direct connection with the God (the Sacred, the Divine) who shaped and formed us in these unique ways.  So when I am reflecting upon and working to live out my strengths, I am becoming more of who I am meant to be and that puts me in direct connection with the God who formed me.  That is hugely significant to my spiritual journey.  Living in alignment with who I truly am (rather than expending a lot of energy on trying to be someone I’m not – how many of us do that!) brings deep satisfaction and fulfillment to me like nothing else can.  And I am much more effective in living out my purpose.  And all of that brings a higher level of meaning and happiness.

Here’s the way Marcus Buckingham puts it:

“The prioress of a Benedictine convent described her philosophy of life this way:  ‘I try to live my life in such a way that when I die and my Maker asks, “Did you live the life I gave you?” I can honestly answer yes.’”  … “By focusing on your top five themes you can learn who you really are.  You can learn that you are not making up your life as you go along.  You can learn that your successes and achievements are not accidental.  Your signature themes are influencing every single choice you make.  Your top five themes explain your successes and achievements.  This kind of self-awareness leads to self-confidence.  You can face up to that intimidating question ‘Are you living your life?’ by answering that no matter what your choice of profession, no matter what the trajectory of your career, if you are applying and refining and polishing your top five themes, then you are indeed living your life.  You are indeed living the life you were supposed to live.  This kind of self-awareness will open you up to be truly inquisitive.” (Marcus Buckingham, Now, Discover Your Strengths, p. 145)

Strengths-based living is deeply spiritual.  And the happiness and contentment that result from living this way is a part of the divine design, too.  Did you notice in that quotation descriptions of the results of living YOUR life the way you were designed to:  self-confidence, self-awareness, being truly inquisitive and curious about life, a sense of alignment with God, ability to live in honesty, intentionality, and success and achievement that are not accidental.  With results like that, it kind of makes you wonder why we don’t spend more time and energy focusing on our strengths and learning the art of living strongly.

As the experts are suggesting these days, perhaps there’s something to this outlook and life approach.  It certainly beats trying to run in place on the happiness treadmill!  If I’m going to expend energy running, I want to actually get somewhere meaningful!

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