The happiness trap

Happiness is so overrated.

Think about it. When we’re happy, we’re content with how things are, which is another way of saying complacent. When we’re complacent, we take things for granted, stop being curious and lose our interest in learning. We forget our appreciation for what it means to be free. We become busy and switched off to our passions, or marginalize them to our spare time. Being busy lets us off the hook for not pursuing the things that make our lives truly meaningful. In Chinese, the character for “busy” translates literally as “dead heart“. Instead of seeking fleeting moments of happiness that we cling to, long for and feel depressed about when they elude us, we can create a much more fulfilling life that revolves around the simple concept of facility.

Happiness trap

To feel fulfilled, we need to enjoy the process of engaging in meaningful endeavors. Most people mistake this with being busy and wear it as a kind of tragic badge of honor. While we may imagine successful people as busy, busy people are rarely successful. Success has little to do with being busy and everything to do with creating abundance, well-being and amenity. These things are the opposite of being busy. Business or busy-ness, should never be confused with fulfillment. Activity is not the same as achievement and efficiency is not the same as effectiveness. When we’re busy, we’re typically stressed and distracted from the enjoyment and satisfaction of ordinary life, which is why I believe fulfillment is all about the process of creating easiness – the opposite of business.

Facility is an ability to do or learn something well and easily. It’s usually applied in the context of natural aptitude, but facility can be created, through intentional play. It is the same way that children learn; through the enjoyable challenge of creating games of increasing complexity and finding ways to succeed at them. The play itself creates facility, not necessarily happiness, because when we’re deeply involved in the creative process, we’re too much in flow to be concerned with being happy. We’re focused on building our capacity to learn, and that’s enough. To cultivate facility, we need to foster interest and commitment to a worthwhile goal. Like meditation, it requires clear intention and consistent, purposeful immersion in the activity itself.

I’ve been reading Anders Eriksson’s Peak, which looks at the science of mastery and deliberate practice as the key to transforming natural ability into world-class performance. I see practice as the purposeful play that seeks improvement toward fulfilling self-owned goals. It doesn’t mean that anyone can play in the NBA if he works hard enough. It’s more about building upon small successes and learning from failures in this process that give us fulfillment, as opposed to the trap of needing to conform to an external model of success in order to feel happy.

I recently told my sister that in this, my 50th year, I’m no longer interested in improving upon my weak points. Cooking? Playing an instrument? Sunday Times crossword? Nope. Instead, I am doubling down on my strengths. At mid-life, I am acutely aware of the compression of time and believe that I can be more effective and enjoy creating more value by focusing on continuous improvements in my native abilities and interests. After a 27-year hiatus, I joined a local rowing club in Seattle and am back on the water. While I competed in four man sweep boats in college, I am now learning sculling and pairs. I treat every practice as if it were preparation for a race, and my goal is to compete in masters regattas. The blisters, the back splash of lake water, and the humbling experience of struggling to keep up with some of the senior women are all precious.

Embracing the creative tension that comes with setting stretch goals, compels us to give up a past or current measure of ourselves in place of a compelling future measure. We are then free to define achievement not in terms of where we are now, but whom we are becoming. Facility lies at the sweet spot of competency and interest, as we grow ourselves through meaningful endeavors that are self-designed and framed by our own internal values.

It all sounds nice, you say, but how exactly do I get paid for my golf haiku? Facility is not about the how, it’s more about the why. Why build increasing competency toward uninspiring work? Why not do more of the things that you enjoy, and fewer of those that don’t? Concerns about paying for a mortgage and college tuition compel us to martyr ourselves in the name of obligation, and create a false contradiction between work and play. We are responsible for something when it’s important to us, but act out of obligation when we feel we have no choice.  We surrender to the grind and toil of work, instead of exploring those things that truly resonate. We have made up this game, and we can un-make it. Because in it’s current state, even when we win, we lose.