I’ve always had a beef with that societal notion of Happiness, and when reading the book Flow on what makes people enjoy life, I realized why. “Happy people” in the media always seem to be rich, thin, beautiful, lucky, brilliant, or talented – all unattainable notions to me or the average Jane. In the book Flow, an analysis of what makes people truly happy, it turns out none of those things drive Happiness at all. And in a recent update to the influential book The Millionaire Next Door, on how ordinary people achieve financial security, the message is similar. Ignore external messages; ignore social media; ignore commercials. Or as a folk singer once said, “it’s an inside job.”
I will note at the outset that this is a somewhat paradoxical entry. I’m telling you to read my explanation and advice on how to improve your life by ignoring other people. This reminds me a little of the Steve Martin bit where he would say, “Now, repeat after me, ‘I will not say things that other people tell me to say’…all together now….’”
But bear with me. The keys to discovering wealth and happiness are not avoiding other people’s advice or ignoring your friends and family, but rather learning when to react to cues from society and the environment and when to ignore them.
The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko
Let’s tackle wealth first; it’s easier. The Millionaire made a very strong impression on me when I first read it 15 years ago. Since many have asked me how I have figured out how to leave the corporate world early, I would point to these principles. The book was based on large scale studies of affluent families and found that people accumulating wealth would probably not be recognized as such. They drive older cars, spend on few luxuries, and save the fruits of their hard-earned labor. They don’t tend to play the lottery but do understand the “miracle of compound interest.” They do take financial risk in keeping with appropriate rewards – save money, leverage money, but don’t gamble money. A key theme is to ignore “keeping up with the Joneses”: affluent people don’t purchase things because their neighbor has them.
A recent update of the studies was done by the author’s daughter (ref MarketWatch article 3/3/2016) and points out that putting blinders on is much harder today than it was. Many more messages are delivered via social media today about cool products or a friend’s vacation, so it’s that much harder to ignore the temptation to respond in kind. Funny slogans like Whoever dies with the most toys wins are more common and hard to avoid.As Sarah Stanley Fallaw puts it:
I think the difference today is the unending nature of knowing what “the Joneses” do, given technology. Purchases, vacations, educations are all broadcast via social media and other means, and [dad] couldn’t have anticipated this in 1996. Still, the research we’re doing demonstrates that those who ignore trends have higher net worth, regardless of their age, income and percentage of wealth that they inherited. Building wealth means ignoring what others are doing, which may be more challenging today than in the 1990s.
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
What about happiness? When I left work, my wise friend Nancy pointed out the book Flow, which lays out the elements of enjoyment as only a University of Chicago researcher can do. As an alumnus myself of that icy institution, I can attest to its use of statistical processes for all purposes. At the University of Chicago, the study of social behavior, philosophy, art, humor, and history are subject to the same rules as economics – everything is quantifiable. All truths are those that reflect a high R2*.
Like the Millionaire, Flow’s analysis was based on a large scale research study of people in multiple professions, geographies, ages and social classes. The study found that happiness was a function of self-imposed goals, achieved through a continuous improvement loop. (I know all you Six Sigma Black Belts just pricked up your ears!) It didn’t matter what the goal was – it could be dairy farming in the Alps, chess played in the park, welding in a Midwestern factory, or climbing El Capitan. The goal was defined by the individual – with the environment providing an important element of feedback without dictating the goal itself. And the process was repeatable: goal, challenge, feedback, completion, new learning to overcome added complexity and challenge, new goal, and lather, rinse, repeat. People in the “flow,” as the theory goes, set up goals in stages, so that after they reach one, they establish the next one to be a bit more challenging. This way there is constant striving but also constant sense of reward.
The goals need to be achievable – even if difficult – and it’s key for you to define it. As Karin tells fledgling writers who ask how to be successful, think carefully about how you define success. To plan to be the next J.K. Rowling may not be achievable. But if success is writing a good children’s fantasy or being published or selling 10,000 copies or planning a series, those are reachable.
Work leads to Happiness more often than Leisure
The other key finding – something of a paradox – is that people were happier working than when resting or in leisure activities, such as watching TV or on vacation. Optimal experience requires activity. People relieve stress or combat exhaustion with relaxation, but they report experiencing sustained happiness more often when working in some way, either for pay or on some self-created project. (Part of the study involved having people use beepers to literally record when they were happy.) So, ironically, the best self-reported moments in our lives are not “livin’ the good life” sitting around, drinking champagne on a beach, but when we’re stretching our capabilities voluntarily to accomplish something that difficult that we deem worthwhile.
This is not to say that your current work is the only thing that could make you happy. You might be stressed out because your functions are either not challenging, not receiving feedback, not creating output that you value, or not achieving anything at all. Or the work may make you happy, but the working environment — people, culture — might make you miserable. Flow also presented examples where people in miserable situations were successful overcoming the environment (concentration camps, serious illness) by instinctively setting up the experience, creating small goals, mini-challenges to overcome, and using the flow process to help them ignore the negative situation they were in. More importantly, the Flow researchers definitely found that people in potentially ideal situations – rich, thin, beautiful etc. – were no more likely to report happiness than others. It was always a function of how the individual worked with whatever they had.
Big deal, you say, you already heard this from Shakespeare, The Brady Bunch, or The Gilmore Girls. “To thine own self be true.” So, Jan Brady, then why are you still looking at Marcia to set your benchmark? Find a copy of either or both books at the library (America’s best kept secret) or online and see if they help you take an earnest look at your goals. You might be closer to achieving your own dreams than you think.
*R2=A magical statistical result that reveals how accurately reality has been predicted. In the examples in statistical textbooks, it’s always 90 something. In practical usage, 40 something is cause for celebration.