Is There A Formula For Happiness?

“There are never enough hours in day to achieve everything on my ‘to-do’ list.”

“Whenever I have one area of my life working perfectly, something else falls in a heap.”

“I often feel pulled in all directions.  I’m spread so thin I feel like I’m not doing my best for anyone – at work, at home, or for myself.  When something has to give, it’s always time for myself.”

“Sometimes I wonder what life is all about.”

If any of those comments describe how you feel sometimes, you’re not alone. Time and again people tell us they’ve never felt busier. When former US president Franklin D Roosevelt said, “never before have we had so little time in which to do so much”, he didn’t have a mobile phone. He didn’t have access to email, BlackBerries or Facebook. There were no 24-hour news channels, RSS feeds or Twitter and fast food was only in its infancy. Imagine how he’d feel now!

The pace of life has certainly quickened in the last fifty years, and the pattern of life has changed with it.

Changes in the workplace have reduced the number of hours we have to spend on our homes, communities and care. Activities that were once primarily the province of women at home – such as cooking, cleaning and care of small children – are increasingly provided by the market.

At the same time, we’ve never had so many opportunities in life. More people achieve university-level educations than ever before; international travel is cheap and accessible; and people increasingly find personal satisfaction from their careers. Work was once somewhere you went each day – now it’s something you do. 

This means our expectations of life have never been higher. We all want to “have it all”.

But can we really?

Sure, but probably not all at the same time.

Having your life in balance doesn’t mean doing everything equally. Having a balanced life means you’ve learned to prioritise the most important things in your life.

So, how do you do this? The first step is to put yourself at the top of your list of priorities.

This doesn’t mean being selfish or self-centred. It means simply acknowledging that you are the main resource in your life. If you accept that you are your most precious resource, then you’ll also acknowledge the importance of looking after that resource.  As success coaches, we’re fond of asking our clients if they’d treat a prized racehorse the way they treat themselves. The answer is usually a fast and firm no, because very few of us would be foolish enough to run a racehorse until it’s ragged, feed it junk food and expect it to perform at its peak without providing it with vital rest periods. And yet, that is exactly how many of us treat ourselves. 

How can you possibly do well in your job, participate in a relationship, be a loving parent, or enjoy your hobbies if you are overtired, grumpy and ineffective?

Many people feel that putting their own needs before others is selfish, but if you place your own health and wellbeing above everything else, you will invariably find that you can deliver much more in the other areas of life that are important to you.

Let’s look at an example. If you’ve ever flown in an aeroplane, you’ll remember the safety instructions recited prior to take off. The instructions include how to fit an oxygen mask if the air cabin pressure drops – and specifically that you must fit your own mask before you can help others. This seems reasonable – except if you are a parent, in which case your natural instinct is to make sure your child is safe first.  However, you have about ten seconds to fit your own mask before oxygen deprivation will cause you to pass out, rendering you completely useless to yourself and others. So, by taking care of yourself first, you are able to take care of those around you. Without your oxygen mask on, you’re not going to be useful to anyone.

Anyone serious about self-coaching understands they must take an inside-out approach to their lives. Rather than focusing on the possessions, successes and approvals that may make us happy (but most probably won’t), we must look within and find what deeply motivates us.

Is it your family? Is it a challenge? Adventure? Love? A desire to help others? Only you know the answer, but whatever it is, it means moving beyond hoping things will improve (once you get the new job, new house or new partner) and taking action yourself. Just like any journey into unfamiliar territory, you need to chart a course before you can begin moving forward.

Life management involves living according to your deepest values. To do this, you must start by examining your belief systems, the person you are and your motives.  Many people are only prepared to reflect deeply on what truly matters to them when they experience a life-threatening event. Don’t wait until that bus almost hits you – you can create your own set of life principles that reflect your values and start living up to them now.

Why this kind of approach?

Because a lifetime of cars, boats, houses, holidays, promotions, achievements and other trinkets will fail miserably whenever it comes to delivering happiness.

Genuine fulfilment, satisfaction, inner peace and contentment are the result of determining what your highest values are – and then living up to them.

It is imperative that you strive to achieve your personal vision – a result of knowing your highest values. This is a very powerful concept, which is perhaps best illustrated by Viktor Frankl’s story.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna who happened to be Jewish. When the second World War broke out, he was one of the hundreds of thousands of people rounded up by the Nazis and transported to a place that later became known as “hell on earth” – Auschwitz. Frankl endured extreme hunger, cold and brutality, first in Auschwitz and then in Dachau. He lost every physical belonging on his first day in the camp, and was forced to surrender a scientific manuscript he considered his life’s work. Frankl’s wife, mother, father and brother all died at the hands of the Nazis.

In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl acknowledged that the majority of prisoners were executed soon after they arrived. Millions of people died, but this was not the focus of his writing. He observed that there were those who, like himself, were put to work under the most horrific conditions, and discovered something amazing. Frankl found a common thread in the survival stories that came out of the concentration camps – a character trait essential to endurance. Everyone who outlasted the death camps had something significant yet to do with their lives:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.

For Frankl, the quality of our questions determines the quality of our lives. Many people who suffer horrible atrocities spend years wondering “why me?” But, if you knew the answer to this question, would it really make any difference? For the prisoners of concentration camps, a better question to ask was “how do I escape?” The answer to this, for them, was a matter of life or death.

Frankl’s message is abundantly clear – it is essential for each of us to have a positive vision of our future. Frankl’s goal was to learn something from his experience and go on to help others. And he did.

Each of us must find our values, use them to create a vision of how our life could be, and then spend the rest of our lives striving to achieve this vision.

For most people, unhappiness comes from a conflict of values. 


Case Study

Claire deeply values her family and time spent with them is important to her.  But to pay the bills, she must spend a significant amount of her time away from them, at work. Claire’s dedication to her family means she becomes a reliable and highly valued employee. In fact, she receives a number of promotions, which help her to pay the bills and make life more comfortable – but at a price. While Claire achieves her career goals, they seem empty and her success feels hollow because her highest goal has always been to have high quality relationships with her family.

Learning to effectively manage our lives is so important. We must work from the inside out, and, as Stephen Covey says in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “begin with the end in mind”. When we are able to remain true to our life’s vision, we are more likely to experience the lasting happiness that can only be achieved by living up to our highest values.

So, the simple key to getting the most out of life is learning to manage your life the way you would every other project – by putting first things first. And just in case we haven’t been clear enough – what’s first is you.

We must all accept that we have control over only one person in our lives: ourselves. If we want to make changes in our lives, if we want more, it’s up to us and us alone. We must become very clear about what we want in our lives – the things that have real meaning for us. 

Ask yourself: what are my passions? What gets me up in the morning? Who do I want to become? What will I do now, today, to get what I want out of life? 

Remember that envisioning the life that you want may sometimes seem unrealistic.  Forget about whether it seems possible. Work in the arena of, “If it was totally possible, I would…” What would the first steps be to achieving that vision of life?

Each and every one of us deserves a life that we can look back on with a deep sense of satisfaction; to have personal lives that are enriching and nurturing; to do work that we love and which gives us a sense of accomplishment. We deserve love in our lives as well as good friends and family.

It is our personal responsibility to create a life worth living. The time for change is now.