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What makes you happy?

I have lived to know that the secret of happiness is never to allow your energies to stagnate. - Adam Clarke

Some years ago, I applied for a role in the Chief Executive’s office in a big government department. My experience and soft skills seemed to be the perfect fit for the role. To my surprise I didn’t get the role, but got an invitation to a half an hour ‘feedback’ session with the Chief Executive.

Half an hour with a chief executive is long time especially if there’s no clear purpose to the meeting. What feedback? Obviously, someone was a better fit for the role, that’s all.

The ‘feedback’ session turned into a life mentoring session. In short, the conversation turned into something like this:

CE: Do you think you’ll be happy in this role?

I: Happy?

CE: You have the right skills, but this organisation is full of males in uniforms who follow rules. Do you think you’ll enjoy working in this environment?

I: Surely, I can adjust myself to deal with them.

CE: No doubt, you can adjust your personality to fit in, but is any role worth it? Why not find a role that lets your true personality shine and make you happy? What makes you happy?

I: hm-m….

The conversation went for half an hour along those lines. The Chief Executive seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. As I later found out, she loved mentoring people.

I was a bit disappointed at the time. I expected to receive some very practical feedback in terms of what skills I needed to develop or what direction to take. Instead, I was told to focus on ‘what makes me happy’ so I can then focus on the right role, organisation or a boss. I felt the CE was right, at the end of the day she seemed to be enjoying herself and her place, so it wasn’t like she didn’t look happy in her role. But I still didn’t like the message, because I expected instructions but received a riddle. Figuring out the ‘what makes me happy’ bit was hard.

Are you happy?

How many people can really answer this question without hesitation?

If you ask someone if they’re happy, they’ll put short-term lens on the question, something like – what’s my mood today? If my mood is Ok, then I’m probably happy. Or – nothing bad is going on in my life now, so I’m probably happy.

If asked what they think about their life or work or family life overall – are they really happy? – most people will be stuck and will keep thinking hard about the question. That’s because we aren’t taught to even think about happiness and personal satisfaction.

Of course, the conversation about happiness builds on the assumption that our basic personal needs have been met. We’re fed, have a home, a family, a job, we are reasonably healthy and have some free time for hobbies. That's simple and obvious. Some people will need more, some will be satisfied with less.

But once we have our basic needs satisfied, we want more. We want more money, better life, more travel, more entertainment. Then we realise that no matter how much we have, we want something more. We want something to keep us alive. Some kind of motivation. Energy to keep us going. But also balance, so the energy isn’t over the top.

The older we get the harder it’s to get the energy and the genuine motivation. In the crowd, we can easily identify the motivated people with shining eyes – it can be passionate energetic motivation or calm steady balanced motivation, depending on the personalities. We have no clue where these get the drive from especially if they’re 45+. We try entertaining ourselves harder, we buy more stuff, we jump into relationships, we travel more. We get some energy and drive from that, but it dies off quickly and it doesn’t really motivates us. We’ve seen it all by now.

And the problem?

The problem is that we don’t know what makes us motivated or ‘happy’ in life – in the longer term. We don’t know because society doesn’t teach us to think about that.

No one tells us that it's healthy to find a job that we'll enjoy. In relationships, we're told to find love, but no one tells us what love is and no one explains that happy relationships don't always depend on the so called love/chemistry. In fact, more often than not true love develops with time, with the right partner, with the right attitude and with the right effort, and has nothing to do with the chemistry.

To me, even to get to the point of analysing what makes me happy, it’s useful to describe what the ‘state of happiness’ would feel like for me. If we don’t know how it feels to be happy – and different people will see this differently – we won’t be able to achieve this state.

What does happiness feel like for me?

I'd narrow down this question. What does happiness feel like for me at work? At home? With husband? When I exercise? When I do my gardening? When I travel?

Rational mind to shut up at this point. It doesn't make sense to THINK about a feeling. We must first experience the feeling, live through it, taste it, remember it. Only then we let our rational mind analyse it.

What does it feel like in each of these situations? It's not some generic state of happiness. It's experiencing particular positive fulfilling satisfying emotions in particular situations. These emotions will be very different depending on the situation. Someone can be very competitive at work but calm at home. Some people love to be challenged by friends but not by subordinates. Some love doing gardening by the book but hate following rules in romantic relationships.

Example: I come to work every day. How do I want to feel overall? Challenged? Competitive? Calm? Helpful? Left alone? What’s the personal satisfaction I want to get out of the job, not counting the obvious perks like money and promotions.

If you can do what you do best and be happy, you're further along in life than most people. - Leonardo Dicaprio

In fact, any physical activity – from a short walk on the beach through to every day work warrants the question: How do I want to feel?

When walking around, do I want to feel strong athletic and flexible? Lightweight, quick, energetic? Or slow-paced and flowing?

When interacting with my significant other, what do I want to feel like? ‘I want to feel loved’ type of statement won’t do it. It’s too generic. Break down what ‘to feel loved’ means: Safe? Excited? Calm? Romantic? Challenged? Understood? Appreciated? Emotional? Reserved? Private?

When I meet with a friend for a coffee, what would I like to feel? What's friendship for me in terms of emotions? There’s no point having a coffee with someone who triggers negative emotions in me. Unless I absolutely have to, but I'll make sure this is a one-off interaction.

Obviously, there are physical advantages that relationships bring, like financial support, gifts, physical help, sharing responsibility and so on. But no matter how many physical perks we get out of the relationship, if we don't feel good, satisfied, motivated, fulfilled or happy, the relationship will become a burden sooner or later.

It's not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness. - Charles Spurgeon

And the catch?

The catch is that happiness can’t be borrowed or stolen or taken from the external world. Happiness can't be forced either.

Happiness and motivation should be generated by the person, through applying our best natural abilities, strengths and preferences, applying our personality in meaningful activities that help generate this motivation even more.

Essentially, doing things that trigger more motivation in us which we then invest our energy and motivation into this activity, and it keeps feeding our motivation. To thepoint where we can share this motivation with other people. The more we invest the more we get back.

There is no path to happiness; happiness is the path. - Buddha

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