The Happiness Paradox

Talent Management

by Marshall Goldsmith

Positive spirit that starts inside and radiates outside focuses on two ingredients: happiness and meaning.

Yet, as much as we all claim to want happiness and meaning in our lives, there’s a paradoxical catch that thwarts us at every turn. I want you to burn it into your memory:

    • Our default response in life is not to experience happiness.
    • Our default response in life is not to experience meaning.
    • Our default response in life is to experience inertia.

In other words, our everyday process — the thing we do more often than anything else — is to continue to do what we’re already doing.

If you’ve ever come to the end of a TV show and then passively continued watching the next show on the same channel, you know the power of inertia. You only have to press a button on the remote to change the channel. Yet many of us can’t do that. Often, inertia is so powerful that we can’t even hit the remote to turn off the TV, even when we no longer want to watch it.

Understanding the principle of inertia is why I can say with absolute certainty that the most reliable predictor of what you will be doing in five minutes is what you are doing now. Take a moment to let that sink in, and weigh that statement against your life. I’m not saying inertia is a foolproof predictor — we obviously switch from one activity to another — but it is a reliable short-term predictor.

Once you appreciate the paradox, you become aware of its paralyzing effect on every aspect of your life, not just the mindless routines of eating or watching TV, but things that really matter — such as the level of happiness and meaning in your life — and you become more thoughtful about turning things around. Breaking the cycle of inertia doesn’t mean exerting heroic willpower. All that’s required is the use of a simple discipline.

Allow me to give you some backstory. Some 20 years ago, I was preparing a leadership development session for a Fortune 100 company when one of the company’s senior managers asked me: “Does anyone who goes to these leadership sessions ever really change?”

My candid answer was, “I don’t know.” Although I had been conducting these sessions for years with dozens of companies, I had never followed up with my clients to see if they actually took the sessions to heart later and became more effective leaders. I began going back to many of my clients and assembled data that answered the question, “Does anyone ever really change?” Our original follow-up study included 86,000 respondents. Our database has grown to more than 250,000.

My conclusion is unequivocal. Very few people achieve positive, lasting change without ongoing follow-up. Unless they know at the end of the day, week or month that someone is going to measure if they’re doing what they promised to, most people fall prey to inertia. They continue doing what they were doing, and as a result, they don’t become more effective. On the other hand, if they know someone, like their coach, their co-workers or their manager, is watching or evaluating them with follow-up questions, they’re more likely to change.

What if we didn’t have to rely on a manager or executive coach to do follow-up that initiated real positive change? What if we could be that change agent for ourselves?

Try this experiment. As you go through your day, evaluate every activity at work or at home on a 1 to 10 scale, 10 being the highest score, on two simple questions:

    • How much long-term benefit or meaning did I experience from this activity?
    • How much short-term satisfaction or happiness did I experience in this activity?

There is no right answer or acceptable range of scoring. No one can answer the questions for you. It’s your experience of happiness and meaning. Don’t think it to death.

If you do this, you may end up with much more than a score. I believe if you journey through life knowing all of your activities will be evaluated on these two questions, you tend to experience more happiness and meaning in each activity and you will have a happier and more meaningful life.