The Key to a Happy Life Isn’t What You Think

July 22, 2016

By Geoff Smart and Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall:  I see nearly everybody struggle with this.  Whether you are a janitor or a billionaire, you want a happy life.  But no matter how wealthy you are, you are likely looking for happiness in the wrong place.

Geoff:  The wrong place to look is the incessant pursuit of money or fame or extrinsic achievement that may or getting, getting, getting anything that may or may not happen in the future, right?

M: That’s the great Western disease—I’ll be happy when.  When I make a certain amount of money.  When I get an award.  When I complete some task.

G:  Our mutual friend Peter Drucker had a point of view on this subject, didn’t he?  I saw you quote our mentor in Triggers.  Drucker said, “Our mission in life should be to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart or right we are.”

M:  Peter Drucker saw throughout his long and expansive career how important it is to make a positive difference, for real, in other people’s lives.  He knew it was a key to success in business, and in life.

G:  I have observed that the happiest people have a spirit of generosity.  Generosity to me means giving real value to others.  At a low level, it’s being kind.  At a high level, it’s love, or leadership on a large scale.  Like Sister Rosemary in Uganda.  She rescued hundreds of girls who were kidnapped and abused by warlords and gave them jobs making jewelry.  Or Malala, who took a bullet to the face standing up for girls’ education rights.  That is generosity to the nth degree—willingness to risk your life to make another person’s life better.  But in ordinary life, it’s just a way of carrying yourself—being generous by holding a door, by giving a person a smile, by empathizing with a coworker who is having a bad day.  Basic human stuff that matters.

M:  I would tack on a yin to that yang.  Gratitude is equally important for happiness.  The most wise and happy people I have met—Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, etc.—all talk about, and they practice, deep gratitude.  What you notice when you talk with them is how freely they express gratitude.  Allowing yourself to feel deeply grateful is how you can do something bold.  Be happy now.  Not later.

G:  Your phrase, “Be happy now.”  I really like that.  Do you remember when our friend Chris Cappy brought that biofeedback machine to our author’s group, to show us the value of gratitude?

M:  Yes.  He showed us how “gratitude” is a mental state that a) you can most easily decide to feel, and b) has the most immediate effect on improving your physical, not just mental, wellbeing.  The challenge is to remember to do it!  It’s important to create triggers in your work and in your life to remember to focus on gratitude.

G:  That session really had a positive effect on me.  In fact, I lobbied my colleagues to include “generosity & gratitude” in my firm’s list of five values.  We refer to it a lot internally, in measuring our culture, and we use it on the scorecard of whom we hire.  Those are the triggers we use to remember it.

M:  That’s smart.  It’s a good thing you were not named Dr. Dumb, by the way.

G:  Thank you for the laugh!  And it’s a good thing you were not named Dr. Pyritesmith, by the way.  Get it?  Pyrite, as in fool’s gold?

M:  To summarize our little philosophical chat here, the key to a happy life isn’t what people think.  It’s not wealth, fame, achievement, or even relationships.  It’s putting generosity and gratitude at the center of everything you do at work and in life.

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Dr. Geoff Smart is Chairman & Founder of ghSMART, a leadership consulting firm that exists to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world.  Click for his downloadable free tools, and events.

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith is the #1 coach in the world, #1 leadership thinker, and million-selling author of 35 books. Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. Visit for free articles and videos.