On Tuesday we explored some research showing that work actually makes us happier than we think it does.
While people regularly tell researchers that they prefer home to work, they tend to be happier at work than at home.
In that article we explored the concept of flow, why it contributes to our happiness at work, and how to bring it home with us. Today, we’re going to explore some other unexpected benefits of work.
One way that work sneakily adds to our happiness is that it makes us set goals.
Earlier this month I noted that we’re not sustainably happier when we reach our goals. That’s still true! We get a short burst of happiness that quickly wears off.
This doesn’t mean that I advocate going through life without goals, however.
There have been a number of studies on “goal pursuit” that touch on goals and happiness. (Goal pursuit, in case you were wondering, is exactly what it sounds like.)
What these studies found is that there is joy in striving. Reaching your goal may not make you happier, but reaching for your goal will.
This makes sense given what we’ve learned about flow.
If you set a goal that is challenging and difficult to reach, but possible, you are setting yourself up for flow situations (and happiness).
Even without getting into a flow state, you are still pushing your limits, building self-confidence, and growing as a person. All of these contribute to happiness
Does It Matter to You?
While striving for any goals will generally make you happier, people with goals that are significant to them are happier than those without.
This gives us an opportunity for happiness bonus points.
Setting goals at work and striving to reach them makes us happy. But how important are those goals to us? Do we care or do we just want our bosses to be happy?
If possible, use this to reformulate your goals at work to be ones that you find important.
Sometimes, however, our work is largely out of our control. Sometimes our bosses set the agenda and we just need to keep the trains on time. This is why setting goals that matter to you in your personal life is even more important.
So what matters to you? What goals can you work towards that would be important?
Find something that matters to you and start striving.
How High Should You Aim?
Interestingly, research has found that people who set high goals and reach them are not any happier than people who set modest goals and reach them.
The impressiveness of the goal is irrelevant to your happiness. The only questions are (a) Does it match your skill level? and (b) Is it important to you?
These same studies found that people who fail to reach their goals because they are out of reach are much more unhappy. This sets up a situation where it makes much more sense for our happiness to set modest goals than big ones.
But this doesn’t mean we’re doomed to choose between aiming low and being unhappy.
One alternative is to set a goal that is reachable, hit it, and then set the next goal. Instead of setting one really high goal, we can create a staircase of goals that build up to great heights.
Alternatively, we can attempt to divorce ourselves from the outcome.
This is certainly trickier, but if you are able to mentally separate the things that are within your control from the things that are without, you can shield yourself from the let down of failing to meet goals.
This method requires you to put in all the effort that you can, and if you don’t get the result, then you know you did your best.
This is great in theory but hard in practice. If you’re not sure whether or not you can do this, stick with the goal staircase.
…In an Atmosphere of Growth
One reason that goals are powerful is that they lead to personal growth.
While most of the happiness reading I do now is through psychology books and scientific journals, my entry point into the field was actually The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.
After reading a lot of scientific research, it is clear that Rubin did all of the same research before writing her book. It doesn’t read like a science book, however. It’s much more focused on her personal experience and her particular subjective insights.
One of those insights has stuck with me long after I finished the book.
“To be happy I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”
The atmosphere of growth part stuck with me and twisted and turned in my mind for years. (I actually had to look up the rest of the quote specifically for this article, but remembered “…in an atmosphere of growth” word for word a decade after reading the book.)
In my own personal experience, the atmosphere of growth is one of the fundamental elements of my happiness. If I don’t feel like I am growing, improving, and getting better, then I am not happy.
Simple as that.
A Shortcut for Growth
The atmosphere of growth in your life can come from anywhere.
During law school, there aren’t a lot of mile markers. You have finals at the end of each semester, and pretty much nothing else. There are no other tests or graded assignments or check-ins along the way. There’s no real feeling of progress or growth within each semester.
After diagnosing the lack of growth as a cause of unhappiness at the beginning of my law school career, I took a short cut. I went back to playing video games.
A lot of games are built around matching the challenge to your skills. When you are new to the game, the levels are easy. As you progress and get better, the levels get more difficult to match your newly-gained skills. It’s perfectly-tailored artificial flow.
In addition to the happiness from flow, you also have the growth that comes from getting better and better at the game. It’s not a particularly useful skill, but it provides a feeling of growth nonetheless.
While I don’t advocate video games as a replacement for other hobbies, they can be a great supplement when you’re in a rut. I have found skills that are useful in the real world and creative skills like writing and learning musical instruments to be much more fulfilling, but sometimes video games are just easier to get into.
You need to make sure you aren’t spending so much time that you feel guilty. You also need to avoid spending so much time on any one game that you hit a plateau and stop getting flow.
Alternatively, look for ways to gamify your life to mix video game tactics with real world skills.
Join the Conversation!
Goals and growth, in combination with the opportunity for flow, make our time at work much happier than we imagine it to be. This doesn’t mean that we are doomed to miss out on these benefits at home, though!
Let’s take the lessons that we learn from why our jobs make us happy, and apply them to our outside lives.
Let’s set more goals, build more skills, strive for better things, and never stop growing. Happiness is within our reach. We just need to set a goal and grow into it.