You know why you’re not happy? It’s because you only think of yourself.
Sorry, I don’t mean to be cruel – maybe you are happy, and if you are, then there’s also the very real likelihood that it’s because you can think of someone else. It’s been shown that service is one path that leads people to satisfaction with their life (as noted previously, this is not the same as “being useful“). It’s also true that for a quick fix, doing things for other people will often increase the oxytocin in your bloodstream, which feels gooooooood.
But even in those situations, you’re still often thinking about things from your own perspective. My family and I have a useful phrase we like: being helpy. That’s when someone has all of the intention of being helpful, but doesn’t quite achieve that – and in fact usually ends up getting in the way. It’s a good way to check in on people who may share the Midwest custom of not bothering to speak up for fear of being impolite, especially when someone is putatively doing something “for” you.
“Ah. You’re being so helpy.” Try it out. It’s kind of like “truthiness“.
What does this have to do with being happy? Bear with me, I’ll get there. Being helpy comes from a lack of finding out what the other person actually needs. Instead, you try to imagine what they need, and provide that. Sometimes you’re right – and you’ve achieved “helpful”! Sometimes you’re wrong, though, especially if you don’t know the person very well, because you are limited by the fact that you can only think of things from your own perspective.
Some people think of empathy as the answer to that, and don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of empathy. But there’s a danger of relying on empathy: what happens when it doesn’t work?
What happens when you want to imagine what someone else is feeling, what they are needing, how they are hurting…but you just can’t? Does that simply mean you ignore them? Does that simply mean you are justified in trying something, anything, because at least you “made the effort?”
Nope. Because there’s something even better for understanding other people.
What’s Better Than Empathy?
Brace yourself: the answer is communication.
You ask the other person what they are feeling. What is hurting them. What they need.
I know what you’re thinking: Oh, that’s easy! I do that all the time! I’m a great listener!
Ah, but many people – more and more in this time of internet outrage – forget the other step:
You need to also believe what they tell you.
Yep. That’s right. You need to cultivate the attitude that, like a friend of mine tweeted a while back,
I don’t need to be able to empathize with someone or understand how they could feel a certain something in order to believe them when they tell me.
That means you cultivate the habit of watching for the warning phrases of deliberate ignorance coming out of your mouth or others:
That’s funny. I don’t feel that way.
Well, I don’t see why they don’t just….
You know, if it were me, I would…
Because it’s not your feeling. You can’t see it. And it’s not you.
And there’s a really good reason to cultivate that habit: as noted above, it’s the secret to happiness.
Shooting Yourself In Your Special Snowflake
Statistically, the surest way to be happy is to a) find someone who is similar to you who is happy, and b) do what they do. That’s right: there is no “three.” It’s really as simple as that.
Yet people are still unhappy. Why?
Because they don’t believe the other people.
All of us are conditioned to think – especially when something doesn’t make sense – that we are more different than we really are. Sure, they did that and they are happy – but that wouldn’t work for me. The reality, of course, is that the odds are good that we would be happier if we tried those things…but instead, we allow ourselves to be distracted by shiny outliers and statistical anomalies. “I can be Elon Musk! I can be Kim Kardashian! I can be John Scalzi!”
Sure, you could, if along with the ton of work all those people do you were also incredibly lucky.
Or you could set your sights on doing something that may not make intuitive sense, but based on the evidence before you, is worth trying.
Putting My Money Where My Blog Is
Want to come along with me on an experiment? I’m in the process of doing exactly what I’m describing.
See, in looking at various career options recently, I had considered the advice of a friend who said I would make a good “Scrum Master” (I know, even the title sounds strange, go ahead and google it and maybe you’ll understand it better than I did then. Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with rugby).
I researched it, and thought about it, but in the end I decided that no, I am not the kind of person that would make a good Scrum Master. I decided to start a different kind of training, for graphic recording and graphic facilitation.
The first training I went to, I loved. I was interested, I liked the people, there was resonance and serendipity and connection…and 60% of them were Scrum Masters.
Another 20% of them were Certified Scrum Master Trainers.
And all of them were pretty happy in what they were doing.
Now: I still have my doubts about whether that’s the job path for me. But that’s a failure of my own imagination. The fact is, I don’t know enough about what it’s like to be a Scrum Master to really make an informed decision.
But I have seen a bunch of people who love what I love who seem to be happy doing exactly that thing.
So: in a month, I’ll be starting some Scrum Master training, and you, dear reader, will get to learn whether or not doing the thing that feels wrong but is probably right actually works.
And maybe, just maybe, it’ll help you figure out your own next steps…