The Happiness of Pursuit

Today is November 9, 2011. I am attending a Mental Health Corporations of America (MHCA) conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. The keynote speaker at today’s session was Shawn Achor, author of the book “The Happiness Advantage.” Mr. Achor is a researcher and consultant who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and earned a Masters from Harvard Divinity School. He has researched top performers at Harvard and has consulted with the world’s largest banks and Fortune 500 companies regarding ways to create a “happiness advantage” for the highest performers at the company. Mr. Achor calls this practice positive psychology and posits that it enables us to replicate high performance rather than aspiring to the average.

Rather than becoming predictors of doom and gloom, Achor recommends that we preach and practice “rational optimism” defined as the ability to make a realistic assessment of the present circumstances while maintaining the belief that your behavior can influence outcomes. In other words expectations can dictate happiness even in the midst of crisis. Success depends upon multiple factors including: 1) your level of optimism, 2) whether you have a positive support system and 3) whether you view stress as a challenge or a threat.

Achor believes that we are misinterpreting the pathway to happiness.  Most people say to themselves  “When I accomplish  ____, then I will be happier. The blank can be a job, a promotion, a degree, a relationship, or an income level. The problem with this thought pattern is that it can lead to the constant pursuit of happiness. The order of this search for happiness should be reversed.  Achor ‘s research suggests that happiness can be achieved more readily by making it the precursor to reaching our goals.  Indeed “happiness is the joy of striving after our potential.”

Happiness and optimism may seem in short supply as we face the most stressful economic period since the great depression, as we see a concomitant rise in mental health and substance abuse problems in our community and as we find ourselves beleaguered by policy decisions over which we have little control but that still impact us dramatically. But it is these challenges that will bring out the best in us if we face them with confidence in our professional and personal abilities and a decision to be joyful in the striving.

Gandhi said, “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.” So for happiness and success to be more than a dream, we must believe and act as though our behavior matters in the scheme of things great and small. Some of the happiest and most exhilarating times in my life have occurred during the pursuit of difficult goals.

William Greer