Happiness requires a state of growth and learning.
Growth requires being vulnerable.
Vulnerability requires gratitude and resilience.
That’s my take on what it means to happy in life. There aren’t different processes for being happy at work and not-work — it’s the same framework.
Gretchen Rubin‘s book The Happiness Project illuminates beautifully the idea that being happy requires growth. She describes having settled on this stroke of brilliance, only to be informed that there is a William Butler Yeats quote to that effect. This is not a new sentiment!
“Happiness,” wrote Yeats, “is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”
She goes on to write about the importance of identifying feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right. Here, she discusses how important feeling bad is, because it’s what can help you identify what it is that will make you happy.
Most of my life I’ve been very afraid of being bad at things in general, but the very specific fear was being bad at something in front of somebody. It took me a very long time to identify that churning gut feeling as a physical indicator of learning and growth, and longer still to learn to embrace it as evidence, as proof, as the one true indicator that I’m learning and growing and making myself vulnerable.
I certainly felt like I might puke right around the time this photo was taken, when a friend and I were setting out on a hiking trip in the remote wilderness in Newfoundland where there was no trail. Photo by Christopher Tracey.
A subtlety worth noting: In order for growth to be related to happiness at all, it has to be about the process of growing and learning, not about an end state. It’s easy to believe that when you’ve achieved something, then you’ll be happy (“when I get that job, I’ll be happy” or “when I finish this project” or fill-in-the-blank future state that disregards the work you’re doing right now), but the means are as important as the ends. It is in doing, in making, in learning, in growing, in the process that we find growth. And oh boy, are generalists good at learning to love the process.
Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande wrote a lovely piece for the New Yorker about realizing his surgical skills had plateaued, getting a coach, how much he learned and his techniques improved, but most interesting to me: How vulnerable and exposed and scary that can be.
We give a lot of lip service to efficiency at work, but it takes time to learn and improve. Truly, learning is inefficient.
And how of course the now-famous Brene Brown “Power of Vulnerability” TED talk explains that:
And beyond assessing your own vulnerability, it’s important to support the state of growth and help make it safer for others to be vulnerable around you. One way to do this is staying excited when somebody you meet doesn’t know something, rather than being dismissive or judgmental or condescending.
There’s a joyful XKCD comic about just that:
And of course Hank Green is great at explaining excitement:
But this is important beyond simple kindness extended to others, Golden Rule style — it’s a well-researched concept in ESL education, tied to ability to learn. Stephen Krashen describes the concept of the affective filter, which is essentially a brick wall that rises and prevents new information from entering a person’s brain, when that person is stressed or anxious. Being kind and letting other people be vulnerable with us promotes a learning atmosphere. This is relevant in so many fields, and is demonstrated in the vulnerability required for a good sprint retrospective, for folks working in the scrum framework.
This beautiful TedxSF presentation by filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg is a ten-minute celebration of the concepts of gratitude and open-heartedness. (Here is the video’s transcript.):
The narration is is by Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, and is rooted in empathy and expectations.
Resilience can mean a lot of things, but let’s focus here on stress resilience, with Kelly McGonigal’s awesome TED talk about re-framing our understand of the purpose of stress and making friends with it as something useful to us, in much the same way Brene Brown helps us understand why we need to make friends with vulnerability.
Cue some dramatic singing of the Circle of Life: Happiness –> growth and learning –> vulnerability –> gratitude and resilience –> happiness
(Smashed penny from my friend, artist Shaun Slifer.)