The other day, I suggested a thought exercise around the 80/20 of happiness. I suggested you write down 50 things you were grateful in your life and attempt to do so in 3 minutes.
Well several hundred of you did exactly that and posted in aggregate over 5,000 things you were grateful for in your life. You can see the original post and the 5,000 gratitude statements here.
Now as promised, let me reveal why I suggested what I did, what insights you can learn from the process, and how to specifically apply all of this to your life.
There are several big lessons here.
1) First, it’s important to realize that happiness is entirely subjective. This seems obvious, but the implications of this conclusion are profound and generally overlooked by most people — especially those with high IQs who are ambitious, highly motivated, with a strong work ethic. (Yeah, I’m talking about you!)
Happiness often gets conflated or merged with the idea of success.
This is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!
The two are most definitely not the same thing.
Success tends to be objectively measurable. Winning a gold medal is objectively better than winning a silver medal. Having a job title of Vice President is objectively better than being a Manager. Earning $200,000 a year is more successful than earning $100,000 a year.
Happiness is not objectively measurable. It is merely subjectively experienced.
Is earning $100,000 a year something to be happy about?
There is no way to objectively answer this question... precisely because the question is subjective in nature.
If you are used to earning $50,000 a year, then earning $100,000 could be perceived as a “happy” outcome. If you are used to earning $1 million a year, then earning $100,000 a year could be perceived as an “unhappy” outcome.
The key thing in determining your happiness is not the outcome of your life. It is your point of comparison.
That last sentence is worth re-reading a dozen times. It is subtly, but profoundly, important.
Most people mistakenly think, "To be happier, I need to achieve more / be more successful." The way to be happier that is far more effective and fast is to change your reference point.
This is fully within your control, and it can be done in 5 minutes or less. That’s very 80/20.
While the key to “success” is to achieve more, the key to happiness is to expect less.
This leads me to my second key takeaway from my recent thoughts on happiness.
2) Why expressing gratitude is so helpful in being happier.
I promised to explain why I suggested the exercise of writing down 50 things you were grateful for in 3 minutes or less. Let me summarize the reactions many people had about the exercise (which very much mirrored my own reactions when I first did this thought exercise).
The overwhelming initial reaction was...
“This woo woo stuff is lame.”
The second most common reaction was...
“FIFTY things. In 3 minutes? No way. Impossible.”
The third most common reaction was...
“Hmm... I ended up with more items on my list than I would have guessed at the beginning.”
The fourth most common reaction was...
“My life is better than I thought...”
Now let me explain why I specifically chose 50 items to be grateful for (why not 5 or 10?) and why I insisted on the 3-minute time limit.
I specifically wanted a number that was so high that you were forced to write quickly. I set a 3-minute time limit for the same reason.
Had I not set those constraints, people would tend to write the things they think they should be grateful for. They would also tend to only write the obvious “big” things in their lives that they’re grateful for.
I specifically wanted to flush out the less obvious things people are grateful for. Hence the focus on 50 items and 3 minutes. With both of those constraints, you're forced to not over-think things. You’re forced to include the “small” things in life.
For example, when I did this exercise I was of course grateful for the usual things - family, friends, career, etc. But after the first dozen items or so, I found myself including things like:
I’m grateful for vanilla (seriously, it is the best stuff on earth).
I’m grateful for bacon (everything tastes better with bacon on it, to me anyways).
(Notice a theme here... :) )
I’m grateful for...
- a warm sunny day
- to be able to smile today
- to be able to take a deep breath
- to have a heater that works (when it's cold outside)
- that I’m not homeless (I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering feeding the homeless, in part selfishly to remind myself that my life is pretty damn good.)
- that I get to learn and teach nearly every day
- to have my arms and legs
- for the people in my life who accept me as I am
- for peace of mind
- for trees — lots of trees
- for the rain (that gives the Pacific Northwest its beautiful greenery)
- for a Venti Decaf Vanilla Latte (there’s the vanilla again)
- for butter
- for olive oil (notice that theme again? :) )
When you’re forced to dig deeper for things to appreciate, your perception starts to shift. My life truly is better because I have arms and legs. Truly.
Yet 99.999% of the time, that never occurs to me because frankly I take it for granted. But when I’m forced to think about it, and reset my comparison point to having no arms and legs, I suddenly feel very grateful.
(This reminds me of when I met Kyle Maynard, author of the book No Excuses, who was born with no arms and no legs — literally. I shook “hands” with him a few years ago and we enjoyed breakfast together. He’s really an amazing person.)
My life is truly better off because I have heat. When it’s cold outside, heat feels so good.
When you do this exercise, you tend to find there’s a lot more in your life to be grateful for than you thought.
If we arbitrarily created a quality of life index where:
0 = no quality of life
10 = perfect quality of life
Let's say on average, most people have a level 5 quality of life.
a) The perfectionist says, "I’m at a level 5. I 'should' be at a level 10. I’m 5 points short. I’m such a loser and therefore unhappy."
b) A happiness = achievement person tends to say, "I’m at a level 5, but I think I can achieve a level 6. I will be happy when I achieve a level 6."
(Of course the same person, who then reaches a level 6, will think, "I could really actually achieve a level 7... and I will be happy when I achieve a level 7." What people like this often don’t realize is by focusing on current level + 1 as your threshold for happiness, you will never be happy.)
c) A gratitude-oriented person says, "I’m so grateful for anything above a level 0. I’m at a level 5. I have a wonderful life and I am so appreciative for everything in it."
(When such a person achieves a level 6, they are still very happy. If life hands them a setback and they are a level 4, they say, "Well thank goodness I still have so much more than a level 0. I have a wonderful life despite the setback.")
In the first two cases, the perfectionist and the happiness = achievement oriented person will basically never be happy.
For the perfectionist, perfection is impossible so happiness therefore becomes impossible.
For the achievement person, happiness = current quality of life + 1 level, which means one will never be happy even though it seems like happiness is only one step away. The part they don’t realize is no matter what they achieve, they will move the comparison point.
The only person that is consistently happy in these scenarios is the gratitude-oriented person. When you are truly grateful for anything more than a zero in life, you tend to feel significantly happier, and to feel happier more often than other people.
THAT is the purpose of expressing gratitude.
It’s also a wonderful way to be emotionally resilient against adversity. When life is hard, you can focus on what is making it hard or you can focus on what you still have. The former is useful for achievement, the latter for happiness. The best approach frankly is to do both.
Overcome the obstacles in your life to be more successful. At the same time, always feel grateful for what you already have. Do both and you will be both successful and happy.
The best of both worlds.
3) The final lesson I want to share today is the distinction between thought and experience.
There are some things in life that you can read about all day long but you will never “get” unless you actually experience them.
Riding a bicycle, having sex, piloting an airplane for the first time -- these are all examples of this phenomenon. You can study all you want, but you never really understand what these experiences are like until you actually do them yourself.
The gratitude exercise I described previously falls into this category. You can intellectually understand how writing down 50 things you’re grateful for might improve your happiness. You can read what others wrote and get the idea of what’s going on. But, until you actually do the exercise and experience it yourself, that theoretical understanding will never replace the in-person experience itself.
It is just (and I don’t use this word lightly) magical when you notice something to be grateful for that you would not otherwise have noticed unless you were prompted to do so by a gratitude exercise.
When you set your mind to seeking things to be grateful for, you will always find something. The mistake most people make is that they never mentally seek or notice things to be grateful for, and therefore massively under-appreciate the goodness in their lives.
On a related point, if you want exceptional results from your life -- both in achievement and your ability to be grateful for it -- it is vital that you take action when others merely observe.
If you didn’t get a chance to post your “50” things to be grateful for (take no more than 3 minutes and stop at less than 50 if that’s where you end up), here’s your second chance. Just post your comments here: 80/20 of Happiness
For those who did post your list of 50 things to be grateful for, I’d love to hear how you experienced the exercise. Post your comments below.