The Progress/Happiness Connection
Why moving in the right direction trumps getting there
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One big idea for you this week:
Fulfillment comes not from external achievement, but rather from hard-fought, relentless progress toward a goal that is bigger than us.
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I remember popping his CD's into the disc player of my rusty blue '96 Mazda Protege on those cold, dark Boston mornings.
It was my first year in the 'real world' and like many transitions, it was a struggle. Going from big man on campus (well okay, how about a man on campus?) to the bottom of the corporate food chain took some getting used to, as did getting out of bed by 5:00 am to scrape off that frost-covered windshield.
As I struggled to find my way in a high-pressure work environment by day and began to wean myself off the standard college diet of Natural Light and mac & cheese by night, I found myself feeling a bit lost in this new world.
I was rudderless and unsure of how or if I could succeed in my professional and personal endeavors.
Around this time, I found the self-help guru Tony Robbins, and specifically a set of his motivational CDs. I know, it sounds like something you might buy from a late-night infomercial—and it probably was.
But for me, at that specific moment in time, it turned out to be exactly what I needed. The message was simple (if admittedly, a bit cheesy) and I can still hear Robbins' raspy voice perfectly enunciating the mantra "Every day in every way, I am getting stronger and stronger."
Let me repeat that because it's important.
Every day in every way, I am getting stronger and stronger.
It's actually quite a powerful statement—especially if you believe it to be true.
Robbins knows a thing or two about inspiring people. He's made millions helping people turn their lives around or reach new levels of performance.
And after coaching thousands and inspiring millions of people to take ownership of their lives, what do you think Robbins sees as the single most important factor driving happiness?
He says: "Progress equals happiness. That's because reaching a goal is satisfying, but only temporarily. There are levels of making it in life and whatever you think 'making it' is, when you get there, you'll see there's another level. That never ends, because if you stop growing, you're going to be unhappy.”
There's a concept in psychology known as hedonic adaptation, and what it basically says is this: We are all operating at a baseline level of happiness. When good things happen to us, or when we have a big success, we get happier. Unfortunately, that happiness wears off pretty quickly and we revert to the mean—back to our baseline level. So when we get the big raise or buy the new car or our favorite sports team wins, it's exciting and it definitely makes us happy... but it's a temporary effect.
That's the bad news. The good news is that the opposite is true, too. When we encounter setbacks in our lives—personally or professionally—our happiness can fall off a cliff. But that, too, is temporary. Of course, the more tragic the loss, the longer and deeper the hole we need to dig ourselves out of, but ultimately, we revert back to our baseline level.
Now the obvious question is this: Is it possible to raise our baseline level of happiness?
I'm an optimist by nature, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but I believe the answer is yes.
It comes back to Robbins' idea of progress. To feel happy, content, fulfilled, however you want to put it, we need to be moving toward something, and doing so with intention.
Of course, it helps if that something is bigger than us. In other words, we need a powerful 'why.'
Taking the two together suggests a simple but potentially transformational model:
Powerful Why + Progress = Happiness
Where can this be applied? Really anywhere that we are spending time, energy, and resources.
We can think about this model as it relates to our fitness, our careers, even our parenting or investing.
In all of these cases, the more powerful the 'why,' the more resilience we have for dealing with the inevitable challenges that will arise along the way.
And the more concrete, and dare I say, fun(?), we make it to track our progress, the more likely we are to continue advancing in our desired direction.
If you're a long-time reader, you'll know that one of my favorite ways to track progress and stay motivated is through streaks. I wrote here about how to leverage the power of streaks and gamification to your advantage—whether you're trying to establish a meditation habit or just more consistently show up to the gym.
When we've got a damn good reason to do it, and an easy, highly visible way to track it, we are much more likely to do it—whatever “it” may be. And when we do it—and make progress—the impact on our happiness can be transformational.
One final thought for you on this idea of progress and happiness:
When we are moving toward something with intention, we tend to be more at ease.
We're not floundering and looking around for direction. We're focused, almost to the point of having blinders on. And even if the progress we're making is painstakingly slow and uneven, there is something comforting and calming in knowing that we are advancing in the right direction.
James Clear says we should optimize for the starting line, not the finish line. What he means is that we can't control outcomes. But we can control showing up—getting to the starting line, every day.
The funny thing is, it may not be the finish line that makes us happy anyhow, but rather all those steps we take along the way.
That's it for this week. For all of my readers in the U.S., enjoy your Memorial Day and for everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, happy unofficial start to summer! We're already solidly into the 'sweaty' season here in North Carolina.
Until next week... keep making progress.
Image credit - Lindsay Henwood @ Unsplash.com
Extra credit — Podcasts, Peloton, Packy & Patrick
My best recommendations for the week.
Lewis Howes and Dr. Andrew Weil - This was a really fascinating conversation on alternative medicine, the mind's impact on the body, the downsides of traditional medication (and even coffee — it even got me to buy some green tea matcha powder this week. Will report back. If any of my readers know any good iced green tea matcha latte (without sugar) recipes, let's talk ASAP.)
Peloton Programs - Speaking of progress, for all you Pelotoners, have you tried their new Programs yet? I'm two weeks into the 4-week Total Strength program with Andy Speer and really liking the format. It's the same idea as this whole article. A set plan, a powerful why (getting stronger), and a clear method for tracking progress. I'm a big fan.
Gretchen Rubin & Tim Ferriss - so Gretchen Rubin entered my consciousness this week. She's about the closest you could come to a 'happiness expert.' She even has her own podcast, appropriately titled Happier. Check her out.
You're not getting out of here without some recommendations on cryptocurrency content though because, well, I don’t know… it’s 2021? In the last week, I have consumed the best two pieces of content I've come across on the blockchain Ethereum. If you have any interest in this world, I highly recommend both Patrick O'Shaughnessy's 1-hour discussion with Ethereum co-founder Justin Drake, as well as this explainer/bull-case/primer extraordinaire on Ethereum from Packy McCormick.
That is it, folks. See you next week. And hit me up on those iced green tea matcha latte recipes if ya got ‘em.