In this column, I’ve written about the Happiness Equation (Happiness = Reality – Expectations) and the importance of working/living with a sense of autonomy for true happiness.
An exclusive interview with Dr. Annie McKee (University of Pennsylvania) got me thinking more about what prevents us most from being happy. McKee is the author of How to Be Happy At Work and shared with me five happiness traps that can well, trap us, and how to escape being snared by each one.
1. The should trap.
McKee told me many U Penn seniors reported that they hated their internships, yet if offered a job, they’d take it. It’s an example of doing something you think you should because of the prestige or expectations.
You’ve probably met (or may be) a person several decades into their career who is still falling victim to the “shoulds.”
To avoid this trap, McKee says look at your work-life decisions and ask “Why did I choose A over B?”, “Why did I take that job/move to that city?” Was it driven by a “should” or a “want to”?
I pile on to this sentiment in my book “Find the Fire” with light-hearted (yet serious) advice to periodically say to your inner-self (or someone that needs it), “I’m gonna slap the should out of you!”
I never claimed civility as a core strength.
2. The overwork trap.
Inundation is the new black. McKee reiterated how easy it is to work 24-7 if we wanted to. And we might come close to actually doing this because of our need to keep up with the other person, because we’re insecure, or for many other reasons.
McKee says this about the solve:
“It’s simple but so hard. Turn the phone off. Look at your calendar and ask, what do I want to do, what must I do, and what has ended up on my calendar because someone thinks it should be there (these things sap our energy). Every day at work build in time for quiet reflection. Take a lunch break without working through it.”
3. The ambition trap.
“Ambition is great until it’s not,” says McKee. Reaching beyond and stretching ourselves is great. But many become trapped by their own ambition; all they do is go for goal after goal after goal. They don’t enjoy it, it’s the chase they focus on, which soon feels empty.
So first figure out if your ambition is healthy or not. If you don’t enjoy achieving your goals or are hyper-competitive with your peers, you’re likely in this trap.
If so, stop thinking about short-term goals/ the next promotion and start thinking about what you want in life. Where do you want to be 5-10 years from now? What do you want said about you as a person?
Short term goals don’t feed us like the big, long-term vision.
4. The money trap.
This one’s related to ambition, and you know the drill.
People stay in bad jobs for a paycheck, take promotions they didn’t want for more money, or endure misery holding out for the next pay raise. But it doesn’t feed your soul, and most often it’s never enough.
So what to do?
Obviously, it starts with getting yourself financially unstuck so you don’t have to stay in a job that’s making you unhappy just for the paycheck. You already know this.
What’s insightful and interesting, however, is people’s definition of being “financially stuck”. Often, in honest conversation, you learn that they’re actually financially stable by definition, but in truth, they want more than they truly need. They may be unwilling to lower any standard of living element, blind to the alternative, deeper happiness that could be enabled as a result.
The key here is to neutralize money as a motivator in your life so you can focus on things that will bring true happiness.
5. The helplessness trap.
This one’s the most dangerous of all, according to McKee. When you feel disempowered, like a victim of your circumstances, it’s a dangerous place to be as it’s hard to take bold steps.
If you used to be glass-half-full or now find yourself hanging out and conspiring with cynics, you may be in this trap.
Recognize when you’re starting to complain, blame, or go negative as a pattern. Enroll friends to not play into this with you, accept your part in what’s gone wrong, and take charge by mapping out the life you want versus the one you’re living.
Net, there are enough traps in life to get caught in. Just get caught up in crafting your happiest life.
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