Last week I asked the wrong question: What is your definition of success? I wondered about happiness and about accomplishment and how the twain shall meet. But my real question was “how do we have a basically fulfilling life?” And I think the answer is that “meaning” is what leads to a sense of fulfillment and happiness. This is not exactly a news flash, so why do we spend so much of our time in the land of accomplishment, comparing ourselves with the competition, working toward a raise or promotion, and simply trying to just get shit done?
I started reading Martin Seligman’s new book Flourish. So far it answers the question of what leads to “well-being.” Interestingly, happiness is relegated to just one piece of the pie and this he calls Positive Emotion. Ya know: smiling a lot. The others pieces are Flow or Engagement, Relationship Building, Love, Meaning (which is something bigger than the self), Gratitude, and finally Success or Mastery for its own sake, which he calls Accomplishment. This is a much clearer picture of what it takes. It’s a nice checklist. You can look at it and say, “Oh that’s why this month sucks: no relationship building.” Or, “What am I missing? No mastery. Got it.”
Last week I was in a bit of a funk and for no apparent reason, it seemed. I was getting all kinds of accolades and juicy bits of success, which were meaningful because I love my work, and I was having terrific lunches with friends (relationship building), and my health was good and I appreciated it (gratitude). What was missing? Ah! No flow! Flow is a big part of my life when I’m writing — it’s about being so caught up in what you’re doing you don’t notice the time fly by. When mid-week I started writing 2 new comedy songs, things turned around.
One of the things Seligman talks about is how much energy many of us put into accomplishment, but it’s often pursued even when it brings no positive emotion, no meaning, and no positive relationships. There is a piece of this that is important and that’s mastery. This looks like winning for the sake of winning. This is a part of well-being, but in our culture of winner-takes-all it can become our main focus, swallowing up all our time without our stopping to notice that it’s not doing much for us in a big-picture-am-I-happy sort of way.
But how do we stop? The addictive nature of achievement is supported by the culture. Yeah, there’s meditation, there’s vacation, there’s really good and surprisingly cheap Chardonnay, and of course sex. And sometimes all together. But the next morning, many of us just pick up where we left off, go to work and spend the day grasping for more “success.”
A checklist like this might help. Separating the bits of one’s day, week, year, life with a look at the pieces of the pie is helping me step back and see if I’m giving enough time to each part of the Well-Being cocktail. Like a Long Island iced tea, mixed properly, you won’t wake up each day hungover, wondering why you’re depressed.
But one other thing I noticed in this plan is that almost all of it involves other people. Gratitude is often about others: Better Relationships and Love are (duh), “Meaning” which is caring about something bigger than yourself can be about saving the planet which is in part about caring for people and our future, and Accomplishment has something to do with what others think of you, or at least offers an opportunity to gloat/share/wonder with others. So I’m taking a look at what each of these on this checklist has to offer my life in connection to other people and to give that some weight and attention.
It’s the people, stupid.
Right now I’m on a plane with my cute kid (Gratitude), on the way to a vacation (Positive Emotion), to see family (Relationship Building, Love), writing this piece and finishing a song (Flow), and tackling my new music software (Mastery), while trying to figure out the formula for well-being and writing this song that satirically criticizes federal budget cuts (Meaning).
Check, check check, check, check, check, check. With a flourish.