Welcome back to part two of this three part series where we explore the simple truth that Happiness is a choice*. We can begin our pursuit of happiness in earnest when we understand its basic framework:
Happiness is honesty: In part 1, we cover our tendency to tell ourselves false stories to excuse/validate our emotions and how honesty can disrupt this destructive habit.
Happiness is authenticity: In part 2, we discuss the economics of spending our time and attention wisely and how living authentically can help us take control.
Happiness is belief: In part 3, we investigate the role of personal beliefs in establishing our mindsets and how we can calibrate them toward happiness.
Sustained Happiness Requires Wise Allocation of Our Finite Resources
We develop and maintain sustained happiness in much the same way that a company achieves sustained profitability. It involves wise allocation of our limited resources in the manner that best supports our personal mission. Each time we chose to spend our time and attention in the manner that is best aligned with the values that support our mission, we experience joy as we are embodying our true (and best) self.
Time and Attention: Our Finite Resources
According to Oxford Reference, a finite resource " is concentrated or formed at a rate very much slower than its rate of consumption and so, for all practical purposes, is non-renewable." Finite resources include things like the amount of diamonds in mines or oil in wells. The fact that they are finite makes them incredibly valuable.
As humans, we have two very clear finite resources: our time and attention. The fact that they can't be replaced makes them infinitely more valuable than any other. Our effectiveness in spending our time and attention determines the ultimate "success" or "failure" of our lives.
Time: Our modern lives are insanely busy. We are constantly being torn between the demands of family, career, community and health (financial, physical and mental). We face considerable stress and anxiety in our vain attempts to be the best at everything we do and to exceed the expectations of everyone around us. If we lose our initiative, we squander the limited time we have and go nowhere. If we drive for perfection, we work ourselves to the bone and never do anything that truly matters.
Attention: Our modern lives are also insanely distracting. We are bombarded with new emails, IM's and phone notifications. We have enough media, entertainment and activities to keep us endlessly occupied. As a result, it is increasingly difficult to develop our ability to intentionally focus our attention. As a society, we cling to the false story that multi-tasking enhances our productivity (it doesn't) rather than admit that we don't have the discipline to remain focused on one thing at a time. This precludes us from ever being able to intentionally experience the true joy of "living in the present moment".
Our Finite Resources Must be Protected from Misuse and Theft
We must take full accountability for the way we spend our time and attention. If we lack the skills to allocate them wisely, we give up control over our decisions. Much like allowing others to influence how we spend our money, this will expose our time and attention to misuse and theft.
From a psychological perspective, we spend our time and attention either seeking external rewards and avoiding external punishment or pursuing internal satisfaction. By allowing ourselves to be influenced by external factors, we give up control to those who own the rewards that we seek or wield the punishments we avoid. Conversely, by driving for internal satisfaction, we take control.
For instance, our boss asks us to work over the weekend to complete a critical project before an urgent deadline, but we had already made plans to go to a concert with our friends. If we make our decision based on external factors, we will not be fully happy with either decision:
If we chose work, we will be distraught with feelings that we have let our friends down and will be unable to let go of blaming work for forcing us to sacrifice fun.
If we chose the concert, we will feel guilty for not being there for our boss and wonder what we missed out on by not contributing to the completion of the project.
Either choice results in dissatisfaction. We will likely blame our boss for hijacking our weekend. However, what it actually highlights is that we never had control in the first place. It is incredibly frustrating when we're confronted with the truth that we have allowed our time to be owned by others.
However, when we have a clear picture of our priorities, we naturally shift our decisions toward the ones that are best for us. Regardless if we choose the concert or work, we are truly satisfied with our decision as it is fully aligned with our values. Although we recognize that there are direct consequences to every choice we make, knowing that our time is being spent wisely provides the necessary resolve for being able to live with the ramifications of our decisions.
Vision is Required to Spend Our Time & Attention Wisely
In the same way that a professional sports team labors over the strategy for building the best team possible within the limits of a salary cap, we must focus on our goal of building our best life within the limits of our resource cap -- time and attention.
In the ideal world, the sports team would be able to spend whatever it takes to get all of the best players on their team. However, this is not possible within the confines of a salary cap. We are faced with a similar limitation in the way we spend our time and attention. We can't possibly do everything perfectly and be everything to everyone.
Building a great team involves a clear strategy and vision. A team isn't going to win if they focus on star players and ignore the rest of the roster. Similarly, they won't win with a solid roster that is devoid of the leadership and cohesion often provided by star players.
In this same way, if we aren't allocating our finite resources strategically and intentionally, we will stagnate, fester and lose. We must start with the end goal in mind, which is to build a life that enables us to reach our full potential.
Our Full Potential is not a "What", but a "Who"
When building a picture of our ideal future, we naturally focus on "what" it looks like, for instance: our monthly income, the cars we drive, the house we live in, the number of children we have, the accolades we will receive.
However, starting with the "what" is backward. It is actually a trap that will never lead to lasting happiness. Let's take a look at two examples to demonstrate:
"I want to be rich and famous. I'm good at acting, which can lead to wealth and admiration. Therefore, I should become an actor to be rich and famous." Since we're focused on the "what", this will be our top priority and we will choose to spend our time and attention on increasing our wealth and fame rather than on other priorities, such as family, friendships, health or even our acting skills! In our single-minded determination, we may behave in ways that make us uncomfortable to achieve our goals as quickly as possible. As we have focused our attention on achieving external rewards, we won't have a solid foundation of who we are. This can lead to complications when we experience the intense levels of wealth, fame and competition that accompany the "what" we worked so hard to achieve.
"I want to have a perfect family. The people I admire are generally married to a spouse with x, y & z attributes by age 25 and have two children by the age of 30. I will pursue a similar path create a perfect family." We will focus our attention on finding a mate with those attributes that also shares a common vision of the "what" we're looking for. However, focusing on the "what" subjugates the far more critical evaluation of whether the "who" we are is compatible. Additionally, building our lives around "what's" can have devastating consequences, as they rely on external forces beyond our control. For instance, our entire vision of our perfect life would be thrown into disarray if we learned after several years of happy marriage that we were infertile and unable to have children.
Eventually, we will either succeed or fail at achieving the "what's" that we strive for. If we have not done sufficient work on building the "who" we want to be, we will be no more happy than we were before we started our quest. We will then re-focus our attention on achieving the next "what" with less available time and attention.
We will only discover the "what's" that will bring us true satisfaction when we are clear on the "who" we want to be.
Our "Who" is Determined by Our Values
Discovering the "who" we are is a life-long pursuit that requires regular attention. The closer we get to embodying our true (and best) self, the more authentically we live, and the happier we become.
We can make an enormous leap in our level of understanding of the "who" we are the very first time visualize what our "best self" looks like. This shows us who we would be if we were not limited by the restraints that are currently holding us back (e.g. job, family, health, wealth, education, gender, sexuality, appearance, unhealthy habits).
Going through the process with honesty, reveals that what truly inspires us about our best self is not their external successes or accolades, but the qualities they possess. They are often the values that most inspire us in others (e.g. courageous, loving, generous, powerful, healthy, wise, passionate, compassionate, humble, creative, productive, strong, virtuous, grateful, insightful, adventurous, funny, honest).
Living authentically involves building the skill to consistently align our thoughts and actions to these qualities. The fact that we have visualized them in our best self means that they are in us waiting to be unlocked. Each step we take towards living authentically builds our capacity for growing into our true (and best) self and experiencing sustained happiness.
* Disclaimer: Along with all posts at Illumed Mind, this is not intended to replace the guidance of a licensed counselor or physician; especially for those who are dealing with trauma or mental illness.