This week I have a wonderful guest post by Jesse who takes on the challenging topics of authenticity and happiness. If you like this subject, I recommend you also check out my review of and buy Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness
I always thought that there was a formula to life, a recipe that if you got just right would result in success. And I thought I’d know success when I found it. I’m not even referring to financial success, although that’s always nice. I guess I’m referring to a kind of happiness, though not the kind of euphoria that most folks seem to mistake for happiness generally. As I began to get older, I started to realize that many of the people I’d been emulating all along didn’t have the answer. In fact, nobody I talked to seemed to even have formulated the right questions.
I think this is a feeling many people have, especially if they tend at all toward introspection. And we’re natural imitators. It comes out of our early social construction I suppose. Even our basic likes are borrowed. You may love baseball, but you likely inherited that from your father or older brother. When we start digging into the things that compose our “self” it can look like a layering of borrowed likes. I think that this is what people are referring to when they say they need to go “find” themselves. I think it’s really just a longing for authenticity. What is it that you really like?
In the search for personal authenticity (it’s like buying dodge ram parts), it can be helpful to ask yourself what you really like. We become so accustomed to acting in non-authentic ways that by the time we’re adults we’ve created a subterfuge that even fools ourselves. But do you really like reading Tolstoy novels? Or are you happiest reading cheesy detective novels. We convince ourselves constantly that we like things because we intuit throughout our lives that liking certain things commands more respect from other people. Reading Ulysses always commands more respect than admitting a fondness for old comic books. But I would suggest that we would all be happier if we were less interested in pretension and more focused on what we really truly find pleasurable.
I was nearly thirty when I realized that the education and resulting career path I’d chosen weren’t the result of pursuing what I really liked. I quit my job and went back to college and got a degree in English literature. I realize that most folks can’t just quit a job for four years to pursue a degree that may not have huge economic potential. But if you’re doing something you don’t love and you really wish you’d studied history instead of accounting, you can still do it. Pursuing your original authentic academic interests with online education classes at home in academic areas in which you always had interest means that you can enrich your life without drastically changing your routine. Just because you chose an academic major at eighteen based on income potential, or because your parents wanted you to study medicine or law, doesn’t mean it’s too late to pursue your authentic interests.
There’s a phenomenon that happens to folks as they grow older that’s common enough that we have a name for it in our culture. The “mid-life crisis” as it’s called I think is just a belated response to a longing for authenticity. But a new convertible or some other material acquisition is unlikely to solve anything—although this seems to be a popular way to self-medicate. And it’s understandable. Those of us that have come of age anytime after the post World War II economic boom have been raised in a society driven primarily by consumerism. It makes sense then that we tend to believe, whether or not we’ll actually admit it, that the ability to consume can make us happy. And the ability to consume is measured in dollars. We may not verbalize it, but we’ve internalized consumerist attitudes and tendencies so completely that it still forms our underlying attitudes about success and happiness. And that can form a real roadblock to encountering one’s personal authenticity.
It’s sort of a shame that so many of us don’t encounter true personal authenticity until fairly late in our lives—if ever. I had a conversation with a young man—fresh out of law school—recently and I asked him about happiness. What is it that would make him truly happy? He told me, with no hint of irony, that a $200,000 annual salary by the time he was thirty would be his true measure of personal success. I asked him about happiness and he responded with a definition of personal success. It makes me wonder if we’ve created an entire generation of individuals who’ve tied their ideas of happiness so completely to a vision of financial success that any hope of real personal happiness is almost impossible to achieve.
Finding authenticity isn’t always easy. It’s an inward journey that requires introspection and personal searching. And those things can be difficult to engage in when we’re surrounded by the accoutrement of postmodern life. It’s easy to get sucked into a lifestyle where multi-tasking and work has crept stealthily into our personal lives and we have increasing difficulty staking out time that’s truly ours. I work as hard as I can at my job. And there are times that I bring work home with me. But I try to make that an exception. I’ve begun to get better at defining the difference between success and happiness.
It’s a gradual process. But it’s possible. And it’s a journey. A year ago I began to fall into the habit of working about an hour later every day at my office because of a high priority project. I’d shut my laptop and drive home, give my wife a peck on the cheek and then promptly open my laptop to do a few more work-related items. Guess what? My project was completed on time and under budget, but I continued bringing work home. I was letting my job deprive me of what makes me authentically happy—the simple routine of spending time with my wife and reading in my overstuffed chair while she putters around the house doing what makes her authentically happy. And I’m not reading Tolstoy anymore either; I’m reading Mark Twain. I like it. I like it a lot.
Begin Your Own Quest Toward Finding Happiness in Authenticity
If you find the idea of taking a journey toward authenticity and inner happiness appealing, there are concrete steps you can take to get you started. It’s not a bad idea to take some time to unplug from your normal hectic workweek schedule to pursue some solitude and quiet introspection.
Unplug for a Weekend
This is tougher than it sounds. Spend a quiet weekend without your usual distractions. Shut off your TV, close your laptop and turn off your mobile phone. This may sound easy, but we’ve become so used to over-stimulation and the postmodern barrage of electronic gadgetry, that a shift into uninterrupted solitude can be unsettling. My father used to refer to these kinds of weekends as “hermit weekends.” That’s a good way to think of it. If your surroundings are quiet enough that the loudest sound is the clock ticking on the wall, you’re off to a good start.
Start thinking about what you used to prize more than anything else. I’m not talking about anything work-related either. What did you used to be passionate about? What did you enjoy more than anything else before you became consumed with measuring happiness by financial success? These are usually simple things. For some people it may be a form of communing with nature. Quiet walks, kayaking, hiking in the great outdoors through riotous autumn colors and the smell of wood smoke. Whatever it may be for you, focus on it and identify it.
Re-think Your Goals
Start thinking about the goals you have in place. What are they measuring? Are they motivated by consumption? Do they revolve around material acquisition? If you find yourself answering yes consistently, that’s a great first step to identifying self-built barriers to experiencing real happiness. Begin a process of changing goals from strictly material ones to “happiness” goals.
Substitute Old Goals for New Goals
Shift goals and personal drive away from material goals toward person-centered goals. Personal happiness isn’t the only thing sacrificed on the altar of materialism and conspicuous consumption. The happiness of family members and bonds between spouses and children tend to be casualties of consumption-driven goals as well. The goals we have shape our outlook and activities.
Focus On Relationships
If you’re focused on constantly working overtime to boost income for a new house or new car, you may want to reexamine your motives. Are these things necessities? Or are you single-mindedly pursuing the accoutrement and trappings of success? If a new home isn’t a real necessity, you may find that experiencing simple happiness is a lot easier if you work less and spend more time with family members instead of co-workers. Unhappiness often results from neglecting relationships.
We have a unique way of defining ourselves in Canada and the United States. I first noticed this when traveling through Europe. When I asked people what they did—a common question here in North America—they tended to respond very differently than I was used to. They didn’t respond by giving me their profession. Instead they responded with the activities that made them happy. So rather than saying they were surgeons or lawyers, they might say they were mountain bikers or rock climbers, triathletes or poets. These folks did not define themselves by their professions or by how they made their incomes. They defined themselves by their sources of great happiness. Just changing how you define yourself can make a huge impact on your happiness. Defining yourself as a parent instead of a stockbroker will inexorably begin to shift how you perceive yourself and what your priorities are. If you undertake some serious introspection about authenticity and happiness—and realize it requires a journey—you’re on the right path. The beautiful thing about a journey toward happiness is that it’s really never too early or too late to begin.
Jesse Langley enjoys spending time with his family, watching athletics, and writing about professional and personal development strategies. He writes regularly for Professional Intern
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