On Happiness

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that the times I've felt happiest at work were times when I was in a state of flow which is the state of being fully engaged in a challenging problem that I thought I could solve.

Happiness is not a state or emotion, it’s an evaluation of a state or emotion, an interpretation of the quality of the circumstances you find yourself in. You’re never just happy. You’re happy about something. The same applies to unhappiness.

The pursuit of happiness is therefore futile, because you’ll either be constantly unhappy or realize you can stop at any point and choose to be happy about what you’ve achieved so far. The only risk of stopping is losing motivation.

Many years ago I was super motivated to improve myself. I was reading a lot, learning new concepts and techniques and actually getting good results. Great -- you say -- so what's the problem? The problem was my source of motivation. I was driven by a desire to escape the "nerd" image. 

I was unhappy with how I looked, so I bought new clothes and changed my style. I was unhappy with being shy, so I started going out and became more social. These are wonderful results which I still appreciate to this day, but at one point I questioned my motives. I decided I was happy being a nerd.

Almost overnight my motivation to improve stopped and I haven't been able to reboot it. I have tried setting goals. Yes, many people motivate themselves by moving towards something. They set a goal, an objective, work backwards from the goal, make a plan and follow it. This has not worked for me because it's not the only way.

Many others motivate themselves by moving away from something; an image of themselves they don't like or accept, a terrible past. The closer this thing feels to them the more motivated they are to change. If you find you motivate yourself this way, then acceptance for you means death.

What I've found to work better is to pursue base emotions: sheer joy, deep curiosity, a state of flow, intrinsic motivation, autonomy, relatedness. I've found both curiosity and the state of flow deeply satisfying in my career. It's no wonder these form the basis of intrinsic motivation