This week at The Center we started the year off talking about happiness. If you are keeping up with the news lately it seems like the topic of happiness is everywhere.
In fact, the most popular courses in Harvard Business School and the Yale School of Management are both about happiness.
What they are teaching is this: the popular concept of happiness in America is wrong.
When students from Harvard are asked if they think they will be happier in life from 27 to 37 and from 37 to 47 they all think they will be happier, but they also think this happiness will decline when they are around 70.
Based on the most up to date research in happiness, they are wrong. Overall happiness generally decreases until the mid 50’s and then goes up only to eventually plateau in the mid 60’s.
However, this plateau is a split in the data. Half of people over 65 greatly increase in happiness over the last few decades of life. Whereas the other half rapidly plummets in the amount of happiness they experience.
In response to this reality, professor Arthur Brooks from Harvard recommends 3 things for people to do to make sure they increase in happiness:
- He recommends we get on our second curve — that we switch from continuing to build our gifts and knowledge to giving away our gifts and knowledge to others in order to help them grow.
- Second, he says we should chip away the jade. Literally, we need to chisel away the excess wants, desires, and possessions we have to discover what truly matters. A reverse bucket list if you will.
- Lastly, he suggests we tend to our roots by getting connected to other people in greater ways by living our lives in community.
Howard, here are two broad questions:
- Is the Harvard Study and Author Brook’s findings just about finishing well? What can younger people, such as myself, learn from all this?
- You often mention that “The act of striving to gain for yourself is stressful – whereas the act of giving yourself is joyful and fulfilling.” How does this truth relate to happiness, our 2nd curve, and the reverse bucket list — especially for those of us who are continuing to grow in knowledge, skills, experience and relationships?
A quick answer is yes — Brooks’ findings apply to everyone, not just those in their 60’s and 70’s.
Those are great questions from a great study. Yes, we keep acquiring people, relationships, knowledge, etc. This is Arthur Brooks’ life work. He is doing what he recommends and the link to his video is in the show notes, it’s called From Strength To Strength. He gave this talk to the alumni of Harvard Business School.
The two major things he talks about are giving away what we have and staying connected, and the Bible agrees with these two points. Giving away and staying connected are of vital importance.
Let’s start by using some scriptures from the Bible as a frame of reference. Paul had accomplished a lot in his life both prior to becoming a Christian and definitely afterward. Here is what he said in the middle of his journeys in Philippians 4:11-13, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Some well meaning people take this to mean they can accomplish whatever they want, but that is a misreading of the verse. What Paul is really saying is that when you are connected to Christ and his people, you will be content in any circumstance you are in.
The Downside Of Being Driven
On the other hand, Ecclesiastes 1:14 says, “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” This chasing after the wind is a stark contrast to what Paul is talking about. Ecclesiastes goes on to talk about how there is a season for everything, but it really does not get specific about when those things will happen to us.
This is what I talk about with people all the time. They say they need to charge the hill and they are driven, but the problem with over-emphasizing being driven is that it’s bad theology. People think it’s all up to them. The phrase “If it’s going to be it’s up to me” is awful. Thinking that if anything is going to happen it’s going to be up to me creates lots of stress. When you think you have to do something by some specific date, or else, you get stressed. This is true for skills, experiences, jobs, titles, money, recognition, revenue, acquisition of stuff, and ways to add fulfillment.
What Brooks is showing us is that there is a season for acquiring, but the real joy comes when you are sharing. What I’m saying is that the Bible says that over and over. So, for fun, we’ve attached an image of Brooks’ graph of happiness over time contrasted with the amount of stuff we acquire over time. Again, that’s people, children, and great gifts. Those things are all good, but the period in which people are climbing the corporate ladder and the amount of happiness people experience are directly inverted.
Acquiring stuff doesn’t make people happy, it’s not about circumstances. We all tend to think that if we get more stuff, then we will be happy. Once I get to the title, once I get to lead more people, etc. Our graph is a crude example, but give it a look in the show notes.
That’s what Ecclesiastes is telling us — it’s all striving after the wind. Here’s how the Book of Ecclesiastes ends,“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” Contentment, happiness, and satisfaction boils down to following God’s word. Joshua 1:8 is clear about this, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” This isn’t health and wealth, it’s a redefinition of what success is.
The answer to avoiding bitterness and discontent at the end of life is to get rooted in God and be connected with others. Being rooted informs the rest of your life. This is Brooks’ first point.
Give To Grow
Now, let’s address his second and third points. Either way, whether you are early on in your career or in retirement, you need to be giving away what you’ve got. Growth in Christ and growth as a leader never stops. Giving what you have for others should also start young. In fact, today, we had a 23 year old say his goal for the year is to share more of his life with others. That’s exactly what we all need to be doing.
As we share what we have, we also grow in our gifts. It’s not one or the other. Let’s look at the parable of the talents to show this. “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” – Matthew 25:14-21. This is what we all want to hear at the end of our lives. The first servant fully deployed his gift. There is no stage of life where we are not deploying our gifts. We have a diagram that shows how we find purpose at work — by deploying our gifts to the needs of the world. The diagram is in the show notes.
When we put our gifts to the needs of the world, we grow faster personally, professionally, and spiritually. Young professionals often feel a heavy burden from all the stuff they feel like they have to learn. I know I felt that burden. All this striving for yourself early in your career will cave in on itself. It’s like digging a pit that caves in on top of you.
If you focus on developing your gifts by putting them to use to serve others today you will develop faster than by just focusing on all the stuff you need to learn. When we lay our lives down for others by caring for them, it’s good for us too. This giveaway is the secret to happiness and satisfaction in life.