Managing for Happiness

SUMMARY: Isn’t happiness, once you figure it out what “it” is, supposed to be natural and easy? This expectation may be what’s leading me around in circles. This is part 1 in a series exploring some of the counter-intuitive insights I’ve had about re-tuning my expectations toward productivity.

[data]: The past few weeks have been somewhat foggy, despite collecting additional qualitative data with regards to my personal time management. The net result is that while I’ve [gained insight into what factors contribute to my instant-to-instant productivity][data], I haven’t really made traction on satisfaction. My goals appear no closer than they were three weeks ago, and my hopes to achieve an independent lifestyle by 2010 seem somewhat in doubt. What I do know is that this lack of clarity is bringing me down. So, taking advantage of a Southwest Airlines voucher that was on the verge of expiring, I decided to take a trip to visit family in San Jose for a change of scenery.

back to basics

After some deliberation over at The Coffee Society in the Pruneyard this afternoon, I think there are only three enterprises primarily on my mind. Mind you, they are big ones:

  • The Pursuit of Happiness – for me, a balance of community and creativity.
  • Fulfilling Entrepreneurial Ambition – currently, the allure of creating and selling novel, well-designed products and books.
  • Finding Purpose and Passion – my best guess: being part of a culture of creative, generous individuals that are doing intriguing things.

I’m aware of two mechanisms that are under my control that can propel me toward these goals. The first mechanism is opportunity, which comes in three main flavors:

  • Existing low-hanging opportunities (requiring little effort)
  • Developing new opportunities (requiring focused effort)
  • Discovering an opportunity I didn’t know existed (requiring luck and timing)

The second mechanism is producing value in exchange for cash in order to fund my enterprise, which I’ve broken down in order of most appealing to least appealing.

  • Doing things that I like and can get paid for
  • Doing things that I like but don’t have an immediate payoff
  • Doing things that I don’t like but can get paid for
  • Doing things I don’t like, have to do, and don’t get paid for

I have a pretty clear idea, detailed to death, of what constitutes each of these seven mechanisms, and I can even figure out how to hypothetically combine them into a process that generates results. What has been bothering me is a lack of progress despite having gained knowledge of what contributes/detracts from peak productivity. In fact, the week after I stopped doing the graphing I had a terrible sense of not having got anything done at all. Not that I could remember, anyway.

the missing element: oversight

Which leads me to a conclusion that initially seems counter-intuitive: perhaps happiness needs to be managed. That implies metrics and measurement. Before, I’d assumed that so-called “true happiness” would feel effortless and exhilarating once acquired, no tedious number crunching involved. A perfect match between my natural talents and my ordained role in society, true happiness would be the byproduct of harmony between me and the universe. And so, I’ve spent a lot of time surgically applying the knife of reason to the inner workings of my soul, trying to tease out morsels of what talent and purpose are within my grasp. Sure, it’s been a fruitful quest, having lead to numerous insights, but I now find that the search for true happiness sounds suspiciously like the search for true love. While the romantic in me embraces the possibility of such trueness, the pragmatist in me suddenly feels a little sheepish being caught with the bloody knife; I’ve done a lot of cutting, looking for something that perhaps never existed.

If you accept my premise, what does it mean to manage happiness? I think it means that one eventually realized that it doesn’t take that much to be happy, once our basic physical and emotional needs are taken care of. First there’s the need to eat, be clothed, procreate, and have a place where we feel safe. Then there’s the need to have some kind of human fellowship (e.g. trust) with the people that are, by chance and by choice, in the same metaphorical room as us. Once both of those conditions are met, the spark of happiness follows from something that my friend Senia’s father, Zak Maymin, mentioned during dinner the other day. He was speaking in the context of Chess and what he called the passing pawn. The gravitas with which he declared the following truth, weighted further by experience with Soviet, Capitalist, and Libertarian ways of life, struck me (paraphrased below):

To be happy, we need to have the chance to make a big gain.

The Pursuit of Happiness is to have that chance. The odds of success improve drastically by gaming the system; in a word, this is what management is all about. And to do that, you need to have a good sense of what you’ve done, and what you need to build on that to keep going toward the goal.

I haven’t said anything that is not already common wisdom in business or productivity. However, I have increasingly come to suspect the actual feeling of happiness can be synthesized from much smaller bits of measured feedback, like making “Rice Krispy™ treats” from elemental bits of puffed rice, butter, and marshmallows.

Being able to place small acts of achievement into the daily and long term context, measured against the baseline of mere survival, is essentially a management oversight task. The trick for me, then, is to remember management needs something to manage in the first place; the balance between management and production is ultimately what I need to quantify. This kind of balance requires the awareness I’ve gained in my aforementioned [time mapping experiment][data] to help manage the expensive context switch between thinking like a manager and actually creating something. One rule of thumb I’m applying is to ask myself whether my current activity will expand the number of considerations or refine/distill them; the former is an act of foresight and management, while the latter is an indicator of an applied creative process.