Happy New Year and how to find it (happiness)

A couple of years ago I was approached by a client who was frustrated and annoyed by a recent NPS (Net Promoter Score) survey carried out on his staff. Since a major re-alignment of the business this score had taken a big dive and had gone from being a strength to a weakness. So much so that the prevailing mood of unhappiness in the company had led to dramatic increases in staff turnover and markedly poorer performance against targets.

His frustration and annoyance was that as far as he could see his people were being indulged with benefits that he wouldn’t have dared dream about when he was starting out himself. Pay rises, unlimited holiday, goldfish bowls in reception, transparent communications had all been introduced with as much vigour as possible but it seemed to him were just being taken for granted.

They weren’t happy, he didn’t know why and it was a major problem.

The meaning of life is happiness. Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what makes happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What makes true happiness?”

This was the Dalai Lama on being asked The Big Question in 1991. But modern researchers into the psychology of happiness, like Dan Gilbert, have found that we are innately poor at predicting what will make us happy. If we pursue happiness guided only by our intuition we’re inclined to head off in the wrong direction (albeit in directions that made sense 150,000 years ago).

So for 2020, here are four practical ways to help address the question of what makes true happiness, which might usefully be applied to yourself, your colleagues and your staff.

Sensory happiness

This is the happiness that we feel as a result of what we experience, things we can touch, see, feel, taste and hear. The great thing is that we can generally see practical ways to improve these sorts of things: if you like eating in a restaurant go to a better one and you’ll enjoy it more.

While this is logical, we know from experience that it can falter in practice and reach a plateau. Worse still, when we’re eating breakfast, lunch and dinner every day at The Waterside Inn it can even end up dipping back downwards. Often, pursuit of sensory happiness can end up being an attempt to recreate the unique thrill and excitement of the first experiences we had.

It’s not to put down this type of experience and happiness but it is to highlight that it can be hard to build on. Will the £100,000 I spend on a new car reach the levels of happiness I got when I bought my first one for £1,000?

Within the realm of sensory happiness, unfortunately, genetics seems to be the most important factor. Some people are born and are, happier than others. We get used to everything over time. In fact, when researchers have been able to measure the persistent happiness over time of people who suffer either a catastrophic event (losing limbs) or a fortunate one (winning the lottery) they find that we return to our base level of happiness after two years.

So sensory experience makes us happy up to a point, but we are generally wrong in expecting that investment of time, money and effort towards these goals will continue to yield the same marginal increases in happiness over time.

This is why the pay rises and goldfish bowls above weren’t having the desired effect of creating greater happiness.


What happens when we’re truly immersed in an activity? It could be running, playing an instrument, playing a really good computer game, getting lost in something. Often we lose sense of time; all of a sudden it’s dark outside and we realise we haven’t eaten for eight hours. Other thoughts and distractions have fallen away and our focus has been very much on the here and now and the matter in hand. So much so that sometimes we can’t easily recall all of the detail of what we’ve actually been doing. But generally we have a very real sense that we have definitely been doing something.

This is Flow, much studied and written about by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He famously came up with the dictum that we need to spend 10,000 hours on something to become genuinely expert at it. The thing about the satisfying nature of being in a flow state is that it encourages us to do the work to improve our ability and reach points of expertise. It’s the ultimate virtuous circle, and from a work point of view it’s exponentially productive.

This is because being in a Flow state creates a profound form of contentment, of happiness. And in contrast to the sensory happiness above, the happiness we derive from being engaged in something keeps increasing rather than reaching a level and then tailing off.

What does this mean? Once you know what creates a sense of flow in an individual, increasing the time they spend on these tasks will 1) increase their proficiency at them and 2) increase their net happiness. Genes don’t come into it. If you get into a state of flow by riding your bike or poring over actuarial tables, at the end of the year, the more time you’ve spent doing it the happier you’ll have been.


Going back to the earlier problem of the sinking NPS score, I mentioned that the drop had coincided with ‘a major re-alignment of the business’. This only had a direct effect on senior managers and didn’t alter the day to day reality for the majority of staff. Apart from in one way: the senior managers complained about it to anyone who’d listen.

And the story was essentially that the new strategy was ill-considered, didn’t make sense at all and was purely the result of short-sighted and selfish personal agendas of certain members of the company’s board.

What we realised in the coaching was that the message to staff was very clear: your work is meaningless and serves no worthwhile purpose.

The goldfish bowls and Christmas parties had been crushed by this removal of meaning and brought the NPS score crashing down with it. In this case the resolution was found by putting senior management in place who did buy into the re-alignment strategy which could then convey a message to staff that what they did mattered after all. Six months later NPS actually peaked at its highest level ever.

This is the power of meaning: its absence can leave people bereft. On the other hand, a sense that things really do matter can create a profound form of contentment: that things makes sense and that my place in the world and the story I tell myself is coherent and positive.

Creating a sense of meaning for yourself and people you work with is always a matter of construction and interpretation which, crucially means that choices and decisions that we make can positively influence it. There are practical elements too of course: recognition, CSR and values that are genuine, authentic and consistent with the story to be told.

Buddhists like the Dalai Lama propose that all human suffering and dissatisfaction is caused by finding a gap between how things seem and how we’d like them to be. Thinking of what we do as being meaningful closes this gap.

Achieving your potential

Everyone experiences anxiety and guilt (although when I tell people that they’re normally surprised having thought of themselves as a bit of an exception). Within our ‘own world’ or Eigenwelt, there is self-awareness, perhaps the defining thing of what we consider to be human.

We also have standards and expectations for ourselves. Above and beyond anything we’ve learned or inherited, we have a sense of guilty responsibility to reach our potential. This “arises from the fact that I can see myself as the one who can choose or fail to choose” (Rollo May, 1958). This is a deep subset of our relationship with meaning, and shows itself in the pride and sense of resolution we get by doing the right thing and in achievement.

It points to a moral life, where you don’t compromise on your values and principles but also one where you achieve the things you have set out to do. Being existentialist, it’s all relative of course; Daniel Kahneman points out that the attainability of ambitions you set for yourself are a crucial element in how likely you are to achieve them. He advises that setting the goal of being a rock star is likely to be met with disappointment. Apparently though, Rod Stewart gets the most satisfaction from his train set, which some might think is shooting a bit too low.

Either way making choices that allow you to reach your potential – which can be defined in myriad ways – is a central thread of our personal search for meaning. Being challenged is an integral part to a sense of achievement. My client had created an environment that was indulgent but lacked a meaningful sense that worthwhile things were being striven for. Who wants to feel that they live in a gilded cage?

Summing up

Getting serious about happiness can seem rather joyless when it emphasises that so many of the things that we want to do – buy that new coat, go to that new restaurant etc. – don’t move the dial that much. The point isn’t that we shouldn’t do them but that we should recognise the potential for other things to have a bigger impact and consider strategies to allow more room for them, by spending as much time as possible doing things that engage us, seem meaningful and are personally fulfilling and challenging.

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