What’s your happiness proxy?

happiness proxy

This is day 28 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question “Why should accomplishment not be your main priority?” More info here.

Ever since I was 7 years old, I thought productivity was a magical thing. I had just started playing violin, and I made a nice little chart with dates that I taped on my wall. Every day when I practiced for 20 minutes, I put a little check mark in the appropriate box.

Some nights, lying in bed, I would jolt awake realizing that I hadn’t practiced, and hop out of bed to put in my 20 minutes in my pajamas. Apparently my 7-year-old self hadn’t read up on the science of sleep yet.

These days, I still act like productivity is a magical thing – and by “magical thing,” I mean a proxy for happiness.

You can’t wake up and try to be happy, so most of us wake up and try to be something else. I try to be productive; Fred tries to achieve freedom; other people probably try to be good parents, altruistic, or healthy.

I suspect productivity is one of the most common happiness proxies. As Shawn Achor explains in The Happiness Advantage, “Most individuals follow a formula that has been subtly or not so subtly taught to them by their schools, their company, their parents, or society. That is: if you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy.” He spends the rest of the book explaining why this formula is “broken,” and it’s actually happiness that leads to success.

But if science isn’t enough to dethrone productivity, we can just look at our own lives. Lately, I’ve been hyper-aware of the negative consequences of deifying productivity: I begrudge a weekday trip to the grocery store because I “should” be working; I get irritated at Fred because he’s not getting out the door fast enough, wasting time; I ignore stress and persist, which makes my stress worse.

The problem with productivity as a happiness proxy is that – at least as I conceptualize is – it’s not a trait but an action. When I’m working, I’m (usually) productive; when I stop working, I cease being productive and start itching to be productive again. That’s probably one of the reasons why people become workaholics: because productivity is their self-worth and their supposed path to happiness, so being at home makes them feel lost and frivolous.

A workable happiness proxy should be some kind of trait that we have all the time, or at least more of the time. Productivity is hard (not impossible) to apply to leisure time, and to do so you have to fight the cultural stigmas against play, self-indulgence, and doing nothing. Goals like being authentic, brave, or grateful might be easier to apply.

It’s not enough to say, “Authenticity is my new goal” and be cured. As Gretchen Rubin points out, we all have “True Rules” for behavior, or rules of thumb that we unconsciously follow. Mine include “If you have free time, work”; “To-do’s must be finished, no matter what”; and “TV is a waste of time.” We have habitual emotional patterns that won’t disappear with the snap of a magician’s fingers. The only way to change our happiness proxy is to put in the hard, introspective, emotional, honest work – but remember to cut ourselves some slack along the way. We’re not productivity monsters, after all.

Photo by Flickr user mikerastiello

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