If I go by the highly scientific measure of happiness that is my Facebook news feed, I would have to say that 2016 was one of the worst years in recent memory for a lot of people
As such, it makes me uncomfortable to say that for me, at least, 2016 was actually a great year. I married the love of my life, I finished the first draft of a novel for the first time, I worked for a tech startup that had a pretty good year.
Sure there were challenges, and certain events in the world were hard to ignore and were more than a little depressing. But, I also firmly believe and subscribe to Stephen Pinker’s view that despite recent world events, the world is getting better.
Looking back and being grateful for what went well is a great practice, but I wouldn’t have started a website called The Happiest Man in the World if I were going to stop there. I say this because in addition to things that went well, and things that went poorly, there were also things that I learned, and while I like to believe I learned quite a bit in 2016, there’s one particular lesson that I wanted to share.
So, what is this transcendent truth? In 2016, I learned that the quest for self-improvement is hurting our collective happiness.
This was really hard to swallow, because I’m a little bit of a self-improvement junkie. In fact, one could easily qualify this site as a self-improvement blog. But alas, in 2016 I realized that this single-minded pursuit of being better, more efficient, more productive, leaner, smarter, was the thing that was making me most unhappy.
And here’s why.
The Pursuit of Unattainable Goals
I, myself, have long said that it’s important to enjoy the journey as opposed to anticipating the destination. Easier said than done. Especially with self-improvement goals that tend to never be “done.” You’re chasing a spike of happiness that never seems to come. You can always be more efficient, more productive, leaner, stronger, etc.
So, we run after these goals and we try to do all that we can to attain them, but we never succeed. This causes us to double down and focus so hard on goals, that eventually we get frustrated that we’re not achieving them, and get distressed.
Let me use an example that I am still struggling to fix. You may be familiar with the concept of Inbox Zero, whereby every day you bring your email inbox down to zero by reading, replying or consciously deferring every single email in your inbox. Most people think this is insane, but I have successfully used Inbox Zero for nearly five years. That’s right, for five years now, every inbox I have has made it down to zero at least once per day.
Contrast this with my wife who at the time of this writing has approximately 9,275,496,796 unread email messages in her Gmail inbox (okay, maybe a little less).
The thought of that many emails in my inbox is enough to give me a nervous tick. It physically hurts me. And yet, somehow, my better half seems to make it through life just fine. How is that possible, I wondered?
And then I realized something. The psychic stress of getting my inbox down to zero wasn’t making me more productive, it was making me less productive, and less happy. If I have unread email in my inbox, this weighs on my conscience and I need to act on it. I’ve dealt with my inability to cope with chaos by simplifying things to maximum.
That’s good, right? No! It’s not. Because all it means is that when I am confronted with chaos, I get stressed. Is it OCD or is it just me taking time management and productivity to an absurd level? My inbox will never be at zero for more than a few seconds, so is it better to fight that fight or just accept that and learn to deal with it?
The conclusion I’ve come to is that by trying to remove psychic stress from my life I’m actually doing myself a disservice.
The Focus on the Self
The other problem with self-improvement comes from the world “self.” I believe that most self-improvement advice comes from a place of helping people to be the best that they can be, and as such, is well-intentioned. However, somewhere between the original intention and the actual execution, we confuse our objectives.
This became most clear to me while I was reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I remember first seeing this book in high school, on the desk of two of my friends’ dads. In both cases, both men were highly successful executives. Since then, I’ve always had this image of this book as the ultimate guide to career success. And yet, for some reason, it took me nearly two decades to actually read it. Go figure.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that only three of the seven habits had to do with improving oneself, another three had to do with interacting with others, and the seventh had to do with recovery. Not only that, but the entire book focuses on building not the practices and habits to become “effective,” but in building the character to properly interact with and lead people. This self-help book spent less than a third of the total number of pages actually focused on the self!
I thought about this for a while, and realized that my quest for self-improvement had made me… well… selfish. Not selfish in that I didn’t care about the needs of others, but selfish in that I didn’t think of them. Sound the same? It’s not. You see, if I was aware that someone was in need of something, I would be more than willing to help them out. I think most people would be. The problem for me, and I think the problem for most selfish people, is that I was so inwardly focused, that I didn’t even realize when other people needed something.
When you create self-improvement goals, you tend to get obsessed with completing them. As a result, you rearrange your life to achieve your goals and you start looking for things to give up in order to make room for them. You may start by giving up television, and that’s great. Then, you might start cutting out one night a week of hanging out at the bar with your buddies. But pretty soon, you realize that you’ve given up most of your social time in order to work on your goals.
But wait, let’s take a step back. What is it that truly makes you happy? For me, I’m at my happiest when I’m spending time with people I care about. So, why am I sacrificing what makes me happy in the pursuit of… happiness?
This became clear to me when a friend of mine said, “Man, it’s been too long since we hung out.”
And I replied, “Yeah. Sorry, I’ve been super busy.”
Then I stopped to think about what I was busy doing and I asked myself, what’s more important? Writing another five hundred words? Making another $100? Reading another book? Or spending time with the handful of people that I already know are most important to me?
Some self-help gurus will tell you that’s a worthwhile short-term sacrifice. I think that’s bullshit. No one ever lay on their deathbed and regretted spending too much time with friends and family.
The pursuit of self-improvement goals are important, but they’re not the most important. What’s most important is social ties.
The Most Important Lesson I Learned in 2016
So, if I had to summarize the most important lesson I learned in 2016, it’s this:
Life is about relationships. Happiness is about relationships. Self-improvement for the sake of self-improvement is useless. Self-improvement for the sake of building stronger relationships is the only improvement worth striving for.
How about you? What did you learn in 2016? I’d love to find out. Drop a note in the comments and let me know.