In pursuit of happiness

Happiness? Is that you?
Happiness? Is that you?

Does looking at this animation make you feel happy? What if I told you it depicts a myosin protein dragging a sack of endorphins to the inner part of the brain, to the parietal cortex, that its role in the brain is to literally transport happiness, that you are directly witnessing physical happiness?

Knowing this should probably make you feel a little happier, if not relieved, since the phrase, "... and the pursuit of happiness " is perhaps the world's most famous unalienable right.

The insatiable drive to find happiness can supersede conventional incentives in driving innovation. Many of the altruistic reasons for society's advancements in the natural and social sciences, literature, technology and even entrepreneurship, to name just a few, can be attributed to the pursuit of happiness.

Mankind is so driven by the pursuit and so desperately wants to find it that it would do anything to bottle it up, frame it, hang it on the wall, swallow it inside of a pill and even make believe its whereabouts. People pay for what people want. This simple truth has turned happiness into big business, today.

Given the truth of this statement, it should not be hard to believe that the protein depicted above is not a myosin at all—  it shares no relationship with the state of mind we humans call happiness. The image simply depicts a kinesin protein moving cellular matter along a filament.

Do you really feel less happy now, and would it really matter if the image were of an authentic endorphin anyway?

The answer is no. You aren't less happy now and you weren't happier when you saw it for the first time, because happiness isn't just found by pursuing it, it is found from pursuing it. It's not found at the end of the tunnel, it's written on the walls. Happiness is the pursuit. Its explanation would only hamper its effect.

With the above in mind, let's look at happiness from an entrepreneurial perspective for a moment.

Finding Happiness

How happy are you?

As entrepreneurs, we should be the happiest people. Having our own business means we can create our work shaped entirely to fit us. We are doing something personally meaningful, using our strengths, and totally immersed and engaged in the work we do. It rarely gets better than that!

But, entrepreneurs are not as happy as they appear on the outside. We experience the highest degree of stress, have the highest level of anxiety, and fall into depression more than any other field. With a passionate purpose and the independence to work our own way, how does this happen?

Why are you not as happy as you could be?

I have thought about happiness a lot. And I’ve studied it in the last several years. My business partner once asked me how happy I was (after I had complained about my lot in life). I had to go away, list what made me happy, and then assess my experience (once an analyst, always an analyst) and I came back and answered 67%. I was 67% happy.

Even though I could articulate what made me happy and actually measure it, I still couldn’t shape my life to be happy. Or wouldn’t. In working with entrepreneurs and through my own research I found that I am definitely not alone in this. Despite working in an environment that most other people would say provides a tremendous opportunity for happiness, we don’t feel it. Why is this?

Maybe the best approach to answering this question begins with first defining what it means to be happy.

No question, these are murky waters. There are so many ideas and feelings about what happiness is that an objective definition is likely impossible. But the definition that has most resonated with me is that happiness is being content with who you are, what you have and what you do with that. This works for me.

Let’s break this definition down and see how it may answer why we entrepreneurs aren’t as happy as we could or should be.

For me, being content with who you are is the real kink in the garden hose. I think as entrepreneurs our greatest strength -- having a passionate vision -- can actually become a limiting weakness, both for our business and our sense of happiness.

The business we create becomes our self-identity -- where we get our worth. More than 80% of entrepreneurs at all stages of business building, either completely or mostly relate their personal value to the success of their company.

Starting and growing a business is loaded with stress, pressure and ups and downs. You can quickly see how that would affect our ability to be happy. And what happiness we get is fleeting as the winds change how the business is doing monthly, weekly, and daily. Even more, we live in a gap -- no matter what we achieve with our venture, we look at the horizon for the next goal. We just can’t get to happy.

So what about being content with what you have?

Most entrepreneurs start their business to make a difference. Going back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we become business owners to create meaning and to make a positive impact. In theory, these are higher levels of needs. They move us to a sustainable place of well-being and lasting happiness.

But security needs get in the way of vision by overly stressing most entrepreneurs: “is there enough money to pay myself, will the market and investors accept my ideas and do I belong and have a place in this community?”

We can’t be happy when we’re worried about surviving all the time. We lose the meaning of our vision when we’re forced to claw and scratch just to keep our heads above water.

Although the idea of starting a business brings about a vision of independence, as entrepreneurs we have to meet the expectations, commitments, and demands of others. We need to comply to perform. Expectations, commitments, demands? I don’t feel like I’m running through sunny fields of flowers with that pressured picture in mind.

Despite all the demands emplaced on an entrepreneur to perform, I think we have the opportunity for incredible happiness in our lives, but we give it away in trying to play the game other people create for us. Inevitably, we become anxious and even depressed. Medication, caffeine, alcohol and longer hours don’t help lead us to a sense of well-being, despite their popularity as things a lot of entrepreneurs try in order to mitigate stress.

Despite the opportunity, our environment is not shaped to fit us. This is what keeps us from being happy.

I think we have to step back, zoom out and see how we can play our own game again. How can we create the best working environment to bring us meaning to make ourselves happy?

First, we need to develop our own personal self-identity -- a self-identity hinged on the success of our business won’t cut it.

What are your values? What is your vision for the difference you want to make and the life you want to live? What brings you that feeling of positive well-being? This is about who you are. Your business is just part of it.

Once we understand the factors that contribute to our happiness, we can begin to assess what we have. What are the strengths you bring to your business? What are you grateful for? What have you achieved? What have you done well? And what are your best opportunities to make differences that matter to you? Be confident about what you have.

From there, we can test the waters in terms of what we are doing with who we are and what we have. What has worked for you and how do you build on that? What hasn’t worked and what needs to change? What have you learned to support you going forward? What you do with who you are and what you have is your decision – it is under your control.

As entrepreneurs, we have a great opportunity to create the lives we want for ourselves. All that we need to do to realize this opportunity is take the game back. Becoming content with who we are and what we have and continuing to do what matters most to us is the key.

Remember, happiness is an outcome not a goal. Material possessions and hitting targets will not create happiness.

If we shape our own environment we can get to happy. No one else can do it for us.