My first big opportunity in the auto business came in the summer of 1986 when my father, determined to avoid the nepotism so prevalent in family-owned businesses, purchased a tiny Ford dealership in Honor, Michigan and commissioned my brother and me to run it by ourselves.
We were thrilled at the prospect of being among the youngest dealership owner/operators in the country. And since it was so small–we opened with seven employees–we personally connected with virtually every customer who walked through our doors, getting to know many of them like family over the years.
I recall one local couple in their early 60’s who purchased a new Ford pickup to haul their newly acquired travel trailer. The husband, having worked in a blue collar job all his life, would tell us how much he was looking forward to retirement. “The last few years have been miserable,” he said, “but when I retire and never have to work another day in my life, then I’ll finally be happy.”
But within four years after his retirement party, the happiness that this hard working man so looked forward to never came: he died of a heart attack.
The Illusion of Happiness
Stories like this are all too common; they illuminate a critical perspective of people who live well. Happiness is never a destination. The problem is, we’ve been taught our entire lives that it is–that if you work hard then you will be successful and only then, once you achieve some milestone in your life like getting married, becoming partner in your firm, or, in my customer’s case, retiring from your job, will you be happy.
In his revealing book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor shares some fascinating findings on the relationship between happiness and accomplishment:
“… New research in psychology and neuroscience shows that it works the other way around: We become more successful when we are happier and more positive. For example, doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19% faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.”
Years ago, a friend emailed me a document titled, “The Way to Live” by an anonymous author. I think I’ve shared this simple yet profound treatise on living proactively with hundreds of people:
“We convince ourselves that life will be better after we get married, have a baby, then another. Then we are frustrated that the kids aren’t old enough and we’ll be more content when they are. After that we’re frustrated that we have teenagers to deal with. We will certainly be happy when they are out of that stage. We tell ourselves that our life will be complete when our spouse gets his or her act together, when we get a nicer car, are able to go on a nice vacation, when we retire. The truth is, there’s no better time to be happy than right now. If not now, when?”
I think the reason this advice resonates so strongly with people is that it’s so intuitively true; at some point in our lives, we’ve all succumbed to this line of thinking.
Here’s the BIG IDEA: As we embrace the changes brought by the summer season, remember that the road to success doesn’t culminate in happiness… it begins with it.
What compromises are you making in the pursuit of maximizing your happiness? What would it mean to the quality of your life if your sense of well being wasn’t connected to any future outcome or circumstance, but to the joy of the journey?
This post has been adapted from my 2015 blog post.