The categories of happiness

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Yesterday, I read an article that was sitting in my “to read” folder for a while. It is called: “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” by Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. Most of the article is highly technical but I encountered two interesting paragraphs that I want to share. Today I want to talk about this paragraph from the article:

We work under the assumption that happiness is a scientifically unwieldy term and that its serious study involves dissolving the term into at least three distinct and better-defined routes to “happiness”… : (a) positive emotion and pleasure (the pleasant life); (b) engagement (the engaged life); and (c) meaning (the meaningful life). Our recent research suggests that people reliably differ according to the type of life that they pursue and, further, that the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits toward all three, with the greatest weight carried by engagement and meaning… We continue to use the word happiness, but only in the atheoretical sense of labeling the overall aim of the positive psychology endeavor and referring jointly to positive emotion, engagement, and meaning.

Like every other goal in life, the first step to achieving it is to break it into smaller, easier to handle, steps. In some way or another, all of us have the goal of “being happy” somewhere in or mental to-do list. However, I think that this breakdown into three distinct categories is a great way to start the long journey towards it.

In addition I like the fact that authors emphasize two important issues:

  1. People differ in the proportion of significance they put on each category.
  2. One category by itself is never enough, it is about a mix. This means that the people who are trying to sell us a silver-bullet solution to happiness are scan artists. It also means that it is not wrong to dwell in a little bit of transient pleasure now and then. Life is not only about meaning and engagement but also about simple hedonistic delight.

In particular, the breakdown into three distinct categories can help managers and leaders create better environments and workplaces. A mix and match of the three categories allows for better planning of a happy workplace. More importantly, the understanding of the preferences of each individual allows for a personalized approach that supports and sustains the individual employee’s motivation and happiness levels.

So, how do you think about happiness in your own personal life and in your work setting? Do you find the three categories to be helpful?


Full citation: Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson (2005) “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” American Psychologist Vol. 60, No. 5, 410–42

Stumbling on Happiness: Book Review

I will begin with the conclusion: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert is a must read. It is important however, to read it with the right expectations.

While I was expecting to read about happiness, how it is measured and how I can increase it and become happier by the end of the book, the opposite happened. The book is a bleak report of how hard it is to be truly happy. When I finished the book I had the feeling it is surprising that even though, as Gilbert puts it: “people are strongly, perhaps even primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy”, there are in fact happy people. The book describes so accurately the fallibility of the human mind and more importantly our complete unawareness to this fallibility and our illusions of its accuracy that you end up feeling a bit down. Here is a short paragraph describing exactly this phenomenon:

Any brain that does the filling-in trick is bound to do the leaving-out trick as well, and thus the futures we imagine contain some details that our brains invented and lack some details that our brains ignored. The problem isn’t that our brains fill in and leave out. God help us if they didn’t. No, the problem is that they do this so well that we aren’t aware it is happening. As such, we tend to accept the brain’s products uncritically and expect the future to unfold with the details—and with only the details—that the brain has imagined. One of imagination’s shortcomings, then, is that it takes liberties without telling us it has done so.

I think one of the main lessons I learned while reading the book is that our ability to predict the future in the most personal and subjective sense of it, is highly distorted. Gilbert skillfully (and humorously) takes us through a journey that explains that we are unable to think accurately about the future. And as happiness, in a sense, is always future oriented, this becomes highly problematic:

One of the hallmarks of a visual experience is that we can almost always tell whether it is the product of a real or an imagined object. But not so with emotional experience. The emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in the world is called feeling; the emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in memory is called prefeeling; and mixing them up is one of the world’s most popular sports. We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. But rather than recognizing that this is the inevitable result of the Reality First policy, we mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness we feel when we think about it.

Not everything is so bleak after all. Because part of our inability to predict our future feeling is due to the fact that our mind includes an immune system that protects us and moderates the effects of extreme events. Gilbert explains:

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

And this is for me the main point of the book. Yes, we are fallible. But yes, we are also magnificent. The question is not whether we are perfect or not. The question is how we realize the limitations and benefits of the way we work and learn to optimize what we have. Here is Gilbert again:

And if we are purging ourselves of all things that afford us only imperfect approximations of the truth, then we need to discard not only psychology and the physical sciences but law, economics, and history as well. In short, if we adhere to the standard of perfection in all our endeavors, we are left with nothing but mathematics and the White Album. So maybe we just need to accept a bit of fuzziness and stop complaining.

Human life is fuzzy. Happiness is a fuzzy concept. Our mental abilities to evaluate and express our current feelings and especially estimate our future feelings are highly limited. But these are the cards we were dealt. There is no point in complaining about them, claiming they are different or fighting them. If we truly want to aspire for happiness we need to realistically understand our limitations and work within them and not against them. Gilbert is, in my view, a bit pessimistic about the prospect of people achieving this realistic view. I for one, think that reading his book is a great starting point to embark on a life with fuzzy happiness.



Photo by Martin Burns

Today Passover is celebrated. Passover is the Jewish holiday celebrating the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The bible (Old Testament) tells us that as the Israelites were preparing to escape from Egypt after 430 years, Both God and Moses took time to instruct them. This is what I wrote about this in an E-book titled Humanism, Liberalism, Education and the Bible – The Ravings of a Secular Israeli Jew:

When Moses instructs the people of Israel before their escape from Egypt, he can talk about a lot of things – about the power of God, about the land that is waiting for them, about the preparations they need to do, but in the words he chose, you already see what will later become a foundation of the Jewish belief: “And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service?” (Exodus 12, 26); “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying, It is because of that which Jehovah did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13, 8); “And it shall be, when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand Jehovah brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Exodus 13, 14).

The Jewish tradition holds that each and every person needs to see himself as though he was personally freed from slavery in Egypt. And at least once a year each person should celebrate and be thankful for that freedom. Thus, in the last few years, I developed a habit of thinking (and writing) about freedom at this time of the year. I am happy not be a slave and hope slavery will be forever abolished. But to be absolutely truthful, this is not the kind of freedom that I yearn for because I it is not relevant to my own everyday experience. There are, on the other hand, a number of freedoms that I feel are relevant to me and to the people around me. For my family, friends, readers and everybody else, I wish the following:

The freedom to fear – fear could be a negative and limiting emotion. It can prevent us from fulfilling our true potential. It can stop us from connecting with other people and enjoying life in the fullest possible way. It is, however, also a positive emotion, if used correctly. It connects us to reality. It can make us feel alive. It can push us forward and challenge us. We need to be free to fear without comprises. Instead of telling our children (and ourselves) not to fear we need to encourage them (and us) to fear freely. Only by standing up to our fear, confronting it, poking it, understanding it and facing it we can overcome it and use it for our own good. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather acting despite of fear.

The freedom to fail – failure is what makes us human. Literally. If DNA was copied perfectly every time we would not have evolution which is based on errors. All successes are a result of multiple failures. If we embrace failure and focus on learning from it instead of avoiding it, we can actually reach higher personal and societal achievements. Failure will come. Shouldn’t we at least greet it warmly?

The freedom from perfect – continuing the last two points, perfect is an evil overlord. Yes, excellence is a worthwhile goal. Excellence however is not reached by being perfect every time but by showing up and giving our best again and again. In many instance, perseverance is better equipped to serve us in the long run than absolute performance every single time. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We should be free to say: “this is good enough!”

The freedom to be unique – we are – each and every one of us – special. People are social animals and many of own instincts push us towards conformity. It is sometimes a helpful process. But conformity doesn’t have to mean mediocrity. We should be free to choose, show, and flaunt our own uniqueness as human beings. They say every finger-print is unique and one of a kind. I say – every human-print is unique and one of a kind. Why should we give it up?

Freedom to be happy – finally, and for me most importantly, I wish for the freedom to be happy. As science reveals more and more about happiness we understand that not only happiness is something that happens naturally, we understand how much societies, cultures and norms are built-in ways that prevent us from being happy. Happiness is choice. Not an easy one. If it was easy it wouldn’t be worth the effort. But it is a choice. We should all be free to pursue it. Do you?

Happy Passover.


Book review: Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe

Photo by Amazon

A few days ago I finished reading Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s new book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. I love reading and the thought process that comes with the process of reading. As a result I tend to recommend a lot of books. However, usually my recommendations are not universal but specific. Once in a while I come across a book that I think everybody must read. Practical Wisdom is at the top of that list.

The authors have a few basic claims. We need more wisdom in our lives. Not the wisdom of sages or scholars but practical everyday wisdom that will help us live better lives and make better decisions. Wisdom is the act of performing a particular social practice well—being a good friend or parent or doctor or soldier or citizen or statesman—and that means figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time.

Wisdom, however, is not about intelligence or intellectual capacity. Because we are all born to be wise. The problem is this wisdom needs to be nurtured, cultivated and encouraged. It requires mentioned, coaching, modeling and time to develop. We, as a society, are doing just the opposite of that. We are waging a war against wisdom. Because of different societal process our society has turned more and more to rules, incentives and standardization. As the authors put it:

The assumption behind carefully constructed rules and procedures, with close oversight, is that even if people do want to do the right thing, they need to be told what that is. And the assumption underlying incentives is that people will not be motivated to do the right thing unless they have an incentive to do so. Rules and incentives. Sticks and carrots. What else is there?

While these tools are sometimes useful, they are usually effective only in the short-term and have unintended consequences. They are unable to provide for the changing complex needs of the environment in which people operate in, and thus, lead to unwanted results:

Rules and incentives may improve the behavior of those who don’t care, though they won’t make them wiser. But in focusing on the people who don’t care—the targets of our rules and incentives—we miss those who do care. We miss those who want to do the right things but lack the practical wisdom to do them well. Rules and incentives won’t teach these people the moral skill and will they need. Even worse, rules can kill skill and incentives can kill will.

Rules are aids, allies, guides, and checks. But too much reliance on rules can squeeze out the judgment that is necessary to do our work well. When general principles morph into detailed instructions, formulas, unbending commands—wisdom substitutes—the important nuances of context are squeezed out. Better to minimize the number of rules, give up trying to cover every particular circumstance, and instead do more training to encourage skill at practical reasoning and intuition.

More than that, this reliance on rules and incentives is eroding our ability to develop wisdom and makes people who go into professions like medicine, law and education with a desire to influence and do good, hate their jobs or act in ways that are contrary to what they wanted to do when they decided to join the profession.

The challenge is to find a way to enable people to earn their livelihoods and create a viable organization without having payoffs completely control what people do—without having payoffs demoralize both the people and the practices in which they engage.

The book is a wonderfully written call to stop treating people like cogs. A call to stop measuring things just because we can and then leading our lives according to these measurements. It is an attempt to point out that there is more about being alive and working, than just thinking about outcomes, money and bottom line measurable results. It try to challenge the assumption of “one right way” and “top-down” control that is like a cancer in our societies. It is an attempt to point out to the Obliquity of our business and work. It is a praise to human judgment and ability to do good. It describes the world I want to live in and the kind of work life I want to lead. It is the book I wish I could have written. Read it. Today.


Re-learning about purpose

If there is a lesson I am happy to re-learn many times it is the important of purpose in numerous organizational contexts. Its importance for employees’ happiness, for long-term organizational success and for alignment of strategy never ceases to amaze me. In the last few days, I encountered a number of reminders for its importance.

In the fascinating TED talk above Barry Schwartz gives many examples for the importance of practical wisdom. One of them is other the story of Judge Russell:

Judge Russell created the Veterans’ Court. It was a court only for veterans who had broken the law. And he had created it exactly because mandatory sentencing laws were taking the judgment out of judging. No one wanted non-violent offenders — and especially non-violent offenders who were veterans to boot — to be thrown into prison. They wanted to do something about what we all know, namely the revolving door of the criminal justice system. And what the Veterans’ Court did, was it treated each criminal as an individual, tried to get inside their problems, tried to fashion responses to their crimes that helped them to rehabilitate themselves, and didn’t forget about them once the judgment was made. Stayed with them, followed up on them, made sure that they were sticking to whatever plan had been jointly developed to get them over the hump.

This reminded me of something I wrote almost two years ago:

I don’t remember where exactly I read it. I think it was in one of Marcus Buckingham’s books. Anyway, the writer described an interview with a manager of the prison authority in England. That manager told the interviewer about the ways in which that organization became much more effective. Now, when you think of a prison, you would probably think about things in the lines of tightening security. But the most important activity that was described had to do with the way the prison authority measured its effectiveness. Instead of measuring how many people got out or escaped, which was the traditional way to measure the effectiveness of prisons, the manager changed the way that organization measured it success. They started measuring how many people who got out of prison legitimately, returned to prison. The manager said that he realized that the objective of a prison is to make sure prisoners who return to society don’t go back to the life of crime. In how many other places in life do we still measure the wrong thing because of habit or because of the available data?

I think the two stories are connected. Later in the talk Schwartz explains that none of the Vets that appeared before the special court have re-lapsed. None. 108 success stories. When you think about it through the lenses of the right measurement you understand how profound an achievement it is.

And this made even more sense when I read this paragraph from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning:

Much of what modern workers are required to do on the job is dictated by demands that make sense at some higher organizational level, but are obscure to the worker. Why do we need to fill out these forms? What is the purpose of this rule? What is the outcome of this process? And often even if the worker understands what she is doing, it is not clear to her why. Yet without well-defined goals, both long-term and moment by moment, it is difficult to enjoy what one is doing.

Do I really need to spell out the connection? I don’t think so. It is obvious. I wish it was also more common.


Just sort of happened

Photo by dingler1109

Ron Ashkenas writes in about the way trivial decisions impact people’s happiness:

… most of us don’t consider in advance how much effort, energy, and time we are willing to invest in a particular position — and what balance we want to achieve between professional and personal success. As a result … we make dozens of small, subtle and almost invisible choices about how to spend our time… if the majority of these decisions over time go one way or the other, they may create a pattern that was not consciously chosen — but just “sort of happened.”

My question to you is – does your management style just sort of happens? Are you aware of the huge number of small decisions you make every day and how they affect the way your employees or peers perceive you? Or the type of work environment you create? Every decision by itself seems trivial, but they add up.

Take the idea of psychological safety. If you want your team to engage in learning and creativity, than creative an atmosphere where people feel safe to raise ideas and cast doubt is super important. This factor however is created through numerous small decisions you make when you engage your team every day.  How do you react to when people offer ideas? How do you react to other people’s reaction to these ideas? How much time you give a person to talk about his idea. And I can go on and on.

Financial plans are detailed to the last cell in the excel file. I saw some marketing plans that discuss the way the brand name should be used in every possible color and page type. Many times, in the business world we respect the power of small decisions. But when it comes to management and human relationships (and, as Ashkenas claims, our own happiness) we just let things happen.

Isn’t it time you stopped letting the relationships in your team just happen and start to seriously consider them? Isn’t it time you started making an effort in order to make sure all your small decisions are in line with what you want to achieve as a manager of people?

I think it is. Don’t you?


Gain segregation in management

Photo by Wikipedia


In the last few weeks I have been studying about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky famous Prospect Theory. This theory has many applications and many interpretations. One of the most important of these interpretations is that losses loom larger than gains. Meaning, all else being equal losing something will hurt us more than winning the same amount (when I say amount it is not necessarily money. It could be joy, pain or anything that has value to us). If you look at the graph that represents this theory, you would notice how the graph is steep at the beginning in both directions, but steeper in the loss area.

One of the insights of this idea is that we need to aggregate pains but segregate gains. In other words, when we talk about gains, it is better to be closer to the zero point of the axis but in the case of loses it is better be as left as possible on the graph.

Imagine going to the dentist. You need to take a four-hour operation. Your dentist offers you to do it in two sessions of two hours or in one session of four hours. Prospect Theory suggests, maybe counter-intuitively, that it is better for you to have a 4 hour operation than a two hour one.

That got me thinking about how this idea is manifested in managerial environments.

Have you ever heard the advice to celebrate small victories? Prospect Theory suggests that this is very good advice. However, in many managerial setting we are so busy dealing with current issues that we forget to celebrate small successes. We wait to the end of the period and have a huge event celebrating the last year. However, celebrating frequently turns out to be a much better way to in recognizing people’s efforts. So, instead of giving them a week off at the end of the project, give them 5 days over the duration of the project, as a reward for good work. Instead of throwing a huge party that will cost you 100,000$ dollars at the end of the project, have ten parties with a cost of 10,000 every now and then. This approach also seems to coincide with Dan Pink’s advice in Drive, that rewards should follow a “now that” pattern instead of a “if then” pattern.

I know that these examples are to literal a translation of the theory and that in real life, things work a little differently. However, I do believe that by understanding the idea of gain segregation, we can make our efforts to engage and recognize employees much more effectively and allow them, without changing our cost structure or the total sum of what they are gaining, to enjoy more of what we are already giving them.

How do you think the ideas of loses aggregation and gains segregation play out in our managerial decisions?