One Simple Rule for Happiness

If you want to be happier today — without losing 20 pounds, starting a lasting relationship, finding your true purpose in life or buying a new Porsche Carrera — follow this simple rule: use your strengths. That is it; nothing more. Clear out the cluttering noise of “I should be doing” or “I need to start doing” and just go be yourself. Do what you love.

Note that I said happier today, not happier in the long-term (although you could do far worse than following this rule). Happiness is complicated business, involving things like relationships, meaning, freedom, health, money, positive emotional states — a whole stew of things. Plus, there is no agreement on what happiness is or how to get it. We have been arguing about how to be happier since Aristotle’s time, with the pleasure-seekers in one corner and the meaning/spirituality crowd in another. A dive into the world of happiness science leads into a surprisingly deep cave with lots of twisting, turning corners and grim-faced academics discoursing on “preference utility” and “subjective well-being.” But most of these people — outside the self-flagellants and deliberately contrarian — agree that discovering and applying  your strengths leads to a number of positive outcomes, including an increase in positive emotions.

Does this mean ignore your shortcomings? Of course not; self-improvement is in our DNA. Ben Franklin walked around with a checklist of things he wanted to improve about himself (although eventually, he tired of this and moved overseas to drink a bunch of wine and hang out with French women). Plus, even if you tried to ignore your shortcomings, your boss would point them out for you. That’s why God invented performance reviews.

Also — here is the tricky part — your strengths need to tied to something positive or useful to generate happiness (unless, of course, you are a psychopath, but I assume if you are a psychopath you are out crushing beetles with rocks like the #GameofThrones guy rather than reading Talent Management magazine). Strengths expert Dr. Ryan Niemiec says “strengths have a significant moral component — and are slanted toward the positive.”

Try the following model for using strengths:

1. Discover your strengths. Everyone is good at something. Chances are you enjoy it as well — it is not called a strength for nothing. If you are the process sort who likes tools and metrics, there is a great FREE survey available at viacharacter.org. I recommend it because it is non-commercialized, you get your results immediately and the science behind it is rock-solid (unlike, for example, the MBTI).    

2. Explore your strengths. Pick one of your top strengths — creativity, for example — and apply it to whatever you are working on RIGHT NOW. Really, try this. Writing a dreadfully dull memo? Think of a creative way to express yourself and see if you don’t have a bit more energy while writing it — or filming it. Now, if you are finalizing the quarterly reports for Wall Street, I don’t suggest being creative in how you account for interest expense, but performing everyday tasks in a new and different way will make you smile.

3. Apply your strengths. After figuring out which strengths make you happier in their expression (and have the added benefit of being legal), start using them systematically in your life and job. My strengths include humor and playfulness (yes, these are considered strengths by psychologists and philosophers). When I have to be dreadfully serious at a task — teaching, writing, presenting — I am, well, dreadful at it. And feel the same way. When I incorporate a bit of playfulness in my work I am happier — and better — for the effort.

My friend Chris Peterson, Michigan professor and prominent researcher, was considered the top expert in the world on strengths at the time of his sudden death two years ago.  I will give him the final word, and I want you to keep Chris’ thoughts in mind the next time you are stressing about fixing something “broken” about yourself that really isn’t that big of a deal:

“Sure, everyday life poses demands — you can’t pick and choose the ones you want to address or ignore those you do not like. I am simply saying to keep the bigger picture in mind. Things not worth doing are not worth doing obsessively. There must be an ancient Buddhist aphorism that makes my point profoundly, but I’ll just say it bluntly, in plain 21st century Americanese: Don’t sweat the small stuff; and most of it is small stuff. Days are long. Life is short. Live it well.”