Chasing happiness: what makes for a good life?

May 11, 2020

An interview with happiness expert Paul Krismer (Part 1 of 2)

For some, life in Covid quarantine means a longer – more stressful – work day, a sink perpetually full of dirty dishes, and becoming a generalist in everything from home schooling to hairdressing. For others, its given way to more idle hours in the day than one could ever possibly know what to do with (I believe this may be responsible for the flour shortage). No matter what has been thrown at you, there’s a good chance the change of pace has given you pause for greater reflection on what truly matters.

Keynote speaker, certified executive coach and best-selling author Paul Krismer is one of Canada’s leading happiness experts. In this two-part interview, he brings us a little closer to answering that timeless question: what makes for a good life?

Why do we sometimes sabotage our own happiness, and how can we try to change that behaviour?

There are numerous reasons and they vary by individual, however, a particular theme applies to almost all of us. Our western culture — which is rapidly being adopted around the world — teaches us a formula for life that’s fundamentally flawed. We’re taught from a young age that if we work hard, stay focused and persevere until the end, we can accomplish tasks and acquire things. Following this, you‘ll be happy. Simply put, the formula is: get things and be recognized for achievements, and your success will make you feel good about your life. Though there’s an element of truth to this, much of the happiness acquired in this way is short lived. For example, we really do get a blast of happiness when we buy a new pair of shoes, but two weeks later the new shoes have an identical emotional quality to the old pair of shoes.

This formula excludes the life circumstances that are scientifically known to make us happy. We need activities that give us states of flow, and we need values that are personally meaningful to guide our actions. This requires thoughtful consideration of which day-to-day activities give us satisfaction and get us “in the zone.” It differs from person to person. I love to teach, so when I’m working as a speaker or trainer, I’m in my zone. Time flies by and I’m enjoying the day. For many people (well over the majority, according to Gallup) work is profoundly disengaging.

Most of us haven’t considered and actively chosen our values. When we live a life that’s inconsistent with our deeper motivations, we’re unhappy and feel lost. The cure is to consciously choose your values. When you know what gives you purpose and a strong sense of intrinsic meaning, your actions naturally flow in a way that is consistent with your values.

When life circumstances limit the degree to which we can pursue meaningful interests, what can we do to attain greater fulfillment within our situation?

If you can become really clear about what your most important values are, you can carve out even small allotments of time to do what’s meaningful to you.

One way to get in touch with what you value most is to develop a mindfulness practice. Busy lives lead to a lot of mental chatter about things we regret from the past, or worry about for the future. Learning to meditate for just a few minutes each day can make a world of difference. It helps turn down the volume of mental chatter and allows us to take more pleasure in the little things that occur in everyday life. Science shows that new meditators, with just eight weeks of practice, develop thicker brain tissue in the left prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is associated with emotional regulation—feeling content.

How can people who struggle to reach out to others create greater connection in their lives?

We know that social isolation is a source of profound unhappiness and it’s a problem not only under quarantine, but increasingly in the modern world. Society is less and less structured for long-lasting, deep relationships. We live far from family. We work in impersonal, large organizations. Most of us don’t even know our neighbours. The cure for this problem is relatively simple, but can be difficult in practice.

Start easy – call your mom! Or engage with another family member ritualistically through a video call. The emotional context seen in facial expressions hugely increases the level of connection you have with another person. And everyone can master this simple, modern technology.

Joining a group online—be it a social cause, a hobby, or academic pursuit – is a great way to meet people and get enjoyable social interaction on a regular basis. If you stick with it, friends will emerge.

What’s one of the most important questions a person should ask themselves when trying to carve out their best life?

First of all, I encourage people to become aware of the false promises that come from our consumer culture. There’s no lasting happiness in shopping. Materialism has been shown through quality research to consistently lead to less happy lives. Yet western society is bombarded daily with thousands of messages declaring that stuff you can buy will make you happier, more popular, sexier, healthier, etc.

Of course, it’s important to plan for your future so you can have some reassurance that you’ll be able to meet all your basic biological needs. But after meeting those needs, more wealth does not result in more happiness. With this in mind, what should we do to carve out our best lives?

Ask yourself this question: How will I pursue a life that‘s consistent with my chosen values? If you know the reason why you wake up every morning—the purpose that fuels an intrinsically satisfying motivation—then you need not concern yourself with what to do. Behaviours follow naturally from your carefully selected and prioritized values. Your actions will take you in the right direction. This kind of life satisfaction is not measured by the minute-to-minute question of “am I happy now?” Instead, it unfolds over months, years and decades.

People who actively invest in being happier, and in acquiring the knowledge needed to help them be happier, in fact, do become happier.

How happy are you? Take Paul’s happiness assessment quiz here.

Paul Krismer is the Chief Happiness Officer and founder of the Happiness Experts Company. He is a noted public speaker and trainer.

This article was published in Leon Frazer’s  Strategies newsletter. Read the full edition here.